It’s 2015 and the 200-year-old Washington Monument in Baltimore, Maryland, has seen better days. Raised as a tribute to the United States’ first president, the landmark now needs some renovation, so laborers have been sent to the site. But as they go about their business, something captures their attention. The workers have found something underneath the monument – and it’s a discovery that will ultimately shine a light on America’s past.
The laborers had been placing a septic tank into the ground when they made their discovery. And while they were undoubtedly pleased with their find, maybe they weren’t taken totally by surprise. You see, they were working on the side of the monument where the sun first shines in the mornings. And based on Masonic ways of thinking, this is precisely where you’d expect to discover something special hidden away.
Basically, the builders had stumbled upon a granite block in the ground, which admittedly doesn’t sound all that exciting. What was so special about it? Well, it turns out that it was actually the cornerstone of the monument. And there was more to it than immediately met the eye.
Lance Humphries occupies a prominent position within a Baltimore organization known as the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, which seeks to maintain the region’s landmarks. After the block’s discovery, he spoke to radio station WBAL about it. He said, “It’s well known that they laid a cornerstone, but they never actually mentioned where the cornerstone was actually placed in the building. So it’s pretty neat to have found it.”
When the laborers spotted the cornerstone, works on the site were paused so that they could retrieve it manually. It seems that they knew right away that they had something special on their hands. So, they pulled the block to the surface. And when they investigated further, they discovered that it’d been hollowed out.
The block, it became clear, was in fact a time capsule. Inside the artifact, people from the past had placed items that they thought would be of interest to future generations. So now, after two centuries of lying in obscurity, this stone container was about to reveal its centuries-old secrets.
Needless to say, the world in which this cornerstone was first laid was very different to the one we see today. In fact, the Washington Monument can trace its history as far back as 1810, when inhabitants of Baltimore started to raise money to create a tribute to George Washington. An organization called the Baltimore Washington Monument Society was established, with the group reaching out to acclaimed French architect Maximilian Godefroy to ask him to design the landmark.
But despite Godefrey’s undoubted expertise, his numerous designs for the planned monument were ultimately rejected. So, the task was opened up to the world through a competition. People from across the globe submitted their own plans, but eventually it was decided that the task of immortalizing the country’s first president should really only fall to an American.
By 1814 the project had finally found its native designer. Robert Mills had been working on numerous different options, but he eventually settled on a blueprint that was centered around an enormous column jutting into the sky. On top of this pillar, a statue of George Washington was to be placed.
In a statement related to his design, Mills elaborated on the nature of the column he envisioned. He claimed that it would “possess solidity, and simplicity of character, emblematic of that of the illustrious personage to whose memory it is dedicated [Washington], and harmonizing with the spirit of our Government.”
Mills’ plans were generally quite restrained, with a desired emphasis on singularity of purpose. But having said that, he envisioned that the column itself would be finely decorated, instilling a bit of grandeur to the memorial. Additionally, he imagined balconies wrapped around the column and a terrace at the peak, both of which would allow people to view the structure and its surroundings at close proximity.
Yet some of these more ambitious plans failed to come to fruition, as there were concerns about financing and how the completed monument would look. In the end, Mills’ plans were simplified. The balconies he’d imagined were dropped from the design, leaving the project with a simple, unpunctuated column with a Washington sculpture on top.
Despite the desire to have an American designer working on the project, it was actually an Italian who designed the Washington statue for the top of the column. Enrico Causici crafted the piece, which was raised in 1829. But all the fine carvings that Mills had envisioned for the surface of the pillar were omitted in the end.
Regardless, the Washington Monument proved to be a huge draw for Baltimore following its completion. Despite the fact that it’d been simplified, many people were nonetheless enamored by the structure. In many ways, it became the most notable part of Baltimore, with the area even picking up the nickname “The Monumental City.”
When the Washington Monument was being built, it was located beyond the edge of Baltimore’s center. Over time, though, the settlement has expanded to the point that the edifice is now a vital part of the city’s heart. Its importance was officially recognized in 1971, when the structure was classified as a National Historic Landmark.
Naturally, time eventually started to take its toll on the Washington Monument. This was hardly a surprise, of course, given that the structure was almost 200 years old at the turn of the new millennium. So, in 2010 it was shut down for renovation works to help make it safer and more robust. According to reports, about $6 million was pumped into the project.
Quite a lot of work was needed in order to restore the landmark to its initial, grand state. Joints were tightened to preclude safety concerns and the masonry on the edifice was touched up. Vitally, the famous statue of Washington that stands at the monument’s peak was also refurbished.
Besides the more cosmetic works that took place at the site, the lights and heating systems were also improved. Plus, the monument’s security technologies were brought up to date. This had something of an odd effect on the landmark’s aesthetic, as its 19th-century masonry was now adorned with contemporary CCTV cameras and alarms.
This contrast was perhaps even more stark at the bottom of the monument, where a series of touchscreen devices had been installed. These new machines provided tourists with some background information to the structure, as well as live feeds from cameras at its peak providing magnificent views of the city. All these additions to the site, ultimately, have pulled it into the 21st century.
The renovation works were initially scheduled to conclude at the end of 2014. But things didn’t quite work out that way. As Mount Vernon Place Conservancy vice president Faith Millspaugh reflected to newspaper the Baltimore Business Journal in 2015, “You find more problems when you start digging into things.”
