The Washington Monument's 37 miles of shiny scaffolding--once a heap of aluminum used to support workers, now considered high art--has become the focus of a bidding war that puts its worth at more than $1 million.
Under the leading proposal by the Minneapolis-based Target Stores, the scaffolding that inspired an emotional Internet movement to "Keep It Covered" would be rebuilt in a roomy park near the downtown Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
As dangling workers with hammers and wrenches begin the de-scaffolding this week, Target is negotiating to purchase the collection of aluminum tubing and nylon fabric that like a glittery evening gown has dressed the gray obelisk during $5 million in exterior repairs. So far, the discount chain will reveal only that it is trying to buy and resurrect it for a figure in the "low millions."
The draped scaffolding, a concept of Princeton architect Michael Graves, was built and is owned by Universal Builders Supply. The firm is talking with Target and several unnamed others about buying the 575-foot structure.
"A friend once said to me scaffolding is scaffolding is scaffolding," Graves said. "Occasionally, you hit something big in architecture, and this time we did."
The architect said he never expected this reaction but is happy that the scaffolding may be kept for posterity and purchased by Target, a company for which he has designed a line of housewares, including spatulas, watering cans and patio furniture.
"The Eiffel Tower was a temporary structure," Graves said. "My scaffolding is sort of like the Eiffel Tower now."
Officials at Target said they hope to make it a tourist attraction in their home city.
"We feel really strongly that the scaffolding is a piece of art," said Patty Morris, a spokeswoman for Target, which was the main corporate sponsor of the monument's renovations. "It's really a part of American history."
Most scaffolding is usually attached to structures during repairs. But the National Park Service, worried that the Washington Monument would be damaged, wouldn't allow that. Graves's flowing scaffolding was rented from UBS by the government for 11 months, at a total cost of $1 million.
"We are going to miss this baby," said Mark Tsirigos, vice president of UBS. "But another place may get it."
When the scaffolding was erected around the monument in July 1998, it changed the nature of the city's skyline, especially at night, when the structure's 800 lights cast a blue aura over the landscape. During refurbishing, the monument's crumbling masonry joints and cracked stones were repaired, larger elevators were installed and the entire obelisk was cleaned.
This week, a small group of workers is removing an acre's worth of gray-blue decorative netting that has draped the monument, and a few pieces of the cloth have been handed out to tourists. Next week, more workers will be hoisted in the air to start taking down the aluminum tubing, which has a combined weight and load capability of 1 million pounds.
The scaffolding will be stored in Brooklyn's Red Hook warehouse district until the company decides whom to sell it to, Tsirigos said.
Chad Allen, a Generation-X District resident, campaigned to have the scaffolding preserved. He hoped to convince the public through his Web site (www.keepitcovered.org) that the monument was better, brighter, more American with its original gray masonry block pattern swathed in the ephemeral covering. To him, it turned the once blah obelisk into a year 2000 statement.
For history buffs who preferred the original, classic structure, Allen posted on his site "the top 10 reasons to Keep the Monument Covered." They include such musings as:
No. 5: "The covered Monument is an apt metaphor for the need for greater discretion in personal conduct among politicians who inhabit the Beltway."
No. 3: "Let's face it, it just looks better."
And No. 1: "This is a Democracy. If people want it to stay covered, and we think they do, then it ought to stay covered."
Not many agreed, however. Tourists missed the Washington Monument they had seen in the travel books. Officials at the Park Service chuckled, then got annoyed at the suggestion. But now, with all the talk of a pricey purchase, Allen feels vindicated.
"At least it will be saved," he said. He's thinking of changing his Web site to bid farewell to the scaffolding. "I always thought it was just beautiful."
CAPTION: The Washington Monument is closed temporarily while the scaffolding is being taken down.