Reviving a Monument, Rekindling Myths
By Gabriel Escobar
Up near the top, where the damage to the Washington Monument is most evident, water sometimes cascades down the walls and pools in corners. The very wet winter has now produced its own severe weather system inside the monument and converted the interior of this national icon a historic landmark and the architectural centerpiece of the nation's capital into a dark and dank shaft.
Usually welcoming 2,300 tourists a day, the monument now is visited by fewer than 20 people, mainly construction workers and preservationists. Scaffolding disfigures the interior. The light inside is so dim, the sound of water dripping so pervasive, and the air often so moist that the place seems more like a catacomb than a majestic obelisk. "It leaks like a sieve," Tom Fitzpatrick, the project supervisor for the National Park Service, said during a recent tour of the nation's most prominent testimonial to the first president.
Given the colorful and often unbelievable history of the monument, it is no surprise that there is a certain charm to its disrepair and to the work-in-progress, which started in earnest when the site closed to the public Jan 21. For the last few weeks, workers have ripped out antiquated pipes and the notoriously inefficient heating and cooling system while conservators have begun gently prodding dirt from the commemorative plaques along the 898-step stairwell.
Those toiling inside are already experiencing firsthand some of the eerie qualities of the place. Known to be oddly human at times over the years it has literally moved and its elongated shape means it "breathes" audibly the obelisk has now taken to serenading those tending to it. The wind whistling through the imperfect seals at the top produces a spooky wail, the sound amplified nowadays because the ground floor entrance door is always closed and the shaft is frequently as silent as a grave.
The wail seems spookier still given the symbolism of obelisks in the nether regions. Even as it undergoes this face lift, one interpretation now on the Internet reminds readers that this particular obelisk was "designed so that both the White House and the Capitol face toward it so that the leaders of both branches have to face the spirit of Lucifer thought to be residing there." The monument is steeped in Masonic ritual George Washington was a Mason, as were many of the Founding Fathers and for conspiracy aficionados the obelisk remains a central argument, and proof positive, that the country is run by a mysterious "world order."
Conspiracies and superstitions aside, the lofty goal is to repair and modernize the more than 100-year-old landmark and prepare it to withstand the considerable assault of time and the elements. "It is an opportunity for the Washington Monument to go into the new millennium," is how the National Park Service's Vikki Keys, the deputy superintendent in charge, described the refurbishing.
The project is monumental in scope, fitting for a landmark that recovered from a less than lofty start and now looms so large in the landscape of the planned federal city. Congress officially set out to build a monument to Washington in 1783, but bickering and a lack of interest (including from the subject to be honored) delayed producing a cornerstone until July 4, 1848. Construction was halted at 152 feet in 1854; and for 22 years the truncated monument was hostage to political whims, the Civil War and the anti-Catholic American Party, or the Know-Nothings. Its members at one point took over the society managing the construction, producing a stalemate with Congress, and in the most notorious incident, stole and destroyed a commemorative plaque donated by Pope Pius IX.
Congress eventually restored order and appropriated the necessary funds to finish the job. Changes were made to stabilize the shifting base and correct other structural deficiencies, and the monument officially opened to the public Oct. 9, 1888. (A year later The Washington Star described it as "a place where women faint and strong men tremble.") At the time, it was the tallest man-made structure in the world, and today it remains the tallest piece of free-standing masonry work in existence. Set on 41 acres of open space, rising 555 feet, 5' inches and weighing 81,120 tons, the monument is, as the Federal Writer's Project noted in 1937, "the material symbol of Washington the city and Washington the man."
This very prominence makes any repair difficult. Aside from altering the panorama of the city itself exterior scaffolding will go up in the spring and obscure the monument for two years the restoration of such a historic landmark poses considerable challenges. Contractors now bidding for the scaffolding must meet exacting demands. The grid, which will be covered with architectural fabric for aesthetic reasons, will have to be strong enough to withstand gale winds and still not damage the face of the monument.
