The Washington Monument is an obelisk near the west end of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., built to commemorate the first U.S. president, General George Washington. The monument, made of marble, granite, and bluestone gneiss, is both the world’s tallest stone structure and the world’s tallest obelisk, standing 555 feet 51⁄8 inches (169.294 m). There are taller monumental columns, but they are neither all stone nor true obelisks. It is also the tallest structure in Washington D.C. It was designed by Robert Mills, an architect of the 1840s. The actual construction of the monument began in 1848 but was not completed until 1884, almost 30 years after the architect’s death. This hiatus in construction happened because of co-option by the Know Nothing party, a lack of funds, and the intervention of theAmerican Civil War. A difference in shading of the marble, visible approximately 150 feet (46 m) or 27% up, shows where construction was halted for a number of years. The cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1848; the capstone was set on December 6, 1884, and the completed monument was dedicated on February 21, 1885. It officially opened October 9, 1888. Upon completion, it became the world’s tallest structure, a title previously held by the Cologne Cathedral. The monument held this designation until 1889, when the Eiffel Tower was completed in Paris, France. The monument stands due east of theReflecting Pool and the Lincoln Memorial.
During an earthquake on August 23, 2011, the monument suffered structural damage, and was closed to the public indefinitely.
Hailed as the father of his country, and the leader who was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen”, George Washington (1732–1799) was the dominant military and political leader of the new United States of America from 1775 to 1797, leading the American victory over Britain in the American Revolutionary War as commander in chief of the Continental Army, and presiding over the writing of the Constitution in 1787. As the unanimous choice to serve as the first President of the United States, he built a strong and financially secure nation that earned the respect of the world.
In colonial Virginia, Washington was born into the provincial gentry in a wealthy, well-connected family that owned tobacco plantations. Strong, brave, eager for combat and a natural leader, young Washington quickly became a senior officer of the colonial forces, during the French and Indian War in 1754–1758. Washington’s experience, his military bearing, his leadership of the Patriot cause in Virginia, and his political base in the largest colony made him the obvious choice of the Second Continental Congress in 1775 as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army to fight the British in the American Revolution. After the colonial victory over the British was finalized in 1783, Washington resigned from the military rather than become an American king, and returned to his plantation at Mount Vernon. This prompted his erstwhile enemy King George III to call him “the greatest character of the age”.
Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention that drafted the United States Constitution in 1787 because of his dissatisfaction with the weaknesses of Articles of Confederation. Washington became President of the United States in 1789 where he successfully brought rival factions together to create a unified nation. President Washington built a strong, well-financed national government that avoided war, suppressed rebellion, and won acceptance among America’s natural citizens. George Washington’s farewell address was a primer on republican virtue and a stern warning against partisanship, sectionalism, and involvement in foreign wars. Two years after his presidential term ended, Washington died at Mount Vernon in 1799, leaving America and the world a legacy of republican virtue and devotion to civic duty. Washington was a public icon of American military and civic patriotism.
Proposals for a memorial
Starting with victory in the Revolution, there were many proposals to build a monument to Washington. After his death, Congress authorized a suitable memorial in the national capital, but the decision was reversed when the Democratic-Republican Party (Jeffersonian Republicans) took control of Congress in 1801. The Republicans were dismayed that Washington had become the symbol of the Federalist Party; furthermore the values of Republicanism seemed hostile to the idea of building monuments to powerful men. They also blocked his image on coins or the celebration of his birthday. Further political squabbling, along with the North-South division on the Civil War, blocked the completion of the Washington Monument until the late 19th century. By that time, Washington had the image of a national hero who could be celebrated by both North and South, and memorials to him were no longer controversial.
As early as 1783, the Continental Congress had resolved “That an equestrian statue of George Washington be erected at the place where the residence of Congress shall be established.” The proposal called for engraving on the statue which explained it had been erected “in honor of George Washington, the illustrious Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States of America during the war which vindicated and secured their liberty, sovereignty, and independence.” Currently, the only equestrian statue of President Washington in Washington, DC, is located in Washington Circle at the intersection of the Foggy Bottom and West End neighborhoods at the north end of the George Washington University.
