The Washington Post

The Washington Monument: Like America, a work in progress

On a sticky August afternoon in Washington more than two years ago, tourists on the Washington Monument’s observation deck, 500 feet above the city, fled in terror as the ground below rumbled, causing the the 130 year-old obelisk to tremble precariously, shaking debris from the ceiling and loosening the granite stones. On Monday, it reopens after extensive repairs, with the first tours starting at 1 p.m., following a reopening ceremony at 10 a.m.

For a structure that’s supposed to represent America’s majesty and pay tribute to its first president, it was just the latest in a long history of monumental mishaps. Like the legacy of this country, the monument’s story is ongoing — and more than a little spotty. Its history enshrines American weaknesses as much as its strengths.

1848: Construction on the monument began. It was funded by the Washington National Monument Society, a private organization, and designed by Robert Mills, America’s first native-born architect. The society went bankrupt trying to raise the money.

1854: At 156 feet above ground, the monument wasn’t even half-finished when construction ground to a halt due to a lack of funding. Meanwhile, a young America was beginning to crumble under pressures that ultimately led to the Civil War. “For more than two decades, the monument stood only partly finished, doing more to embarrass the nation than to honor its most important Founding Father,” according to the National Park Service.

1876: As the nation rebuilt after the Civil War, Congress took on the duty of funding the monument’s completion. First problem: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined the foundation was inadequate for the design. Meanwhile, the monument began to clash — with itself. The stone quarry used to build the first part wasn’t available when construction resumed, so builders used slightly darker stones from two other quarries. This is why the monument is different colors on the top and bottom.

1884: Construction was complete. Standing about 555 feet, the monument surpassed the Cologne Cathedral to become the world’s tallest building, a symbol of a prosperous and unified nation. This fell short of the original design — a 600-ft. structure ringed by columns. It was closed for most of 1887 because of rampant vandalism.

1934: The first restoration of the monument began — as a Depression-era public works project in the  middle of the greatest economic crisis of the 20th century.

1964: Another partial restoration began — in the tumultuous 1960s, right after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, amid escalation in Vietnam, and not long before the killings of King and Robert Kennedy.

1982: At the height of the Cold War, anti-nuclear activist Norman Mayer held nine people hostage at the monument for 10 hours, saying he would blow it up. He was killed by police, and no explosives were found.

1998: President Bill Clinton was impeached on charges that he lied about his affair with White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. With the image of the 42nd president tarnished by scandal, Congress opted to rehabilitate the image of its first, pledging $9.4 million for a full-scale restoration of the monument.

2011: The earthquake struck as Congress fought about the debt limit and health-care reform. A few days later, Hurricane Irene swept through the city, worsening the cracks, and the monument shut down for a second full-scale restoration.

Some even think a permanently broken monument best reflects the state of our union.

“Under scaffolding, the monument is — quite inadvertently — newly relevant,” wrote Kriston Capps, a senior editor at Architect magazine, in a 2013 Outlook piece for The Washington Post. “Because Americans broadly agree that governance in this nation is broken, there is a casual elegance to the symbolism of a monument to national unity under construction. We are a work in progress, the cracked memorial reminds. Our union is not perfected.”


Gail Sullivan covers business for the Morning Mix blog.



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