District of Columbia: Washington Monument

This 555-foot shaft honoring George Washington is the dominant landmark in the nation’s capital and is considered the tallest freestanding masonry structure in the world. Each year, more than 1.2 million people visit this beloved national icon.

Site Office

Washington National Monument Association

5026 New Executive Office Building

726 Jackson Place NW

Washington, DC 20006

ph.: (202) 426-6841

Web site: www.nps.gov/wamo/

Just as the ancient Egyptians built obelisks to honor their pharaohs, the Washington Monument is designed as a classical Egyptian obelisk to honor the memory of the first president of the United States. Following the proportions of the classical obelisks, the monument is ten times as tall as it is wide at the base. It contains thirty-six thousand stones that together weigh 81,120 tons, and the foundation weighs another 36,910 tons. At the top of the structure, a pyramid occupies one-tenth of the height of the column. An observation room is located at the base of the pyramid, which is five hundred feet above ground level. An elevator and a flight of 898 steps lead visitors to the observation room. Standing straight and clean against the skyline, the white marble shaft rises above all other structures of the city, to be seen far away from any direction.

Early Projects to Honor Washington

Even when George Washington was alive, his contemporaries referred to him as the “father of the country.” Soldier and politican Henry Lee (1756-1818), known as Light-Horse Harry Lee, described Washington as “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” During the difficult days of the war for independence, Washington was a man of leadership abilities who inspired confidence. When the Constitution was written at the Great Convention in 1787, no other person was really considered to preside over the occasion. The American presidency was created with Washington in mind, and twice he was elected to that office without opposition.

In 1783, just as the United States became an independent country, the Continental Congress resolved unanimously that “an equestrian statue of General Washington be erected at the place where the residence of the Congress shall be established.” Later, when Congress voted to build the new capital on the Potomac River, city planner Pierre Charles L’Enfant decided that the statue should be situated on the National Mall at an intersection of lines south and west of the president’s home and the Capitol. With more essential expenses taking priority, however, Congress failed to provide funding for the statue.

Washington’s death in 1799 produced a multitude of sermons, speeches, and newspaper editorials expressing respect and affection for the man and his accomplishments. In response, Congress passed a bill authorizing a marble mausoleum as a memorial inside the Capitol, but Washington’s descendants refused to allow his remains to be removed from Mount Vernon. In 1832, Congress authorized funds for a marble statue of Washington to be placed in the Capitol’s Rotunda. When Horatio Greenough’s bare-chested statue was completed, it was too controversial to be placed inside the Capitol, and it eventually found its place in the Smithsonian Institution.

Beginning of the Ambitious Project

In 1833 several prominent civic leaders of Washington, D.C., wanted more than a statue to honor the first president, and they organized the Washington National Monument Society with the goal of erecting a large and impressive memorial. George Witterston, former librarian of Congress, was the dominant force behind the organization, and Chief Justice John Marshall, at the age of seventy-eight, was elected its first president. In order to pay the estimated cost of a million dollars, the society launched a fund drive, appealing to Americans to contribute a limit of one dollar per person.

In 1836, having raised almost thirty thousand dollars, the society announced a public competition for the best design. Robert Mills, a former draftsman for Thomas Jefferson and an eminent architect of the time, was the winner. Mills believed that the architectural forms of the classical tradition were the most appropriate for a republican government. He had previously designed an acclaimed monument to Washington for the city of Baltimore, and he would soon be working on a number of famous public buildings in the nation’s capital.

Mills’s entry proposed a six-hundred-foot obelisk that was to be surrounded at the base by a circular Greek temple with large columns. The temple was to contain thirty statues of revolutionary heroes. At the top of the principal entrance there was to be a colossal statue of Washington driving a battle chariot drawn by six horses. The society was soon forced to discard the idea of an ornate temple because of a lack of funds. Mills estimated that the entire project, including the temple, would cost $1,250,000, but it turned out that the cost of constructing the obelisk alone was $1,187,710.

Construction of the Monument

The construction did not actually begin until 1848, after the federal government agreed to donate public land near the site originally chosen for Washington’s equestrian statue. The cornerstone was laid on July 4 of that year, with a ceremony attended by more than fifteen thousand people. President James Polk was in attendance, as were three future presidents: James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Johnson.

Construction of the first 152 feet of the monument proceeded smoothly. The face of the shaft was covered with white marble from Maryland. The wall of the stairway was made of granite, 15 feet thick at the base and decreasing in thickness with ascending height. The society invited states, patriotic groups, and foreign countries to contribute stone blocks to decorate the interior walls. This resulted in 190 memorials, many quite ornate, which were placed at ten-foot intervals. Pope Pius IX contributed a marble slab from a Roman temple, but it was stolen and never recovered.

