The Washington Monument has shrunk.
After 130 years of wind, rain and snow, countless lightning strikes and an earthquake, the rugged obelisk on the Mall has finally given in to the elements.
But not by much.
The latest whiz-bang, high-tech measurements have found that despite being shaken, rattled and seared, the monument erected in honor of the country’s first president has shrunk by three-eighths of an inch.
About the width of a pencil.
Which is not bad, considering.
The National Geodetic Survey and the National Park Service said last week that according to one of a new set of measurements, the height of the monument appears to be only slightly less than 555 feet 5
Officials said the three-eighths of an inch has been scoured off the now rounded and pitted aluminum tip, and the Park Service said it plans to stick with the 1885 height listed in its documents.
“We’re not changing any brochures,” Mike Commisso, a Park Service cultural resource specialist, said in a briefing last week.
Jennifer Anzelmo-Sarles, a Park Service spokeswoman, said, “For our purposes, we’ll still use the historic height.”
The Geodetic Survey and the Park Service unveiled their findings Monday.
Measuring the monument — once one of the tallest structures in the world — has been a tangled subject over the years, and different heights have been recorded under different circumstances.
The day after the Monument was completed on Dec. 6, 1884, a Washington Post account reported that the marble and granite structure was 555 feet 4 inches tall.
In 1885, the director of construction, Army Lt. Col. Thomas L. Casey, reported that it was 555 feet 5
In 1896, the old Coast and Geodetic Survey reported that it was “said to be” 555 feet 4
In 1999, using GPS instruments, the monument was measured at 555 feet 3
Then last year and the year before, following the 2011 earthquake, a new set of measurements was made, including one from a higher ground point in order to align with new international measurement standards.
That height — 554 feet 7
Dru Smith, chief geodesist at the survey, said the federal agency wanted a height taken according to the measuring standards of the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.
“We have no design whatsoever to get in the middle of people’s dispute over what they think the height of this monument is,” he said. “The intent is not to broadcast a new height that is going to be in conflict with what the Park Service is saying.”
The survey asked the buildings council where, at the bottom of the monument, it should start the measurement. Prior measurements had started from a level marked by Casey that is now 85/8 inches below the current floor level.
Smith said the council’s instructions were to measure from “the lowest, significant, open-air, pedestrian entrance.”
So with the council’s help, he picked a spot on the monument floor at the threshold of the main entrance.
He marked it with yellow crayon, and the new measurement started from there.
Because the current floor is higher than the old level, the new “architectural height” seems to make the monument much shorter. But it’s really not.
“It makes a big difference, when you talk about the height of the building, where you start from,” Smith said.
“So we want to make sure it’s crystal clear,” he said. “The building didn’t change height [much]. . . . It is just where you start [measuring] from.
“The only observable structural height change we actually saw was that the tip, itself, has been rounded,” he said. “This thing was truly, perfectly pointed in 1884.”
The tip was a nine-inch pyramid made out of the then-exotic cast aluminum, the Park Service said.
It was engraved on all four sides, mostly with the names of dignitaries. Much of the engraving has been worn off, largely by a lightning rod collar that had been in place since 1885, the survey said.
The construction of the monument began in 1848, and stopped in 1858 because of a funding shortfall. The project was dormant for 18 years, until it was resurrected by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1876 and finished in 1884.
Ceremonies marking its completion were held despite winds that gusted to about 50 mph, according to The Post’s account. VIPs slathered on the last layer of cement before the 3,300-pound marble capstone was lowered into place.
Then the polished aluminum pyramid was set on top.
It was then the largest piece of aluminum ever cast, The Post reported, adding: “As long as the obelisk remains, the point will be as bright as when placed in position.”
Cannons fired from the White House lawn, and a big American flag was unfurled in the stiff wind from the top of the monument.
When the experts went back in 2013, they examined the aluminum cap and measured roughly from Casey’s level, Smith said. “We took very careful measurements . . . to make sure we could see exactly how much height had been lost.”
The three-eighths of an inch had been “melted” off from lightning strikes, he said.
“It also may have just worn off,” said Catherine Dewey, an acting chief of resource management for the Park Service.
“Aluminum is a very, very soft metal,” she said. “And that particular location obviously has a lot of weathering from wind, rain, everything else.”
And that accounts for the only real height change in the monument since 1884, Smith said.