Visitors will once again be able to climb to the top of Baltimore’s historic Phoenix Shot Tower to take in sweeping views of the city, under a $240,000 plan to renovate the building so it meets current safety standards.
Baltimore’s Board of Estimates this month approved a request to transfer $150,000 from a voter approved bond issue to a new fund created to get the Shot Tower ready for visitors who want to see more than the base.
“Our goal as an institution has always been to get people up to the top because it’s a spectacular view,” said Paula Hankins, executive director of Carroll Museums Inc., the non-profit group that leases and operates the tower at 801 E. Fayette Street.
The current timetable for repairs means the top should be accessible to the public by mid 2017. When that time comes, those who climb the 305 steps, Hankins said, will have a pretty great reward: “You can see all the way to Fort McHenry.”
The funds for the restoration come from the proceeds of a bond issue for Parks and Public Facilities that was approved by city voters in 2014. They will be combined with a $90,000 state grant from the Maryland Heritage Area Authority to make the Shot Tower safer.
The money was approved less than four months after the city reopened the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon, following a $5.5 million renovation. As a result of changes there, visitors can climb to the top for the first time since the monument was closed for repairs in 2010.
A Wedding Venue?
For Hankins, bringing back the city-owned Shot Tower is a long-time goal.
Currently, she said, it is open four hours every weekend so people can visit the ground level and a mezzanine level and view the educational exhibits there.
Even with this limited access, the tower currently gets about 1,500 visitors a year, including more than 150 on the recent Doors Open Baltimore weekend.
But given how many inquiries she gets from people who want to climb up it, she said, the Shot Tower has the potential to become one of Baltimore’s most popular destinations.
“There’s an audience for it,” she said. “It’s the one thing people ask: ‘Can I go to the top?’ People want to propose at the top. I want it to become one of the things you must do when you come to Baltimore. When you go to Washington D. C., you have to go to the Washington Monument. When you go to New York City, you have to go to the Statue of Liberty. I want this to be on that level.”
The Shot Tower upgrade will be carried out as a public-private partnership of the Department of General Services and Carroll Museums Inc.
The city agency will take the lead on overseeing the design and construction work, said Jackson Gilman-Forlini, Historic Properties Program Coordinator for General Services. .
“We’re really excited about it,” he said. “We think it’s really going to enhance this landmark . We all want to make this one of the premier attractions in Baltimore.”
Lead Shot for Duck Hunters
The Shot Tower is taller than Baltimore’s Washington Monument, rising 215 feet versus 178 feet for the Mount Vernon landmark. It takes 305 steps to climb to the top of the Shot Tower, versus 227 at the Washington Monument.
It was completed in 1829, the same year the Washington Monument opened, by the Phoenix Shot Company. Charles Carroll of Carrollton laid the cornerstone, and construction required about 1.1 million bricks.
The red brick tower was built to produce lead drop-shot used in rifles for duck hunting. It was the tallest building in the country from 1829 to 1846. Baltimore once had four shot towers, but this is the only one that survived.
It closed for its original purpose in 1898 and was saved from demolition by the citizens of Baltimore in 1924. Its top level offers unobstructed views in all directions, from Towson to the outer harbor.
Hankins said it’s the quintessential Baltimore landmark because of the way it looks and how it was used.
“The tower is a working man’s monument,” she said. “The tower has no elitism. It doesn’t put on airs. It celebrates that part of our history where people had to work hard to make a living. It’s about gritty industrial history, and it’s awesome in scale. I think a lot of people can relate to that.”
Visitors have not been permitted to climb to the top of the Shot Tower on a regular basis since 1997. That’s when the organization that ran it at the time, the Baltimore City Life Museums, was closed by the city in a budget saving measure.
The Shot Tower reopened under the Carroll Museums management in 2005, but the city no longer allowed visitors to climb to the top for safety reasons.
According to Gilman-Forlini, the bulk of the proposed work will involve making the existing staircase inside the tower safer to climb by installing new handrails so it will meet code. He explained that the stair railings currently have gaps that would allow someone to fall throughout if they slipped and therefore aren’t considered safe.
Toward the top, where the tower gets narrower, is a spiral stair that city officials also have determined to be unsafe. The spiral stair needs to be enclosed in a way that would prevent people from falling from it, Gilman-Forlini said. Lighting and mechanical systems also need upgrading, he added.
The tower itself is structurally sound and the exterior does not need any repairs in order to reopen for climbs to the top, he said. Eventually, the tower will need repointing and other maintenance work, Hankins said.
Gilman-Forlini and Hankins said part of the $240,000 will be used to hire an architect to design the safety improvements. The architect will be selected from a list of consultants approved for “on call” work on city properties.
After the design is set, they said, the city will hire a contractor to make the upgrades.
As Accessible as Possible
As part of renovations, they said, the city and Carroll Museums also are thinking about creating a video or live video feed or some method of “digital simulation” indicating what the views from the top are like, for people who can’t make the climb or choose not to go up.
“We need to do all we can to make it as accessible as possible,” Gilman-Forlini said.
Carroll Museums explored the idea of building a ramp around the exterior, but that would surround the entire tower and change its appearance, Hankins said.
With Morgan State University architecture students, Carroll Museums recently studied the idea of building a visitor’s center connected to the tower and might pursue that as a later phase of improvements, she added.
Gilman-Forlini and Hankins said the design work likely will take four to six months. They say the exact amount of construction time will depend on the final design but probably will be another year. That means visitors may be able to climb to the top by mid-2017.
In the meantime, the base of the Shot Tower will continue to be open for unguided tours on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon from May to November. It is also open on Saturdays and Sundays starting at 4 p.m. for guided tours year-round.