The Washington Monument is tall, but is it the tallest?

Columnist June 19, 2013

I am among the many journalists, tour guides and travel book authors guilty of describing the Washington Monument as “the world’s tallest free-standing masonry structure.”

At 555 feet 5 inches from top to bottom, what else could be mightier than our beloved marble obelisk?

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

Well, with the monument on people’s minds as damage from 2011’s earthquake is repaired, fans of the Anaconda Copper Mine outside Butte, Mont., want to set the record straight: The Washington Monument is the world’s second-tallest masonry structure. The tallest is the mine’s smokestack, which once belched pollutants high into the sky during the copper smelting process.

Arlington’s Carrie Johnson is fascinated by industrial history of the sort that was made in the copper fields of Montana. In 2011, The Washington Post published a letter from her that chided us for once again referring to the monument as the WTFMS, something we still do.

Carrie laid out certain facts: The Washington Monument is 555 feet 5.9 inches tall. The Anaconda stack is 585 feet 1.5 inches tall. However, that includes a 30-foot-tall concrete base. If you subtract the base, the Anaconda tower is 555 feet 1.5 inches high.

Aha, you say. The Washington Monument is still 4.4 inches taller than the Anaconda smokestack. But Carrie points out that the top 8.8 inches of the monument is an aluminum pyramid. Subtract that, and the smokestack is taller. The beautiful homage to the Father of Our Country must cede its record to a big pollution stick.

But let’s look more closely. One definition of masonry is a structure that is held together by mortar. If you use that definition, the Washington Monument doesn’t qualify as masonry at all, actually. The obelisk is basically dry set: The marble blocks are held together by gravity and friction, not mortar. There is mortar, but it just serves as weatherstripping, not glue, said the National Park Service’s Carol Johnson. It’s like a huge Jenga tower.

“It really is an engineering marvel,” Carol said. “I don’t think people appreciate just how amazing it is.”

Of course, the Anaconda smokestack, completed in 1918 and shut down in 1980, is pretty amazing, too. It’s made of 2.4 million bricklike tiles and dominates the surrounding landscape.

Carol, of the Park Service, graciously said: “Theirs is the tallest free-standing masonry structure. Ours is the tallest free-standing stone structure.”

But is it? Outside Houston is something called the San Jacinto Monument, completed in 1939. As it was being built, architect A.C. Finn assured nervous Washingtonians that it would be shorter than the Washington Monument. He even wrote a letter saying it was only 552 feet tall. But he neglected to mention that it sits on two terraces. It’s actually 567 feet from the ground to the tip. And that makes theirs bigger than ours, right?

“That is the kind of question we do get frequently,” said Lisa Struthers, library director at the San Jacinto Museum of History. “Most people who are Texans know that the San Jacinto Monument is taller.”

But shorter than the Anaconda smokestack (unless you don’t subtract that 30 feet of concrete).

The smokestack is now the centerpiece of a Montana state park, though because the ground is so polluted, you can’t get close to it. The park’s Web site plays down the stack’s record-setting nature, saying merely that it is “one of the tallest free-standing brick structures in the world.” (It does note that the Washington Monument is 555 feet tall.)

You know what would settle this once and for all? Just stick something to the top of the Washington Monument. Remove the aluminum cap and add a single stack of bricks, 31 feet, 8 inches tall, sticking up like a masonry antenna. Now’s the perfect time to do it, what with all that scaffolding up there.

C’mon, Park Service. Where’s your local pride?

“We would never do that,” said Carol. “The reason is this is a culturally significant structure. They put that aluminum cap there because aluminum at that time was a rare metal. Our job is to maintain the integrity of the historic structure.”

When I spoke to Carrie this week, she said: “This is one of these sort of quibbly things about two structures that are significant for totally different reasons. One is much more famous and more monumental than the other one, but that is not the quality being compared.”

Size matters.

Send a Kid to Camp

Size matters with Send a Kid to Camp, too. That’s my annual fundraising campaign for Camp Moss Hollow, a summer camp for at-risk kids from the Washington area. We’re hoping to raise $500,000 by Aug. 1.

You can make a tax-deductible donation at washingtonpost.com/camp. Click where it says, “Give Now.” Or send a check, made payable to “Send a Kid to Camp,” to Send a Kid to Camp, Family Matters of Greater Washington, P.O. Box 200045, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15251-0045.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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