A fool's monumental errand, in more ways than one

By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 1, 2010; B02

It is one of Washington's smallest special-interest groups, but it has set itself a very big challenge indeed. To make the Mall more closely conform to Pierre L'Enfant's original vision, a group called the Friends of the Obelisk's Original Location wants to move the Washington Monument.

Wouldn't the task be, well, monumentally impossible?

"People said we'd never land on the Moon, and we did that," said Peter Child, the group's president.

To understand why the group even exists, it's helpful to know that when L'Enfant designed Washington he placed an equestrian statue honoring the founding father at the precise intersection of a line drawn south from the White House with a line drawn west from the U.S. Capitol. It was a location in keeping with the Frenchman's affection for angles, for symbolism, for pleasing vistas.

Many designs were considered for the memorial. In the end, a towering obelisk by Robert Mills was selected. But when construction began in 1848, L'Enfant's original site was deemed too swampy for the heavy structure. The Washington Monument was built on firmer ground 300 feet east of its intended location. The massive shaft lines up with the Capitol, but not with the White House.

"It offends me, and it should offend every American," said Peter as we trudged toward the Washington Monument one recent drizzly morning.

Peter is 56, a native Washingtonian and a lawyer whose recent layoff in this tough economy has given him more time to devote to an organization founded in the 1850s by his great-great-grandfather, Ezekiel Child.

The Mall looked very different in Ezekiel's time. It was covered with trees and crisscrossed by railroad tracks. It was scarred by a train station, a slaughterhouse, a tannery, a paper mill, a nickel-plating facility, a glass-eye workshop, a brewery, a gasworks, a tinsmith's, a greyhound track, a petting zoo, a glue factory, a velocipede academy, a TB sanitarium, a leper colony and not one, but two, opium dens. Brothels flourished within sight of the Capitol dome, including the notorious "Mollie's on the Mall."

The McMillan Plan of 1901 rerouted the tracks and cleaned up the blight. (The antique carousel in front of the Smithsonian Castle is the only trace left from Mollie's.) But it did nothing to address what Peter Child sees as the District's central problem: the misaligned Washington Monument.

"They had a chance to fix it then, and they didn't," he said, as he sank a shovel blade into the moist earth on the spot the monument should have been built upon.

Friends of the Obelisk's Original Location lay moribund for much of the 20th century, embroiled in infighting between factions that disagreed over whether it would be easier to move the Washington Monument to the left or to move the White House to the right. Then there was the daunting engineering challenge of trying to move 81,120 tons of marble and concrete.

Ezekiel's proposal involved improving L'Enfant's site with an assortment of cofferdams and mule-powered sump pumps, then disassembling the monument -- then only half-built -- and reassembling it. In the 1930s, engineers came up with a plan that allowed the monument to be kept in one piece. They recommended digging out its foundation, tipping it on its side west along the Mall, dragging it east and then raising it with a complex block-and-tackle arrangement looped around the columns of the Lincoln Memorial.

Peter says the technology finally exists to make moving the monument fairly trouble-free. "The central problem of the wet ground can be solved with silica gel," he said. Supporters of his group have been stockpiling tiny packets of the water-absorbing desiccant they find in electronics, leather goods and other items.

Once the ground is dry enough, a squadron of heavy-lift helicopters would raise the obelisk, shake it a few times to remove any excess dirt clinging to its 37-foot foundation, then bear it aloft a hundred yards before lowering it into its new hole.

"It's not all that different from replanting a sapling," Peter said -- albeit a sapling that is 555 feet, 5 1/8 inches tall.

Peter thinks now is the time to correct this old geometric mistake.

"Washington's feng shui has been messed up since 1848," he said as Park Police moved in to arrest him once again.

Sadly, Peter Child, a fool for April, will be unable to join me for my online chat, Friday at noon. Go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/discussions.

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