Washington Monument reopens after $15 million repair project

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately said that the Washington Monument is built of limestone. It is built of marble, and the story has been corrected.

This timelapse documents the nearly three-year restoration of the Washington Monument after the 2011 earthquake that rocked D.C. The monument reopens to the public Monday. (Timelapse courtesy of EarthCam)

New York has its Empire State Building, Paris has its Eiffel Tower and now, finally, Washington has its Monument back. The best view in the District and one of the city’s signature tourist draws returned to duty Monday when the obelisk reopened after $15 million in repairs following the 2011 earthquake.

The construction fencing was gone, the elaborate top-to-bottom scaffolding (which became an architectural fan favorite in its own right) was down, and instantly back in place was the familiar standing crowd of tourists milling around the base of the 555-foot stone spire. Those lucky enough to have bagged one of the free inaugural tickets to the top waited for their time to board the elevator; others craned their necks to take in an up-close perspective that’s been off limits for more than 30 months.

The sheer marble needle, gleaming and newly secure, thrust into a spectacular spring sky.

“It looks alive again,” said Joyce Martine, a government network contractor from Virginia who came at lunchtime to enjoy the defibrillated pulse of the Mall landmark.

What has been missing is the bald-eagle-eye view of Washington available nowhere else from this low-rise city, with the Capitol dome, the White House, the Lincoln Memorial and other cardinal points of the capital compass spreading out 50 stories below.

“It was the first place my wife wanted to come in Washington,” said Dan McIntyre, 65, who is visiting the city in celebration of his retirement from factory work in Louisiana. When he heard tickets would be available on a first-come basis, he left his wife asleep at the Washington Hilton before dawn, jumped on Metro and joined the line. “She’s going to be thrilled.”

Officials celebrated the return of the monument as a bit of rare good news in beleaguered, budget-strapped Washington. Inevitably, the closed and barricaded edifice itself had come to stand as a symbol of tired infrastructure and a government that couldn’t keep pace with the ravages of nature and neglect.

“For me, this was personal,” said National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis. He was a ranger at the monument in the 1970s and knew that as the world’s tallest free-standing masonry structure, it was not earthquake-ready (only gravity, not mortar, holds the massive blocks together).

At the observation deck after the first visitors had ascended Monday, he pointed out a jagged crack in one block, now sealed with epoxy but which had been leaking both light and rain. “I was very worried.”

But instead of condemning the monument as a 90,000-ton ruin, Jarvis was able to declare it open for business at a morning rededication ceremony hosted by NBC’s Al Roker.

The relieved officials included Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and David Rubenstein — the billionaire private equity guru who gave $7.5 million to the project.

Park Service officials hailed the completion of the repair for coming in “on time, on budget and accident free.”

Weather anchor Al Roker introduced fourth-graders from Aiton Elementary School during a ceremony marking the reopening of the Washington Monument on Monday. (The Associated Press)

The widely acknowledged key to the effort was Rubenstein, who was repeatedly thanked during the day by elected officials and citizens alike.

“This is just a down payment on paying back what the country has done for me and my family,” Rubenstein said.

In an interview as he worked his way around the windows of the observation level, Rubenstein recalled his parents bringing him from Baltimore to see this view.

He knew the spire was a beloved fixture at the center of monumental Washington. But since picking up half the tab for the earthquake repairs, he has been surprised by how many people have thanked him for saving not just a monument to the first president, but an emblem of the nation itself.

“I didn’t realize just how much people see it as a symbol of the country,” he said.

If public-private partnership was the catchphrase of the restoration effort, the ceremony was a public-
private-commercial-industrial-theatrical production, sponsored by Coke, John Deere and the W Hotel. Guests cooled themselves with fans advertising the coming summer run of “The Lion King” at the Kennedy Center, another local institution that Rubenstein — co-founder of the Carlyle Group — subsidizes. The circle of (Washington) life.

There was no doubting the enthusiasm of the touring public to get back into the monument. The line to get the tickets started just after midnight Monday. Adam Streeter, Haoyu Wang and Brendan Cassidy, all George Washington University students, spent the night on the pavement below the ticket window.

“This is such a Washington thing,” said Streeter, a senior determined to have a big dose of D.C. before he returns to California after this weekend’s graduation. “And at least there is some significance to it, not like waiting for hours for your next iPhone.”

The timing of the reopening was perfect for Jeff Carter, a food-services salesman from Phoenix, who is here with his family on a trip that their son wanted as his high school graduation present.

Carter climbed the stairway all the way up to the observation platform back in 1974, which is no longer allowed. The Park Service plans to offer a chance for visitors to climb down the stairs during some tours this summer.

“I’ve always wanted to go back up,” Carter said. “It would be cool to see the lay of the land from that high.”

Also on hand were officials from the National Cathedral, which also suffered huge damage in the 5.8 magnitude earthquake in August 2011. They were happy but envious to see the Washington Monument emerge from its scaffolding, as the cathedral is still as many as eight years from completing repairs.

“We have a sisterhood of earthquake-damaged buildings,” said James Shepherd, the cathedral’s director of facilities. But the differences in the two restoration projects are profound. One is complexity: a mortarless marble obelisk versus a neo-Gothic collection of hand-carved buttresses, pinnacles and gargoyles.

The other is money. Cathedral officials, who have to raise money for each repair as they go, are still waiting for their billionaire.

“If we had all the funding, we could do it in three or four years,” Shepherd said. “So if Mr. Rubenstein or any of his friends are interested . . .”

Michael Ruane contributed to this story.

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
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