How the Washington Monument has been repaired over the years

John Kelly
Columnist September 14, 2013

Not for the first time, Washington’s mightiest monument is in a cage.

It took about four months to construct the steel scaffolding that encases the Washington Monument and serves as a platform to fix damage caused by the August 2011 earthquake. Shrouded by protective fabric and bathed at night in ethereal light, the 555-foot obelisk looks like a Christo installation.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Of course, the monument has needed TLC before. Answer Man has no problem remembering the 1998 refurbishment. He has a harder time remembering the first time the monument needed large-scale repair. That’s because he wasn’t born yet.

The year was 1934. The monument had been dedicated in 1885 and the first stones had been laid in 1848. Mortar was crumbling in places. Rain leaked in from the top. It was time for a fix-up.

The Public Works Administration put aside $100,000 for repairs. Workers began by assembling 50,000 pieces of steel tubing into a “corset,” the scaffolding that encased the monument. The elements had not been kind to the structure. One stone block near the top was so damaged by lightning that workers had to muscle in a 1,200-pound slab of marble as a replacement.

The stone itself was cleaned in a way that would make today’s historic preservationists blanch: According to a contemporary account, water mixed with sand was “energetically applied with steel-bristled brushes.” Contrast that with today, where Q-tips woven from alpaca wool are dipped in the tears of newborn babies and gently rubbed against the pale marble by jumpsuit-wearing eunuchs.

Answer Man is joking about the alpaca wool/baby tears/eunuchs, but there certainly is a different approach to today’s work on the monument. For one thing, the monument is currently closed, not set to reopen until the spring. During the 1934 renovation, it stayed open. Perhaps officials felt tourists needed a diversion during the Depression. Or maybe, in those less-litigious days, no one worried about a tourist being beaned by a hammer or chisel dropped from 400 feet above.

Probably the oddest thing to occur during the 1934 renovation was a heist. Gold-plated, platinum-tipped lightning-rod points were used to protect the crown of the monument from occasional shocks of cloud-borne electricity. In December, someone climbed to the top of the monument and stole 107 of the 170 points, valued at a total of $856, or about $15,000 in today’s money.

As far as Answer Man can tell, no one was ever charged with the crime. The contractor, the Alexander Howie Co., had to eat the cost of the pilfered points.

At the end of the three-month renovation, the spider web of scaffolding was removed.

While the Washington Monument wouldn’t be enshrouded completely for 63 more years, in 1958, a small, rickety-looking scaffold appeared just below the obelisk’s peak. It provided a platform for William Smiley to cut eight holes — two on each face — into the marble.

Smiley was an Indiana-born stonemason who lived in Hyattsville. He told The Post that he didn’t find the job too unusual. “Of course, I haven’t been up too high very many times, just ordinary five- to 10-story buildings,” he said. “But there’s not any more of a sensation to this job than riding in a plane once you get used to it. When the wind hits the scaffold, there’s a little shimmy to it.”

Smiley confessed that his wife wasn’t too crazy about his job and preferred not to hear about it when he got home from work each evening.

The holes — 14 inches in diameter and cut through seven inches of stone — were needed to house the red lights that blink a warning to aircraft.

Red lights blink there still, crimson eyes that gaze down upon a city that would appear both strange and familiar to a Washingtonian from 1885, 1934 or 1958.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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