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The Washington Monument

It’s the most famous room in the world. It’s where Presidents address the nation, especially in times of crisis. It’s the room where history is made. It’s the Oval Office in the West Wing of the White House.

At one end of the Oval Office, filling in the southern curve, behind the President’s desk, are three great windows, each eleven and a half feet tall, with special layered glass designed to stop an assassin’s bullet. Visible through the windows is a great white marble obelisk that towers over the capital and stands as a silent reminder to every President of what Democracy is about. The obelisk is the Washington Monument.

Unlike the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials in the nation’s capital, the soaring white walls of the Washington Monument are blank. It seems appropriate. Words defined Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln but not George Washington. As a general, as a President, as the Father of his Country, it wasn’t what Washington said but what he did that made him a great leader. Actions, not words, defined the man.

The Jefferson memorial was built 135 years after he left office as president. The Lincoln Memorial was built 57 years after he was assassinated. The Washington Monument, on the other hand, was being planned before Washington even took office as president.

The idea for a Washington memorial was first voiced in the aftermath of the American Revolution. In August, 1783, the Continental Congress, then meeting in New Jersey, resolved unanimously “That an equestrian statue of George Washington be erected at the place where the residence of Congress shall be established.” Later, after Congress had voted to build the new seat of government by the banks of the Potomac, President Washington approved the spot assigned by city planner Pierre L’Enfant. It should stand on the Mall, they agreed, at an intersection of lines west and south of the future Capitol building and the President’s Mansion.

The new nation had more pressing problems, and Washington himself felt that the low state of the treasury scarcely warranted such unessential expense. It was not until Washington’s death in 1799 that Americans suddenly realized that they had failed to provide a monument in appreciation of the Virginia statesman. As hundreds of impassioned eulogies rang out from pulpit and podium across the land, Congress passed another resolution. The new bill was sponsored by Representative John Marshall, who was himself destined for greatness as the Chief Justice who established the power of the Supreme Court.

Marshall’s proposal called for a marble memorial inside the Capitol building, to which Washington’s remains were to be transferred when--and if--permission could be obtained from the family. Martha Washington agreed, reluctantly. Eventually, after years of Congressional debate, resolutions, and correspondence with Washington’s heirs, a mausoleum was built under the Capitol Rotunda.

It was never occupied. Washington’s grandnephew and Mount Vernon’s owner at the time, John Augustine Washington, refused to allow the remains to be moved, citing the General’s will, which had directed his burial on the Virginia estate. Henceforth the Capitol tomb would remain a tourist curiosity.

Congress remained determined to honor Washington in some way. In 1832, it authorized the then-huge sum of $5,000 for a statue to be displayed in the Capitol Rotunda. Horatio Greenough, an American sculpture working in Italy, won the commission. Working with a 20-ton block of marble, Greenough’s image of Washington as a seated, bare-chested Adonis horrified rather than gratified legislatures and public alike. The General appeared, it was said, as if “entering or leaving a bath.” Rather than being placed in the Rotunda, the statue was put outside amidst the shrubbery--and forgotten. Today, the statue can be seen in the exhibit halls of the Smithsonian.

At this point, George Washington’s old friend John Marshall, now 78 and full of honors, was called to the rescue, as head of a new civic organization calling itself the the Washington Monument Society. The Society had but one goal--to build the Washington Monument without further delay. They had no way of knowing that repeated delays would mark the Monument’s construction, and that few of the founding members would see its completion.


A competition was held for a new design. The winner was Robert Mills, onetime draftsman for Thomas Jefferson. Mills had already won acclaim with his memorial to Washington commissioned by the City of Baltimore, and completed in 1829. Appointed U.S. architect by President Andrew Jackson, he designed many public buildings, among them the U.S. Treasury, the Patent Office, and the General Post Office.

Mills’ plan for the Washington Monument in D.C., as he described it, outlined a “grand circular colonnaded building . . . 100 feet high, from which sprang an obelisk shaft . . . making a total elevation of 600 feet.” Above the central portico, a colossal toga-clad George Washington drove a chariot drawn by six Arabian steeds, all of it carved from marble, of course.

The Monument Society never warmed up to the chariot idea or the ornate base, concentrating instead on raising money to construct the obelisk. That was in 1836, not a good time to be raising money. Andrew Jackson had shut down the Second National Bank, money was in short supply, and an economic depression soon set in. As a result, construction didn’t begin for another 12 years. Charles Dickens visited D.C. around this time and described the unfinished capital as “a city of magnificent intentions.”

