I almost said, “It’s an obelisk, dummy.” Then I realized that, though I knew what to call the shape, I had no idea why we put one in the middle of the Mall.
Later, I called historian John Steele Gordon to find out.
“As far as what they meant to ancient Egyptians, we don’t really know,” he said. “They were so expensive to make and transport, they were probably a statement of power.”
We also don’t know why Robert Mills put a supersized obelisk at the center of his design. But the fact that the Washington Monument reaches heavenward might reflect the sense of limitless expansion many Americans felt in the mid-19th century.
Mills’ original concept, Gordon said, was a mess: It called for a circular pantheon around the obelisk’s base, plus a giant statue of George Washington on a horse-drawn chariot. To cut costs, Congress pared the design down to just the obelisk.
“We ended up with this stunning creation,” Gordon says. “It’s quite powerful in its simplicity.”
Back in the ticket line, before I knew any of this, I felt the monument’s power. Standing right next to it for the first time, I looked up. The marble tower completely filled my field of vision and stretched like an endless road into the bright blue sky.
The ticket booth opened at 8:30 a.m., and by 8:45, I was the proud owner of three free tickets for a 1:30 p.m. tour. A family in line about 10 feet behind me wasn’t so lucky.
“Sold out? We got here at 7:30!” a man told a ranger. “Sorry,” the ranger said. “During peak season, I tell people to get here at 7.” (They should have bought advance tickets for $1.50.)
I returned that afternoon with my friend Jared, his sister, Jackie, and Jackie’s 1-year-old. As we approached the entrance, a ranger told Jackie to leave her stroller outside, at the crest of the hill.
“What if it rolls away?” I said.
“That happens sometimes, and we have to go chasing after them,” the ranger said.
It may be undignified, but I’d take stroller-chasing over the other jobs at the monument. Especially the one where you ride up and down the stinky elevator all day long.
The elevator ranger agreed with our odor assessment. “It can get really bad in the summer,” she said. She also told us about the monument’s construction. When it was finally completed in 1885, it was the tallest building in the world, she said.
“Why is it shaped that way?” a freckle-faced kid asked her. We’d reached the end of our 70-second climb, so the ranger didn’t have a chance to answer.
If you’re looking for historic interpretation, the Washington Monument may leave you disappointed. Unlike, say, the FDR Memorial, where you can learn all about the Great Depression, its message seems to be: “Check out this view!”
The view is pretty great. From 500 feet, the Mall unfurls as a tree-fringed carpet, embroidered with gracefully curving pathways. “It’s a good way to get oriented when you first get here,” a visitor from Michigan told me. Jared, a lifelong Washingtonian, also found the perspective edifying.
“What’s that lake doing there?” he said, pointing at Constitution Gardens. “Is it new?” (It’s been there since 1976.)
I overheard a kid explaining to his little brother that the president lives in the Department of Commerce.
“No, the White House is over there,” his dad said, pointing to the left.
“Then why’s it so small?” the child retorted.
We headed down some stairs for a slightly lower version of the same view. Then, it was back onto the elevator.
As we descended, we got one final treat: The ranger pressed a button that turned the elevator walls translucent so we could glimpse the monument’s interior. “Whoa, that’s awesome,” a kid said. I think he was referring to the magic elevator walls, not the carved commemorative stones.
So is the Washington Monument worth hitting? I think so. With few placards to read or artifacts on display, you can do it all in about 20 minutes. And, if you’re like Jared, you might even discover parts of D.C. you never knew existed.
The Staycationer explores D.C. from the left side of the escalator. Next up: Ford’s Theatre.