Washington Monuments That
Never Quite Made It
Special to The Washington Post
January 13, 1999; Page H03
If the Washington Monument had been constructed as originally designed in the early 1840s, the National Mall would be anchored today by a pantheon with 30 columns, wider at the base than the facade of the U.S. Capitol and containing statues of each of the Founding Fathers.
Topping it would be a god-like George Washington riding a horse-drawn chariot. An Egyptian obelisk -- almost flat at the peak and adorned with a single star but looking much like today's monument -- would rise 500 feet above the Greek temple.
This design by Robert Mills, one of the most renowned American architects of the time, was meant to be the world's largest and most splendid monument [Figure 1].
But during the monument's turbulent 100-year history -- marked by construction delays, congressional inaction, empty coffers, Civil War and a political dispute in the mid-19th century -- the familiar structure that finally emerged was significantly different than the one Mills imagined.
The momentum to honor George Washington first surfaced before he died in 1799. The Continental Congress of 1783 resolved to erect a monument to this hero of the American Revolution in the soon-to-be-built federal capital bearing his name. But when a frustrated President Washington was struggling to finance and oversee construction of the new capital city on the Potomac River, he pulled the plug on his own memorial.
After Washington died, Congress considered placing his remains in a marble pyramid inside the Capitol rotunda. Washington's widow, Martha, gave guarded consent, but funding never materialized and the project languished.
In 1832, the centennial anniversary of Washington's birth revived congressional interest in a memorial. But Washington's heirs refused to approve removal of his remains from the couple's estate at Mount Vernon.
Abandoning the pyramid idea, Congress instead commissioned a statue of Washington by noted sculpter Horatio Greenough for display in the Capitol. When the toga-clad and bare-chested sculpture was unveiled, however, it was met with almost universal scorn.
Little support was apparent for seeing the great leader memorialized half-naked, and the statue was quickly removed. Today, it can be seen in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.
Frustrated with the government's failure to erect an appropriate monument honoring the first president, a small but influential group of Washingtonians formed the Washington National Monument Society in 1833. With Chief Justice John Marshall as honorary president, the society advertised for American artists to participate in a design competition.
During a 10-year period, a smorgasbord of designs was submitted as donations slowly accumulated and the society awaited congressional designation of a site. Peter Force, mayor of the District of Columbia and a founding member of the society, offered a plan that enlarged on the Egyptian pyramid theme favored by Congress about 35 years earlier.
Thomas McClelland of Philadelphia, whose training as an architect is unknown, presented a design for a Gothic monument [Figure 3], a style becoming popular in Europe then but rarely seen in American public buildings.
Prefiguring James Renwick's Smithsonian Castle design, Calvin Pollard, a New York architect, proposed a Gothic structure even larger than the one that McClelland envisioned. Rep. Zadoc Pratt of New York, assisted by architect William Strickland, submitted a neoclassical design that he wanted placed in a "Monument Square," on the Mall on Eighth Street, directly west of the Capitol. His proposal would have been partially financed by the sale of public lots.
But Robert Mills's proposal for Greek temple with the Egyptian shaft won the competition. Mills, who had established a reputation as one of the very best American architects, had worked on other Mall projects and also designed the much-admired U.S. Treasury Building and the U.S. Patent Office, which now houses the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of American Art.
Mills also was architect of the column erected by the city of Baltimore in 1835, the first monument to George Washington in the nation.
Construction of the obelisk section of his design began in the District soon after President James K. Polk selected the current site in 1848. After six years, however, even with states, territories and other organizations sponsoring building blocks of stone, the work stalled at the 156-foot level when funding evaporated.
Then in 1854, "Know Nothing" political activists took over the uncompleted monument for two years. The activists were called Know Nothings because they responded to all questions about secret party meetings by saying, "We know nothing." Their platform was built on a belief that only native-born Americans should hold public office.
Angered by donation of a building stone from the Temple of Concord in Rome sent by Pope Pius IX, these anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant radicals destroyed the stone.
They also seized the Monument Society's records and held their own election of society officers. Despite its efforts, the "Know Nothing" party won little public support, and its attempt to continue building the monument was superficial. Later, its work on the stump was removed.
The Know Nothing party disintegrated within two years, but the obelisk stub it had commandered remained unfinished for two decades.
On a visit to Washington in 1867, Mark Twain described the uncompleted structure. "It has the aspect of a factory chimney with the top broken off," he wrote, "cow sheds around its base . . . [with] tired pigs dozing in the holy calm of its protecting shadow."
In 1876, motivated by the centennial of the country's birth, Congress allocated enough money to complete the Washington Monument, and President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill that put construction back on track. But engineers deemed the existing structure too wobbly, and national support had soured for Mills's winning design.
His temple pantheon was quickly eliminated, but architectural critics lobbied intensely for even more change. American Architect and Building News published the view in its July 1877 edition that "this monstrous obelisk, so cheap to design but so costly to execute, so poor in thought but so ostentatious in size" also should be abandoned.
The Monument Society, now under government supervision as well as financing, quietly accepted new design proposals and ordered a structural shoring of the completed obelisk base. The new proposals were influenced by trends in architecture during the second half of the 19th century.
Gen. Montgomery Meigs, who had led the Army Corps of Engineers's technical support for the Union Army during the Civil War and now was in charge of fortifying the monument, suggested adding an observation tower to the existing structure in the then-popular Italianate style. The top of his tower would feature a sitting statue of George Washington, giving it a Rapunzel-like quality.
M.P. Hapgood, an architectural student from Boston, returned to an intricate Gothic design that would have surrounded the existing portion of the obelisk, while H.R. Searle published and distibuted at his own expense an idea for a decorated obelisk atop a Mayan-like base [Figure 5].
The Monument Society almost settled on an idea from William Story, an expatriate American sculptor living in Rome, for a Renaissance tower with a statue of Washington in an alcove near the entrance. But finally, it returned to Mills's original obelisk design, minus the elaborate Greek pantheon, and construction moved forward.
No sooner had it begun, however, than builders determined that the 500-foot obelisk specified by Mills did not have the correct classical proportions relative to the stump constructed years earlier.
Because Italy was then the center for the study of historical architecture, the society turned for help to George Marsh, U.S. minister to Italy. He reported that, because the height of an obelisk must be exactly 10 times the width of its base, the final height should be adjusted to 555 feet, 5 1/8 inches. The final 50 feet of the obelisk were redesigned to finish in a pyramid.
On Dec. 6, 1884, in a fierce wind, the 3,300-pound capstone was set. The pointed tip fixed on top was made of aluminum, an element then considered so rare and valuable that it was displayed like a jewel in the window of Tiffany's on New York's Fifth Avenue. The monument's tip was the largest piece of cast aluminum constructed at that time and weighed 100 ounces. The long journey in time, money and taste had ended.
The structure quickly captured the imagination of the general public, though art critics generally remained hostile. Nevertheless, contemporary architectural historians now tout the monument's sleek geometric scale as an ancient paradigm become timelessly modern.
After its current restoration, the Washington Monument is scheduled to reopen in 2000 -- with no change in design.
Mary Kay Ricks is director of Tour D.C., which specializes in walking tours of Georgetown.
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