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Friday, April 5, 2013

Washington's Monument

April, cherry blossoms, the tidal basin, a colorful sunset--Washington would be pleased.

The Mills design was scaled back over the
years due to its cost, bearing only a passing
resemblance to what we know today.
Washington has many monuments. That's true of the man as well as the city. Virtually every state has a Washington County (except for the state of Washington) and any number of monuments and memorials to our first president. However when one mentions the Washington Monument the 555-foot tall stone obelisk on the National Mall is the first, perhaps the only one to come to mind. It's become a national icon (literally) towering over the Capitol, the White House, even Washington's own image on Mount Rushmore (not literally in the last instance). The strange thing is that when it was proposed during the early 1800s, a monument to George Washington was actually quite politically controversial. Of course, then, as now, everything in Washington is politically controversial.
George Washington died in 1799. His body was barely cold before Congress wanted to erect a pyramidal mausoleum for him on the mall. Barring that, they wanted to bury him in a crypt under the Capitol dome. The family prevailed upon them to do neither. So matters stood until 1836 when there was a design completion for a monument and an architect named Robert Mills won first prize. The first controversy involved the site. Logically it should have been at the point where the east/west axis of the Capitol Mall crossed the north/south axis of the White House. L'Enfant's plan all but designated such a site. However, that point was rejected because the Potomac River bottom land there was too unstable. Though still centered on the mall, the site chosen was more than a hundred yards off-center to the White House. Typical of Washington (the city, not the man), it was another twelve years before construction began in 1848.

The Capitol Mall looking west toward the Potomac about 1868. The Department of
Agriculture is to the left, the 150-foot stump of the Washington Monument stands
on what was then the riverbank just beyond that.
An 1870s vintage proposal
for completion of the
Washington Monument.
Thomas McLelland's Gothic

Work continued until 1854, the Virginia marble reaching a height of 150 feet. Then financial mismanagement of the Know Nothing Party and eventually the Civil War brought things to a halt. There it sat for 22 years, an embarrassing, ignoble stump literally in the nation's front yard (above). After the war, money was tight, politics was even tighter, and no one could agree on what to do. Finally, the nation's centennial in 1876 was the impetus to complete the project, except that engineers quickly discovered the bluestone foundation of 1848 was totally inadequate, threatening to turn the monument into the leaning tower of Washington. It had to be reinforced with lots and lots of concrete. Proposals for completing the effort ranged from the sublime (a monumental statue of Washington atop the completed portion making it, essentially, merely a pedestal, left), to the ridiculous (converting it to a Gothic cathedral-like structure, above, right).

The Washington Obelisk

Costs were still a problem--an estimated one million dollars ($21-million today). Mills' birthday-cake circular colonnade was the first to go, though Victorian prudes objected to the "naked" obelisk (today it's sometime seen as a national phallic symbol). As work began anew in 1879, the triumphal North insisted the rest be of Massachusetts marble (the change of hue was so obvious Virginia marble was once more used from the 176-foot level on up). The capstone was set in 1884, the monument opened to the public in 1888. Later improvements involved the replacement of a steam elevator (12 minutes to the top) with an electric one in 1901 (cutting the trip to 70 seconds). When completed, Washington's monument was the tallest building in the world, a title it held for five years until the completion of Paris' Eiffel tower in 1889 (986 feet tall). It's still the tallest masonry structure in the world. An earthquake in August, 2011, has closed the monument for repairs until 2014.

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