Construction finally began in 1848. On hand for the ground-breaking ceremonies were President James K. Polk; a little-known Congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln, together with two other future Presidents, James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson; George Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis; and the widows of two of the nation’s Founding Fathers, Dolly Madison and Elizabeth Hamilton (still active at age 91).

For the first few years, the Monument grew like a marble beanstalk. Then, having reached a height of 152 feet, construction stopped. A political faction calling themselves the Know-Nothings seized control of the Monument Society by an illegal election. After several years, having added only a few feet of inferior stonework that had to be removed, the Know-Nothings returned the project to its legitimate leaders. Now, the Civil War loomed. All work on the monument ceased, despite the Society’s redoubled efforts to raise money by placing collection boxes in post offices and at voting polls--including those for the national election that brought Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency.

All during the war, the unfinished Monument stood as a reminder of the break between the states. Soldiers in blue drilled under the United States flag that waved over its flat top. Cattle grazed at the depot set up on the grounds to help feed the Army. Across the way, meanwhile, workmen raised the Capitol’s new iron dome--a sign that the Union would go on, as Lincoln said.

The Monument was still unfinished when Mark Twain worked as a Washington newspaper reporter in 1867. “It has the aspect,” he wrote later, “of a factory chimney with the top broken off . . . Cow-sheds about its base . . . contented sheep nibbling about its base . . . tired pigs dozing in the holy calm of its protecting shadow.”

By the centennial of Independence in 1876, the sorry state of the Monument had needled the conscience of Capital officials. Congress passed a law, signed by President Ulysses S. Grant, providing for Government completion and maintenance of the Monument. After a 25 year hiatus, work resumed.

Army engineers soon discovered the Monument’s foundation could not support its proposed height. Before building further, they removed weak sections of the original masonry foundation and strengthened, broadened, and deepened the rest by filling in subterranean tunnels with poured concrete. The memorial’s dimensions were changed too as result of research by the U.S. Minister to Italy, George Marsh. A true obelisk, he reported, should have a height of about ten times its base: hence the Monument’s final summit of 555 feet, 5 1/8 inches, to a base of 55 feet, 1 1/2 inches square. (The finished Monument would be the equivalent height of a 55-story building.)


The push to the top started with the laying of second cornerstone by President Rutherford B. Hayes in August, 1880. Construction was completed when the capstone was set in place on December 6, 1884. The Monument was dedicated in 1885 and opened to the public in 1888. To reach the top, visitors either climbed the stairs or rode the slow steam hoist. An electric elevator replaced the steam lift in 1901, then gave way to improved models in 1926 and 1959. Today’s elevator reaches the top in about 70 seconds. The stairs were closed to the public in 1971, due to congestion and exhausted climbers needing rescue.

In 1901, the Senate’s McMillan Committee for civic development recommended a landscaping project in line with L’Enfant’s original plan for a grandly scenic mall. The Monument area was to be cut into a series of terraced gardens, embellished with trees, fountains, and a great circular pool. Since large-scale shifting of earth loads was involved, engineers made deep borings to test soil conditions. They discovered the Monument itself would be endangered by the excavations, producing a “Leaning Tower of Washington.” The project was abandoned.

The Monument’s surroundings have nonetheless improved since then, when the Mall area was an unsightly clutter of railroad tracks, haphazard buildings, animal pens, and marshes. Massive Government buildings and the Smithsonian Institute complex of buildings now enclose a broad, grassy swath. More recent construction includes a new wing to the National Gallery of Art, the National Air and Space Museum, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

While not a part of L’Enfant’s original plans, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials completed the intersection of lines the city planner envisioned, with the Capitol and Lincoln Memorial on opposites ends of the east-west line, the White House and Jefferson Memorial on opposite ends of the north-south line, with the Washington Memorial near the center where the lines intersect.

In a city where Government buildings sprawl, the Washington Monument soars. As with the man himself, there is nothing in sight to rivals its majestic height. Shimmering in the sun by day, a pillar of light by night, it reaches peak display once a year when Fourth of July fireworks trace the pointed silhouette “in shooting stars and showers of pyrotechnic flowers.”

Had the Washington Monument been commissioned by a tyrant, it would have been built quickly and efficiently. Because it wasn’t, it took halting steps to achieve, like the achievements of the government itself. Democracy is often slow to act, and slow to get results. Mistakes are made, the process is maddening and wasteful, but like the Committee that built the Washington Monument, the job gets done and in the end we call the results miraculous. The same can be said of the Washington Monument. The process took nearly a hundred years to complete, but the result is miraculous.

Enduring all manner of storms, symbolic of democracy itself, the Washington Monument stands tall for all the world to see.

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