By 1854 the society was running out of funds. The Know-Nothing Party gained control of the project from 1855 to 1858, adding a few feet of inferior stonework that was later removed. As the Civil War approached, work on the monument stopped, and thereafter the Monument Society found it almost impossible to raise the money to resume construction. In 1867 Mark Twain wrote that the structure had “the aspect of a factory chimney with the top broken off.” With the centennial of independence in 1876, Congress authorized public funding to complete and maintain the monument, and the title of ownership was transferred to the United States. The Army Corps of Engineers discovered that the foundation had to be strengthened with a deep concrete slab because of the spongy soil, and the projected height of the structure was reduced about five feet after Italian researchers published new information about the true dimensions of classical obelisks.

Renewed construction began seriously after President Rutherford B. Hayes laid a second cornerstone in 1880. Thereafter the shaft grew an average of eighty feet annually. At first the builders used marble from Massachusetts, resulting in a slight color change, but the builders soon returned to using stone from Maryland, near the original quarry. Supervised by Colonel Thomas Casey of the Army Corps of Engineers, the work finally ended when a solid aluminum tip was placed on the capstone on December 6, 1884. The nine-inch aluminum tip, weighing one hundred ounces, was the largest such piece ever cast up to that time. The entire project had been completed without a single loss of life. The formal dedication of the monument took place on February 21, 1885.

Additions to the Monument

The Washington Monument has never been entirely finished. It was not until 1888 that the public was able to climb the stairs or take a twelve-minute ride on the steam lift in order to look through the eight windows in the observation room. In 1901 an electric elevator replaced the steam hoist, and the time of the ride was decreased to five minutes. The elevator was significantly improved in 1926 and again in 1959, cutting the ascent time to seventy seconds.

In 1901, a Senate committee recommended a landscaping project to make the National Mall more scenic. The plan envisioned that the area of the Mall should be divided into a series of terraced gardens, with trees, fountains, and a large, circular pool. Test borings in the ground, however, indicated that such alterations would undermine the foundation, perhaps producing a “Leaning Tower of Washington.” The project was eventually abandoned.

The stairs for walking up the monument were closed to the general public in 1971, and the stairs for walking down were closed in 1976. They were closed in part because of the growing congestion at the top, and also because of problems of graffiti and exhausted visitors needing to be rescued. Bars were installed in the windows in 1926 after three men leaped out to commit suicide. Before safety glass was installed in 1961, many thoughtless visitors and pranksters enjoyed throwing things out the windows, which was sometimes dangerous to the people below.

It was not until 1994 that a statue of George Washington was installed in the monument. It is a bronze replica of Jean-Antoine Houdon’s marble original, which is located in the state capitol of Virginia. Houdon had visited Mount Vernon in the 1780’s in order to study the general and to get a plaster cast of his face.

Maintenance and Repair

Like all masonry structures, the Washington Monument must be periodically repaired because of the ravages of age and exposure to wind, rain, and frost. In 1934 and 1964, the marble shell of the structure was partially mended, and it was scrubbed from the base to the tip. For many years the large structure had produced water condensation, which precipitated indoor rain. This problem was mostly eliminated in 1959 when a giant humidifier was installed in the basement.

By the late 1990’s, experts were concerned about a number of problems. The mortar joining the white marble and granite stones was loose, joints were leaking, large cracks could be seen near the top, and the exterior needed another cleaning. In February, 1999, the most extensive repair in the history of the obelisk began. The repair costs were estimated at $9.4 million, mostly supplied by Target Corporation and other business groups.

Damaged areas of stone were repaired using the “Dutchman” masonry method, whereby large sections are cut out and replaced by good pieces. In order to obtain a good match, stones were acquired from the original quarries in Maryland. The entire exterior was cleaned with steam at low pressure, without sand or detergents. Experts were especially concerned about the cracks at the top. It was uncertain how long the cracks had existed. If they were caused by heating and cooling, only sealing would be necessary. If tests revealed that the stone was pulling apart, however, it would be necessary to reinforce the structure with metal pins.

Architect Michael Graves was employed to design a functional scaffold that would respect the artistic integrity of the monument. Graves decided to taper the scaffold to conform to the shape of the obelisk. A blue screen netting around the monument was designed to imitate the stone block pattern of the exterior. In order to prevent damage, the scaffolding itself was not attached to the structure.

For Further Information

  • Bryan, John, ed. Robert Mills: Architect. Washington, D.C.: American Institute of Art Press, 1989. A handsome volume with 115 illustrations, as well as a scholarly text.
  • Freidel, Frank, and Lonnelle Aikman. George Washington: Man and Monument. Washington, D.C.: Washington National Monument Association, 1973. The second half of the book provides an excellent summary of the monument’s history. Highly recommended for the general reader.
  • Harvey, Frederick. History of the Washington National Monument and Washington National Monument Society. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1903. A detailed historical account by the secretary of the society.
  • Liscombe, Rhodi W. Altogether American: Robert Mills, Architectect and Engineer, 1781-1855. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. An interesting and scholarly treatment by an authority in architectural history.
  • Longstreth, Richard, ed. The Mall in Washington, 1791-1991. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1991. Provides perspective about the architectural development and historical preservation of the mall.
  • Washington National Monument Society. A Brief History of the Washington National Monument Society. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1953. A short summary from the society’s point of view.