The project is divided into three phases. Phase one, for which Congress provided $1.9 million, involves removing and replacing the electrical, heating and air-conditioning systems and refurbishing the elevator. Once this part is completed, sometime in the spring, visitors again will be able to ascend to the top. Phase two, which will include all the exterior work and require the scaffolding, will cost $6 million. Congress and Target Stores have provided $1 million each for that cost, and the balance is being donated by other corporate sponsors, including Kodak, 3M Corp., Proctor & Gamble Co., Visa USA Inc., Coca-Cola Co. and Discovery Communications Inc.
Phase three, still in the planning stages, will focus on the observation levels and is projected to cost $1.5 million. The plan is to solicit private donations for that piece of the work. The Park Service also is considering setting up exhibits on the renovation, possibly on the grounds of the monument, so visitors will be exposed to the scope of the job.
No one knows what surprises await the experts who will examine the 93,600 square feet of surface up close, once the scaffolding gives them access. One of the many oddities of the monument is that the best materials are at the top and the worst at the bottom, the opposite of what you would expect.
In the oldest section, blocks of marble are backed by rubble masonry up to the 152-foot level. When construction was resumed, government engineers substituted the rubble masonry backing for a solid wall of New England granite. Beyond the 452-foot level, where the walls are thinner, the monument is made of solid marble. (Most of the marble is from Baltimore County, save for 26 feet beginning at the 152-foot level.)
The last time the monument was given such professional scrutiny, in 1934-35, engineers were astonished at the scars. One stone block near the top of the monument, was so damaged by lightning that it had to be replaced with a 1,200-pound slab of marble. At the very least, a lot of mortar will have to be replaced. In the 1930s, 48,046 linear feet were refilled and mortar was again repaired in 1964.
Concerns, however, are not confined to aesthetics and engineering, as the detailed project manuals for the renovation reveal. The site's proximity to the White House, for example, requires that all workers have security clearances. A U.S. Park Police officer must be present when the monument's high north window, which faces the White House, is removed and replaced with bulletproof glass. Companies now bidding for the scaffolding contract must provide "procedures and methods" for securing the temporary structure during nonwork hours. There is historic precedent for this precaution as well: The last time scaffolding went up, thieves scaled to the top one night and removed 107 gold-plated, platinum-tipped lightning rod points.
Preservationists charged with restoring 193 commemorative plaques that adorn the stairwell are now testing cleaning solutions. One of the little-noted features of the monument, these stone plaques range from the simple tributes of small towns to the hagiography of President Washington's 19th century devotees. Many were placed early in the construction California boasts being the "youngest sister of the Union." Many others came from overseas, including one now known as the Carthage stone that was inexplicably misplaced in the 19th century only to be found behind the monument's stairwell in the 1950s. The Park Service is still deciding what to do with the stone.
Judy Jacob, an architect conservator for the Park Service, said many of the commemorative stones have been vandalized heads and arms and noses on figures knocked off. Graffiti mars many in the upper portion of the monument. Tourists were once allowed to descend on foot through the interior, but since the 1970s access has been restricted to those who made special arrangements, a policy that in effect meant most visitors never saw this integral part of the monument.
Jacob, who has worked on the restoration of Grant's Tomb and Ellis Island, said every commemorative stone is different, which poses its own challenge. Those made of sandstone have not weathered well, and limestone tends to flake over time. "In general, they are not in too bad shape," she said, "but they all need a lot of work." On a recent visit, conservators were blowing a fine steam mist at the stones, trying to remove what one called "shower gunk." A mild detergent is being used, at least for now, and a poultice made from natural ingredients cleans the grooves of the letters.
As with the monument itself, cleaning can only go so far. The first washing in the 1930s was done with water mixed with sand and "energetically-applied with steel-bristled brushes," as one contemporary account described it. Such violence is discouraged today. Contractors cleaning the exterior will be limited to brushes with fiber bristles and rubber and plastic squeegees. The commemorative stones will receive even gentler care.
"We need to be able to remove the dirt without harming the stone in any way," said Jacob. "If the dirt is so embedded that it will require harming the stone to remove it, we will not remove it."