But despite the challenges, the project was eventually completed in the middle of 2015 – just in time to celebrate the 200-year anniversary of work on the site beginning. Millspaugh was understandably pleased with the renovation, stating, “The monument has been restored to its original condition – the way it was originally built. They wanted to do everything historically correct[ly].”
The restoration project was a success in its own right, in that it was important to strengthen the monument. But as indicated previously, it also led to something else entirely. As the works were taking place, laborers uncovered the monument’s cornerstone – which also served as the hiding place for a time capsule.
This cornerstone was in the shape of a cube that measured about 2 feet square. It had been hollowed out and packed with items for future generations to discover. Then, on July 4, 1815, it had been placed into the ground at the monument site. Around 30,000 people were apparently present on the day to see that happen.
Speaking to Baltimore magazine in February 2015 local historian Humphries reflected on the Monumental City’s connection to American history. He said, “Baltimore was proud of the role it had played in the War of 1812 and proud to build the first monument to George Washington.”
The cornerstone lay undisturbed for 200 years, situated in the northeast section of the monument. But after all that time, the renovation workers finally unearthed it from 6 feet underground in 2015. And it was perfect timing, with the capsule’s contents being revealed in the nick of time for the site’s bicentennial celebrations.
So, what was inside the cornerstone? Well, when the lid was removed, four jars made of glass were revealed. Each of these was stuffed with various items. First off, a number of newspapers had been included, all of which dated back to the beginning of July 1815. This was around the time that work on the monument got underway, so the people of the period were evidently trying to provide future generations with a sense of their era.
As well as the newspapers, the cornerstone also contained an image of George Washington and a copy of one of his earliest speeches as president. Some coins were also inside, as was a copper plate bearing some etchings. All in all, it was nothing too surprising, but it helped to paint a picture of life in 1815.
Of course, this would’ve been people’s intentions when they laid the time capsule into the ground. As Humphries put it to Baltimore magazine, “Newspapers and coins were pretty typical of cornerstones and time capsules of the time. They were trying to show us what was going on in the world at that time.”
Humphries also spoke to website Artnet News in the wake of the time capsule’s discovery. Here, he reflected on how special it was to have discovered sculpted works within the container. He said, “It was amazing to see inside the cornerstone that there was this beautifully carved (decorative) panel of the stone masons and the stone carvers from 1815.”
Impressively, despite 200 years of lying underground, the contents of the time capsule all appeared to be in quite good condition. There was evidence of a little water damage, but nothing major. All in all, then, the glass jars selected all those years ago had done their job exceptionally well.
The jars appear to have been carefully arranged inside the time capsule, with each one being themed in a particular way. One jar was very much focused on George Washington, with the reproduction of the man’s image being contained inside. Also in this jar was a copy of one of his speeches and a medal bearing his appearance.
Another jar was dedicated to the current affairs of the day, with issues of a paper called the Federal Gazette inside. Indeed, in a rather self-referential twist, one of these newspapers – which was dated to July 6, 1815 – actually had a story about the cornerstone being set down. In another jar, meanwhile, a Bible from 1812 had been inserted.
Covering all of the jars, was a copy of the Declaration of Independence. Speaking to CNN, Humphries reflected on the significance of this. He said, “While it is well-known that the monument is the first erected to George Washington, the selection of this item for such a prominent placement adds new meaning to the monument, and [increases] its significance.”
Humphries went on to contextualize the time in which the decision to insert the Declaration of Independence would have been made. He said, “American national independence was fresh in the minds of Baltimoreans of July 1815. They had just played a key role in [securing] that freedom during the Battle of Baltimore the previous fall.”
The discovery of this time capsule was a wonderful development for those interested in the history of Baltimore and its Washington Monument. But in reality, it wasn’t exactly a unique find. You see, just months earlier in October 2014, another time capsule had been found on the site of the landmark.
This second container had been hidden away in 1915, 100 years after the first one. It’d been placed at the back of a bronze plate, which itself had been laid down to mark a century since works on the monument first began. And as with the 1815 capsule, its contents were rather patriotic in nature.
The 1915 stash contained some general items relating to the Washington Monument’s 100-year anniversary. It also had some newspapers inside, plus a picture of the Declaration of Independence and a painting of Francis Scott Key, the man who penned the words to the United States’ national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The fact that Baltimore’s Washington Monument contained not one but two time capsules was particularly noteworthy. And this is a fact that isn’t lost on Humphries, who commented on it in a statement. He said, “Few buildings have two time capsules. These items speak to the antiquity and symbolic importance of the monument in the history of our country.”
The two time capsules, though, seemed to have been created for different purposes. The one from 1815 had a particular concern for highlighting American independence and George Washington himself. The 1915 one, on the other hand, was focused more on some of the wars and battles of a century beforehand.
Speaking to Baltimore magazine, Lance Humphries considered the 1815 time capsule and its legacy for those of us alive today. Speaking of the Declaration of Independence placed inside, he said, “When you pull that out, you literally feel what they were thinking when they placed those items in that cornerstone. I think it’s revealing, too, that the word ‘Memory’ is engraved a bit deeper than all the rest of the words in the inscription on the original dedication plaque.”