The Washington Monument was built between 1848 and 1884 as a tribute to George Washington’s military leadership from 1775-1783 during the American Revolution. Its construction took place in two major phases, 1848-56, and 1876-84–a lack of funds, political turmoil, and uncertainty about the survival of the American Union caused the intermittent hiatus. Plans for a national monument began as early as 1783 when Congress proposed that an equestrian statue of George Washington be erected. Although the Monument was authorized by Congress, little action was taken, even after Major Peter Charles L’Enfant selected its site in his 1791 Federal City plan. Washington’s 1799 death rekindled public aspiration for an appropriate tribute to him, and John Marshall proposed that a special sepulcher be erected for the General within the Capitol itself. Lack of funds postponed construction, but Marshall persevered, and in 1833, he, James Madison, and others formed the Washington National Monument Society. By 1836, the society advertised for competitive architectural designs. The winning architect was Robert Mills, whose design called for a neoclassical plan which provided for a nearly-flat-topped obelisk surrounded by a circular colonnade on which would stand a statue of Washington in a chariot. Inside the colonnade, statues of thirty prominent Revolutionary War heroes would be displayed.
In an elaborate Fourth of July ceremony in 1848, the cornerstone was laid. Lack of funds and the illegal election which placed the Washington National Monument Society in the hands of the Know-Nothings, a political party, caused delay. Although the Know-Nothings returned all records to the original society in 1858, the latter could accomplish little without funding. The outbreak of Civil War of 1861 exacerbated the society’s difficulties with fund-raising efforts. When Lt.Col.Thomas L.Casey, Mills’ successor, resumed work on the project in 1876, he heavily altered the original design for the monument so that it resembled an unadorned Egyptian obelisk with a pointed pyramidion. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of the War Department was charged with completing the construction, and the monument was dedicated on February 21, 1885, and officially opened to the public on October 9, 1888.
Weighing 81,120 tons, the Washington Monument stands 555′ 5-1/8″ tall. The walls of the monument range in thickness from 15′ at the base to 18” at the upper shaft. They are composed primarily of white marble blocks from Maryland with a few from Massachusetts, underlain by Maryland blue gneiss and Maine granite. A slight color change is perceptible at the 150′ level near where construction slowed in 1854. Inserted into the interior walls are 193 memorial stones presented by individuals, societies, cities, States, and nations of the world. Attached to in independent iron framework, flights of 896 steps surround an elevator which takes visitors to the observation level, where they can gaze over the city from the monument’s pyramidion windows.
In 1996, the Washington Monument Restoration Project was kicked off with Target Stores joining the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation to help restore this national treasure. Guaranteeing $1 million, Target served as the lead sponsor working with the foundation to raise awareness and an additional $4 million in donations from corporate partners. The restoration included constructing scaffolding for the entire 555-foot, 5 1/8-inch monument; sealing 500 feet of exterior and interior stone cracks; pointing 64,000 linear feet of exterior joints; cleaning 59,000 square feet of interior wall surface; sealing eight observation windows and eight aircraft warning lights; repairing 1,000 square feet of chipped and patched stone; pointing 3,900 linear feet of interior joints; and preserving and restoring 1932 interior commemorative stones. The project was completed in 2000.
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