Ten days after Washington’s death, a Congressional committee recommended a different type of monument. John Marshall, a Representative from Virginia (who later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) proposed that a tomb be erected within theCapitol. But a lack of funds, disagreement over what type of memorial would best honor the country’s first president, and the Washington family’s reluctance to move his body prevented progress on any project.
Progress towards a memorial finally began in 1832. That year, which marked the 100th anniversary of Washington’s birth, a large group of concerned citizens formed the Washington National Monument Society. In 1836, after they had raised $28,000 in donations ($600,000 in 2010 dollars), they announced a competition for the design of the memorial.
On September 23, 1835, the board of managers of the society described their expectations:
It is proposed that the contemplated monument shall be like him in whose honor it is to be constructed, unparalleled in the world, and commensurate with the gratitude, liberality, and patriotism of the people by whom it is to be erected … [It] should blend stupendousness with elegance, and be of such magnitude and beauty as to be an object of pride to the American people, and of admiration to all who see it. Its material is intended to be wholly American, and to be of marble and granite brought from each state, that each state may participate in the glory of contributing material as well as in funds to its construction.
The society held a competition for designs in 1836. The winner, architect Robert Mills, was well-qualified for the commission. The citizens of Baltimore had chosen him to build a monument to Washington, and he had designed a tall Greek column surmounted by a statue of the President. Mills also knew the capital well, having just been chosen Architect of Public Buildings for Washington.
His design called for a tall obelisk—an upright, four-sided pillar that tapers as it rises—with a nearly flat top. He surrounded the obelisk with a circular colonnade, the top of which would feature Washington standing in a chariot. Inside the colonnade would be statues of 30 prominent Revolutionary War heroes.
One part of Mills’ elaborate design that was built was the doorway surmounted by an Egyptian-style Winged sun. It was removed when construction resumed after 1884. A photo can be seen in The Egyptian Revival by Richard G. Carrot.
Yet criticism of Mills’ design and its estimated price tag of more than $1 million ($21,200,000 in 2010 dollars) caused the society to hesitate. Its members decided to start building the obelisk and to leave the question of the colonnade for later. They believed that if they used the $87,000 they had already collected to start work, the appearance of the monument would spur further donations that would allow them to complete the project.
The Washington Monument was originally intended to be located at the point at which a line running directly south from the center of the White House crossed a line running directly west from the center of theCapitol. Pierre (Peter) Charles L’Enfant’s 1791 “Plan of the city intended for the permanent seat of t(he) government of the United States …” designated this point as the location of the equestrian statue of George Washington that the Continental Congress had voted for in 1783. However, the ground at the intended location proved to be too unstable to support a structure as heavy as the planned obelisk. The Jefferson Pier, a small monolith 390 feet (119 m) WNW of the Monument, now stands at the intended site of the structure.
Excavation for the foundation of the Monument began in early 1848. The cornerstone was laid as part of an elaborate Fourth of July ceremony hosted by the Freemasons, a worldwide fraternal organization to which Washington belonged. Speeches that day showed the country continued to revere Washington. One celebrant noted, “No more Washingtons shall come in our time … But his virtues are stamped on the heart of mankind. He who is great in the battlefield looks upward to the generalship of Washington. He who grows wise in counsel feels that he is imitating Washington. He who can resign power against the wishes of a people, has in his eye the bright example of Washington.”
