A Monument to the Father of His Country
Like the monument built in his honor, George Washington stands tall in American history. He attained victory in the Revolutionary War and then, to help unify the quarreling states, reluctantly took the reins of government as the nation’s first president. Washington was a unifier, a man who understood that if there was to be popular rule in America – and not rule by kings -- then he must set an example. He asked to be called simply, “Mr. President,” and voluntarily gave up power when his term was done.
After Washington’s death, admirers including James Madison and Chief Justice John Marshall looked for a way to honor him. In 1833, they formed the Washington National Monument Society and set out to raise a million dollars to build a memorial “whose dimensions and magnificence shall be commensurate with the greatness and gratitude of the nation.” In 1845 the Society selected an architectural design by South Carolinian Robert Mills, who claimed to be the first native-born American to study specifically to become an architect. Born in 1781, Mills worked with Benjamin Latrobe, an architect of the U.S. Capitol, and counted Thomas Jefferson as mentor. Named “Architect of Public Buildings,” Mills designed the emerging capital’s Treasury Building (1836-39), Patent Office (1836-40) and Post Office (1839). His design for the Washington Monument was elaborate – an Egyptian-style 600-foot obelisk rising from a temple base ringed by 30 Doric columns 100 feet high.
On July 4, 1848, the cornerstone was laid, but Mills’ design fell unto hard times. Funds lagged and politics intervened as the nation lurched toward civil war. When the monument was finally completed, only the marble obelisk remained. The flags in a circle at its base were added permanently in 1958.
Politics as Hard as Stone
Gaze at the Washington Monument and you’ll notice a brown streak, a beltline of a different color, about one-third of the way to the top. That’s the spot where politics as hard as stone stalled construction for nearly two decades. Forgotten were the festivities of July 4, 1848, when 20,000 people witnessed the laying of the cornerstone. President James K. Polk was there and the 81-year-old Dolly Madison. The monument had inched skyward – until 1854 when construction stalled at 150 feet. The Monument Society had run out of money and into polemics when the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party, spurred on by the donation of a commemorative stone from Pope Pius IX, gained control of the Society board. When the Know Nothings fell into disarray, the monument was left, only partly finished throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction.
In 1876, Congress appropriated money to finish the monument and turned to Thomas Lincoln Casey of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. With Mills deceased, money short, and concerns about the foundation, Casey streamlined Mills’ design, leaving only the unadorned shaft we know today. He set to work strengthening the foundation and looking for new marble. With the original quarry near Baltimore gone, Casey ordered stone from a quarry in Massachusetts. The stone arrived, but it did not match. Another quarry near Baltimore proved more favorable and work commenced, a steam-powered elevator lifting tons of stone to a movable iron frame attached with boom and pulleys. On December 6, 1884, workers maneuvered the 3,300-pound capstone through a window and into place. When Casey topped the capstone with an 8.9-inch aluminum tip, the monument – at 555 feet, 5-1/8 inches – was the tallest structure in the world. Inscribed on the aluminum cap were the Latin words Laus Deo, "Praise be to God.”
As its name implies, the Washington National Monument Society envisioned a national monument to George Washington. The Society wanted every state in the Union represented and sought from each a commemorative stone to be inlaid in the monument wall. Engraved slabs arrived by rail, sea and ox team, though few came with the hoped-for cash donation. Stones came not only from states, but from cities and counties, fraternal organizations and community groups, foreign countries and a few individuals.
During the early years of construction, from 1849 to 1855, 92 commemorative stones were set into niches cut in the interior wall. A stone from the Franklin Fire Company went up at the 30-foot level and one from the German Benevolent Society at 40 feet. The Association of Journeyman Stonecutters sent an elaborate stone designed by an apprentice working for Messrs. John Struthers & Son of Philadelphia. It featured all the tools of the trade framed by a garland of leaves. Indiana’s stone was carved in limestone, New Hampshire’s in granite, and Georgia’s in marble, as was South Carolina’s, defaced though it was “by some of the baser sort” who had broken off heads and carted away the trumpet borne by an angel.
Still missing was the Pope’s stone. It had arrived in 1853, but someone stole it from a shed, hacked it to pieces, and threw it into the Potomac. A diver, working in 1892 on piers for a new bridge, happened upon a piece of its polished marble, striped with veins of pink and white, the inscription only partly visible: “Ro--t—merica.” The diver threw the slab into the corner of a barge, only to have it stolen again. When the Washington Monument opened to the public in 1886, visitors climbed the iron staircase to the top, or, starting in 1888, rode up in a steam-powered elevator. Today, with the staircase off-limits, visitors coast to the observation deck aboard a modern elevator, arriving in 70 seconds. As the elevator descends, it slows as it passes some of the 193 commemorative stones inlaid at various levels. Only 16 of the stones date to the twentieth century, many from Western states that entered the Union after the monument was completed. Alaska’s jade stone, installed in 1982 at the 450-foot-level, holds distinction as the monument’s uppermost stone.
Preserving a National Treasure
In 1933 the National Park Service assumed responsibility for the monument when the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks was reorganized under the Department of the Interior. A year later, as a Depression Era public works project, the monument underwent its first restoration. There was another in 1964 and another from 1998 to 2001, when the current elevator was installed. On August 23, 2011, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck, its epicenter 90 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. The quake rocked the monument, displacing joints, chipping stones and causing more than 150 cracks. The National Park Service closed the monument for 32 months while repairs were made, and reopened the monument to the public on May 12, 2014. Later that year in August 2014, CyArk in partnership with DJS Associates and the Heritage Documentation Programs of the National Park Service laser scanned and photographed the monument to document the restored site.
Today, as in the past, the Washington Monument exemplifies a nation’s gratitude to the man who led the colonies in war and the fledgling nation in peace.