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  For Monument, New Profile and a Lawsuit

Architect with model and real monument
Michael Graves, flanked by a model of the scaffolded monument and the real monument, describes the synthetic grid he designed.
(By Tim Sloan for The Washington Post)

By Gabriel Escobar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 3, 1998; Page A01

In the federal bureaucracy, the contract is known as 1443RP305998901. But yesterday at a news conference, some proud corporate sponsors and a respected architect in a blue linen suit all signaled that this isn't just any renovation project.

The crowd had assembled on the Mall because the renovation of the Washington Monument officially enters a visually transforming Phase II on Monday. After this weekend, when tens of thousands of people will gather around it for the traditional July 4 fireworks display, the monument will begin to take on a new profile. It will not be seen again in its pure marble form for the rest of the 20th century.

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Washington Monument
The Washington Monument is the tallest structure in the District of Columbia. (file photo)

Making a Monument

Over the next few months, the landmark obelisk – Our Big Ben, Our Eiffel Tower, Our Parthenon, as the ad by the renovation's main corporate sponsor, Target Stores, calls it – will be surrounded by a 12-foot wood fence and then slowly obscured by scaffolding. The aluminum grid will be partly covered by a gray-blue decorative netting – in horizontal and vertical stripes – and the entire structure will be illuminated at night from within by more than 800 lights.

The project will affect the very landscape of the city until May 2000, altering a monument that is literally and figuratively the centerpiece of Pierre L'Enfant's planned federal city. Although with few exceptions it will remain open to tourists while workers undertake the most extensive renovation in more than 60 years, the obelisk that has loomed over the city since 1884 will look vastly different – "surreal" is how architect Michael Graves, who designed the artistic grid, described the effect.

Made to withstand extreme weather, the decorative synthetic netting grid will give the monument something the imposing stone edifice has never had: mutability. Because of the way the grid will pick up light, the blue will be bluer when the sky is blue and the gray will be grayer on cloudy days. Snow and ice will add another dimension. "It should be magical," Graves said. "Can you imagine lighting, at night, with icicles?"

Phase I, which included renovating the elevator and replacing the heating and cooling systems, is complete. The exterior work in Phase II is the most expensive, between $5 million and $6 million, with the money provided by Target and its "vendor partners." The contract is minuscule by federal standards, but from the moment it was put out to bid, it drew enormous attention, surprising veteran bureaucrats. "It was absolutely incredible," said the National Park Service's Michael Fox, the contract administrator for this stage.

For the last six months, some of the nation's premier companies raced to assemble teams. Architects were signed on as consultants, and companies that have worked on other celebrated projects – the renovation of the Statue of Liberty, for example – became hot properties. The monument was photographed with high-powered cameras as bidders sought to glean the condition of the stone without actually touching it.

In the trade, the renovation is a signature project, perhaps small in dollars but enormous for reputations. Companies will be judged for years on how they perform, a critical factor because the market for historical renovations in Washington has been booming. The result is a highly competitive market as companies try to whet the government's suddenly enormous appetite for renovating buildings and monuments.

In the last few years, companies also have bid on renovations for the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, the construction of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial and such major restorations as the John A. Wilson Building, once home to the District government. Congress has appropriated funds for the renovation of the Capitol dome.

In the case of the Washington Monument, the competition already has bred a lawsuit. The contract drew 16 bidders and was awarded to a joint venture of William V. Walsh Construction Co. Inc. and Grunley Construction Inc. The Rockville-based companies are working together for the first time on a new joint venture) since an amicable split in 1988. Together, they have performed more than $1 billion worth of work for the federal government since 1955, most of it renovations. Walsh, for example, was the contractor on the $37 million FDR Memorial.

In the closed world of companies that bid on such projects, the Washington Monument renovation has loomed as large as the obelisk itself. The company that finished second, Baltimore-based Worcester Brothers Co. Inc. Fred H. Eisenbrandt & Associates, says in court papers that putting together its proposal took 590 hours and cost $24,368. Two others who bid say they spent about as much.

Worcester's civil suit, filed June 25 in U.S. District Court here, alleges that the National Park Service overrated Grunley-Walsh and underrated them. It also alleges irregularities in the way the bids were judged. The company's president, Joseph P. Noonan, said in an interview that the project, as conceived, is unsafe and that his proposal was far superior. "I have the best team, absolutely," Noonan said. "That's why we're screaming like hell. We was robbed!"

At yesterday's press conference, the suit and the brewing controversy were not publicly addressed – they are not general knowledge. Target, which already had given $1 million and orchestrated other corporate contributions, announced it was donating an additional $1.5 million for the renovation of the observation deck.

Denis Galvin, the deputy director of the National Park Service, said in an interview that the project is safe and that the suit will not affect the schedule. He noted that Worcester filed a protest on the contract award, which normally would halt the process for 100 days, but that the government overruled it, citing the project's importance. "We're confident our process is open, above board legally, and we intend to start next week," Galvin said.

The presidents of the two companies that won the bid, James V. Walsh and Kenneth Grunley, said their reputations can be measured by their long involvement in federal projects. "It's not unexpected on contracting," Walsh said of the suit. "We feel pretty confident that the quality of our work far exceeds anybody's in this case."

Of the 16 bidders, the Park Service selected three finalists: Grunley Walsh, Worcester and Professional Restoration Inc., another local company. The runners-up both alleged in interviews that the Park Service, after emphasizing the quality of the work rather than the price, has chosen the lowest bidder. The joint-venture bid came in at $4.9 million, while Worcester's was $5.2 million and Professional Restoration's was $5.5 million.

Officials at Worcester, Professional Restoration and another company that put in a bid, Waters Craftsmen Inc., of Front Royal, Va., also criticized the emphasis on aesthetics and lack of attention to the condition of the marble. "They are so focused on the decorative and on cleaning it that they are completely ignoring the structural integrity," said Paul Monesi, Professional Restoration's vice president. "They want nice pictures."

Graves, who was unaware of the lawsuit, said such complaints ignore an essential element of the project. His grid, placed on such a prominent place, will illuminate for everyone the important work of high-quality restorations. "This isn't about pragmatism," he said. "This is also about the system of restoration."

The project is unusual in another respect. Unlike most renovations, contractors were bidding on work whose scope is not known because the condition of the stone won't be revealed until examined up close. The result is that the park service is using a "unit-price contract," which means that Grunley-Walsh will be paid by units of measurement, or how much actual stone is repaired or replaced.

Dale Waters, of Waters Craftsmen, said his estimate of more than $6 million was based on the assumption that he would have to replace 20 percent of the surface. Waters, whose company renovated the chapel at West Point and is renovating the chapel at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and others argue that Grunley-Walsh underestimated the amount of work, not taking into account the large visible cracks on each side that begin above the 155-foot level.

Target's fund-raising has been so successful that Phase II, as budgeted, is already paid for. The company will continue seeking money – a six-page spread appears in the July 6 issue of Time – and Galvin said funds raised from this point on may be used to cover added costs. "But," he said, "we don't expect the project to go over."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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