Document Type

Working Paper

Publication Date



antebellum Baltimore, urban development, ground rents, Robert Mills, architecture, monuments, financial panic, fraud, bank failure, urban history


In 1815 Baltimore City was boom town. Its militiamen had repulsed the British sea invasion and presaged an end to the War of 1812. Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815 signaled an end to European wars. Freedom of the seas had been restored. The Baltimore “Clipper” was the best sailing ship on the ocean. Baltimore looked to become the country’s leading exporter of grain, flour, and tobacco. Merchant James A. Buchanan, a partner in one of the country’s greatest shipping firms, had been named President of the Baltimore Branch of the Second National Bank of the United States. Civic leaders had invited architect Robert Mills to come to town and to build the Nation’s first monument to George Washington. Mills had his own plans to develop the city’s biggest and best block of residences.

Within just four short years everything would change. By 1819 the National Bank would fail, the Washington monument would be left half-built and Mills’ residential development would be bankrupt. This paper tells the story of how James A. Buchanan broke the Bank of Baltimore, and how Robert Mills “met his Waterloo.”

But there is more to the story. It shows how land tenure shaped the cityscape. It dramatizes the pitfalls of nineteenth century venture capitalism—boom, bubble and bust, panic, inflation, insider trading, and cost overruns. It documents the meltdown of financial markets, and of a bank that was too big to fail. And it depicts the timeless weaknesses in the human condition—hubris, greed, selfishness, speculation, and conspiracy.


Architectural History and Criticism | Banking and Finance Law | Property Law and Real Estate