The Washington Monument, which is visible from almost everywhere in Washington, D.C., is truly a city landmark. The 555-foot tall obelisk has punctuated the National Mall since 1884. It honors George Washington, “Father of the United States”, who was unanimously elected the nation’s first President.
When George Washington died in 1799, Congress praised him as “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Politicians proposed a Washington monument in the early 1800s, but they disagreed about details. For example, should the monument include Washington’s tomb? Would it be appropriate to depict him in ancient Greek style? When a statue was eventually presented, people objected to the half-clad classical Greek sort of George. Congressional quibbling ultimately led to the creation of a private monument foundation.
The National Monument Society was formed in 1833. The members raised a considerable amount of money within a few years, and in 1836 they announced a design competition for the memorial.
An artist named Robert Mills submitted the winning design. He proposed a 600-foot obelisk that would protrude from a circular base. The base and obelisk would be decorated with statues and frescoes of national heroes, including a toga-clad George Washington in a horse-drawn chariot. In the end, however, the obelisk would be a bit shorter, and the artist’s plan for statues and frescoes would not be realized.
The monument’s cornerstone was laid amid great celebration in 1848. Ceremonially, the National Monument Society ensured that the stone was set with the same trowel George Washington had used when setting the Capitol’s cornerstone years earlier. The city celebrated that night with fireworks.
With the cornerstone set, the National Monument Society increased its efforts to fund the project. Ordinary citizens were urged to pledge $1 each. Businesses, professional organizations, foreign governments and Native American tribes contributed stones. Sometimes the stone donations were engraved with messages that didn’t speak to the theme of George Washington; one block of stone read, “We will not buy, sell, or use as a beverage, any spiritous or malt liquors, Wine, Cider, or any other Alcoholic Liquor.” Engraved stones make up interior walls of the hollow monument.
Scandal erupted around a stone donation in 1854, and the entire project came to a halt. The anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party stole and smashed a donation made by Pope Pius IX. They dumped the stone chips into the Potomac River. This resulted in Congress rescinding an approval for $200,000 in memorial funds. The Know-Nothings then assumed management of the monument society, but their legacy is unimpressive. Everything they added to the monument was eventually removed, and no real progress was made until after the Civil War.
Because of the cut in funding, the monument ended up being shorter than originally planned, and without the statues envisioned by Mills. A lag in construction time also led to stone being sourced from different quarry layers, so the coloring of the monument is not uniform.
Work was finally completed in 1884. The monument, though short of its goal, was the largest structure in the world until the Eiffel Tower was completed five years later. It was much larger than the Egyptian obelisks that inspired it; these are typically about 100 feet tall. The walls were made fifteen feet thick at the base and narrowed to 18 inches near the top. The monument was capped with a 100-ounce aluminum pyramid. At the time, aluminum was scarce and was valued like silver. This was the largest cast-aluminum item in the world.
Starting in 1888, adult male visitors were allowed to travel up the Washington Monument in a twenty-minute steam-powered elevator ride. Somehow the ride was deemed too risky for women and children; they would have to climb the 800 stairs for a view! Progressively speedier elevators were installed since then, and for safety reasons people are now forbidden to use the stairs.
From the top of the Washington Monument, tourists can see most of Washington, D.C. as well as parts of Maryland and Virginia. In March and April, flowering cherry trees can be spotted in West Potomac Park below.