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September 29, 2022

Hopkins professor Mary Ryan talks history of Monument City

By SARI AMIEL | October 24, 2013

Students, historians and members of the community gathered in Mergenthaler Hall on Monday to hear Professor Mary Ryan lecture on local monuments. Ryan, the John Martin Vincent Professor of History, discussed the political and social contexts behind the formation of the Washington and Battle Monuments, both of which are situated in Baltimore.

Ryan’s talk was based on a 2010 article she authored, titled “Democracy Rising: The Monuments of Baltimore, 1809-1842.” She began by describing her fascination with the Washington Monument, which she first saw when walking through Baltimore after giving a lecture at Hopkins in 1985.

“I found this. . .one of the most enchanting pieces of public landscape,” Ryan said.

Ryan proceeded to explain the history behind both of the monuments. In the early 1810s, political discord was raging in Baltimore, with Federalists and Republicans verbally insulting one another. Republicans ravaged the office of the Federal Gazette, and the Federalists fired shots in return.

From 1815 to 1842, the Washington Monument was constructed. It was funded via a public lottery, in which people throughout the region bought tickets in the hopes of winning large prizes. The ticket sales funded the construction of the monument.

Robert Mills, an architect from S.C., designed the monument. His initial vision included a column decorated with various images and symbols, including one in which Washington granted slaves freedom. In the end, the design was more humble and consisted of a simple column with a statue of George Washington at the top.

The Battle Monument, also known as the Baltimore Monument, was constructed between 1815 and 1822.

“This rival to the Washington monument came to represent different political principles and social interests,” Ryan said.

In a highly unusual process, the funds for the monument were procured from average citizens, who were each permitted to contribute a small amount. No one was allowed to pay in excess of $5 so that no wealthy citizens would be disproportionately represented.

The architect, Maximilian Godefry, was an immigrant from France who offered to design the monument for free. Symbols run along the sides of the monument while scenes from the Battle of Baltimore are depicted at the base and a statue of a goddess caps the top. The Battle Monument came to be used as the official seal of the Monument City, a nickname of Baltimore.

“These monuments are important, not just for the symbols upon them, but for the space that they anchor,” Ryan said.

Monument Square, the area around the Baltimore Monument, has since been the frequent scene of citizen meetings. Candidates for political office have often presented arguments there and the square has also served as the location for riots, including protests against a financial crisis sparked by the Bank of Maryland, and celebrations, including the march that took place to celebrate the passage of the 15th Amendment.

“Building democracy, like raising monuments, is a painstaking process, always a work in progress,” Ryan said. “In the larger scheme of U.S. history, sites like Baltimore and structures like the Battle Monument are relics of one time and place, but they also exemplify the unique, the unpredictable, the imperfect, the precarious and the memorable conditions in which democratic politics can take place.”

Ryan’s talk was part of a series of three lectures relating to Baltimorean monuments. Since 2001, the Homewood Museum has arranged symposia relating to Baltimore’s architecture and architects. The talks coincide with the local American Institute of Architects (AIA)’s architecture week each October.

“In part, because of our lecture series, [AIA] turned it into Baltimore Architecture Month,” Homewood Museum Director and Curator Catherine Arthur said.

Each year, the lectures relate to a common theme, such as porches or outbuildings in American architecture. The theme for this year, “Monumental Baltimore,” was inspired by a series of prints of Baltimorean monuments that students on the Homewood Campus studied last year. This year’s series is unique in that one of the talks is an on-site lecture, to be held at Mount Vernon Place. Generally, all three are simply lectures and it is rare for a Hopkins professor to speak.

“I don’t think that we have had a professor speak for us before in this series,” Arthur said. “It just so happened that this year, Mary Ryan has written on this very topic, and so it just seemed perfect. . .to utilize somebody here from Hopkins.”

The theme for the series this year was conceived of last fall. Arthur is now in the process of determining next year’s theme and she will contact potential speakers in the spring. She advertised the lectures by sending mail to members of local architectural history groups, such as the Baltimore Heritage Group, and creating Facebook events. Advertisements aired on WYPR and showed up on Hopkins event listings.

Freshman Justin Decker was in attendance at Ryan’s lecture. He heard about the speech from his professor in the class “Monumentality in Antiquity and Today.”

“It’s definitely good, I feel, to understand more about Baltimore’s heritage, especially since heritage is expressed through monuments,” Decker said. “And it’s a good way, I feel, to become acquainted with Baltimore.”

Ryan wanted her lecture to provide the audience with a sense of the historical significance of Baltimore.

“[I want people to get] a sense of appreciation for the everyday objects that surround them in the city,” Ryan said. “But this [audience contains] more architects and art historians, so…I want to give them a sense that art and beautiful objects are created by people, and in particular political and social circumstances.”

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