Construction continued until 1854, when donations ran out. The next year, Congress voted to appropriate $200,000 to continue the work, but rescinded before the money could be spent. This reversal came because of a new policy the society had adopted in 1849. It had agreed, after a request from some Alabamians, to encourage all states and territories to donate commemorative stones that could be fitted into the interior walls. Members of the society believed this practice would make citizens feel they had a part in building the monument, and it would cut costs by limiting the amount of stone that had to be bought. Blocks of Maryland marble, granite and sandstone steadily appeared at the site. American Indian tribes, professional organizations, societies, businesses and foreign nations donated stones that were 4 feet by 2 feet by 12–18 inches (1.2 m by 0.6 m by 0.3 – 0.5 m). One stone was donated by the Ryukyu Kingdom and brought back by Commodore Matthew C. Perry, but never arrived in Washington (it was replaced in 1989). Many of the stones donated for the monument, however, carried inscriptions which did not commemorate George Washington. For example, one from the Templars of Honor and Temperance stated “We will not buy, sell, or use as a beverage, any spiritous or malt liquors, Wine, Cider, or any other Alcoholic Liquor.” It was just one commemorative stone that started the events that stopped the Congressional appropriation and ultimately construction altogether. In the early 1850s, Pope Pius IX contributed a block of marble. In March 1854, members of the anti-Catholic, nativist American Party — better known as the “Know-Nothings”—stole the Pope’s stone as a protest and supposedly threw it into the Potomac (it was replaced in 1982). Then, in order to make sure the monument fit the definition of “American” at that time, the Know-Nothings conducted an illegal election so they could take over the entire society. Congress immediately rescinded its $200,000 contribution.
The Know-Nothings retained control of the society until 1858, adding 13 courses of masonry to the monument, all of which were of such poor quality that they were later removed. Unable to collect enough money to finish work, they increasingly lost public support. The Know-Nothings eventually gave up and returned all records to the original society, but the stoppage in construction continued into, then after, the Civil War.
Interest in the monument grew after the Civil War ended. Engineers studied the foundation several times to see whether it remained strong enough. In 1876, theCentennial of the Declaration of Independence, Congress agreed to appropriate another $200,000 to resume construction. The monument, which had stood for nearly 20 years at less than one-third of its proposed height, now seemed ready for completion.
Before work could begin again, however, arguments about the most appropriate design resumed. Many people thought a simple obelisk, one without the colonnade, would be too bare. Architect Mills was reputed to have said omitting the colonnade would make the monument look like “a stalk of asparagus”; another critic said it offered “little … to be proud of.”
This attitude led people to submit alternative designs. Both the Washington National Monument Society and Congress held discussions about how the monument should be finished. The society considered five new designs, concluding that the one by William Wetmore Story seemed “vastly superior in artistic taste and beauty.” Congress deliberated over those five as well as Mills’ original; while it was deciding, it ordered work on the obelisk to continue. Finally, the members of the society agreed to abandon the colonnade and alter the obelisk so it conformed to classical Egyptian proportions.
Construction resumed in 1879 under the direction of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Lincoln Casey of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Casey redesigned the foundation, strengthening it so it could support a structure that ultimately weighed more than 40,000 tons. He then followed the society’s orders and figured out what to do with the commemorative stones that had accumulated. Though many people ridiculed them, Casey managed to install most of the stones in the interior walls — one stone was found at the bottom of the elevator shaft in 1951. One difficulty that is visible to this day is that the builders were unable to find the same quarry stone used in the initial construction, and as a result, the bottom third of the monument is a slightly lighter shade than the rest of the construction.
The building of the monument proceeded quickly after Congress had provided sufficient funding. In four years, it was finally completed, with the 100 ounce (2.85 kg) aluminum tip/lightning-rod being put in place on December 6, 1884. The tip was the largest single piece of aluminum cast at the time, when aluminum commanded a price comparable to silver. Two years later, the Hall–Héroult process made aluminum easier to produce and the price of aluminum plummeted, making the once-valuable tip nearly worthless, though it still provided a lustrous, non-rusting tip that served as the original lightning rod. The monument opened to the public on October 9, 1888.
The Monument was formally dedicated on February 22 (Washington’s birthday), 1885. Over 800 people attended to hear speeches by Ohio Senator John Sherman, William Wilson Corcoran (of the Washington National Monument Society), Thomas Lincoln Casey of the Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. President Chester Arthur. After the speeches General William Tecumseh Sherman led a procession, which included the dignitaries and the crowd, to the east main entrance of the Capitol building, where President Arthur received passing troops. Then, in the House Chamber, the president, his Cabinet, diplomats and others listened to Representative John Davis Long read a speech given 37 years earlier at the laying of the cornerstone. A final speech was given by Virginia governor John W. Daniel.
At the time of its completion, it was the tallest building in the world; it remains the tallest stone structure in the world. It is still the tallest building in Washington, D.C.; the Heights of Buildings Act of 1910restricts new building heights to no more than 20 feet (6.1 m) greater than the width of the adjacent street. This monument is vastly taller than the obelisks around the capitals of Europe and in Egypt, but ordinary antique obelisks were quarried as a monolithic block of stone, and were therefore seldom taller than approximately 100 feet (30 m).
The Washington Monument attracted enormous crowds before it officially opened. During the six months that followed its dedication, 10,041 people climbed the 897 steps and 50 landings to the top. After theelevator that had been used to raise building materials was altered to carry passengers, the number of visitors grew rapidly. The original elevator was a steam elevator and took 20 minutes to go to the top. Wine and cheese were served to those riding, but only men were allowed on board, since the elevator was considered unsafe. If women and children wanted to get to the top, they had to climb the 897 steps and 50 landings. As early as 1888, an average of 55,000 people per month went to the top, and today the Washington Monument has more than 800,000 visitors each year. As with all historic areas administered by theNational Park Service, the national memorial was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. The stairs are no longer accessible to the general public due to safety issues and vandalism of the interior commemorative stones.
For ten hours in December 1982, the Washington Monument was “held hostage” by a nuclear arms protester, Norman Mayer, claiming to have explosives in a van he drove up to the monument’s base. Eight tourists trapped in the monument at the time the standoff began were set free, and the incident ended with U.S. Park Police opening fire on Mayer, killing him. The monument was undamaged in the incident, and it was discovered later that Mayer did not have explosives.
In the early 1930s a steel framework was erected surrounding the entire monument in order to clean it by sandblasting. A few lucky local residents were allowed to ride the makeshift cage elevator to the top-exterior and touch the tip of the monument.
In 1930 while the monument was being cleaned and renovated there were plans to build sunken gardens, which had been planned in 1900, near it with trees and other foliage around the monument. This plan was never implemented.
The monument underwent an extensive restoration project between 1998 and 2001. During this time it was completely covered in scaffolding designed by the American architect, Michael Graves (who was also responsible for the interior changes). The project included cleaning, repairing and repointing the monument’s exterior and interior stonework. The stone in public accessible interior spaces was encased in glass to prevent vandalism, while new windows with narrower frames were installed (to increase the viewing space). New exhibits celebrating the life of George Washington, and the monument’s place in history, were also added. A temporary interactive visitors center, dubbed the “Discovery Channel Center” was also constructed during the project. The center provided a simulated ride to the top of the monument, and shared information with visitors during phases in which the monument was closed. The majority of the project’s phases were completed by summer 2000, allowing the monument to reopen July 31, 2000. The monument temporary closed again on December 4, 2000 to allow a new custom elevator cab to be installed; completing the final phase of the restoration project. The new cab included glass windows, which allows visitors to see some of the 193 commemorative stones embedded in the monument’s walls. The installation of the cab took much longer than anticipated, and the monument did not reopen until February 22, 2002. The final cost of the restoration project was $10.5 million.
On September 7, 2004 the monument closed for a $15 million renovation, which included numerous security upgrades and new landscaping. The renovations were due partly to security concerns following the September 11 attacksand the start of the War on Terror. The monument reopened April 1, 2005, while the surrounding grounds remained closed until the landscaping was finished later that summer.
On August 23, 2011, the Washington Monument sustained damage during the 2011 Virginia earthquake. A National Park Service spokesperson reported that inspectors discovered a crack near the top of the structure, and announced that the monument would be closed indefinitely. NPS inspectors discovered “several additional cracks”, including “three or four ‘significant’ ones”, in the monument’s pyramidion (the pyramidal shape atop the monument, which includes the observation deck); the monument is not tilted. A block in the pyramidion also was partially dislodged, and pieces of stone, stone chips, mortar, and paint chips came free of the monument and “littered” the interior stairs and observation deck. The Park Service said it was bringing in two structural engineering firms (Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. and Tipping Mar Associates) with extensive experience in historic buildings and earthquake-damaged structures to assess the monument. The agency said the inspection would take seven to 10 days, with a report documenting the damage and making recommendations regarding repairs coming one or two weeks after that.