by Katie Calvert
The Washington Monument is one of the capital’s best-known landmarks. Standing about 555 feet tall, the monument is visible for miles.
The granite and marble obelisk erected to honor America’s first president, along with the Capitol Building atop its hill, helps define the city’s skyline.
George Washington was considered without par by his fellow Founding Fathers.
Washington was the general who led a ragtag army to victory against the world’s strongest nation, the quiet leader of the Constitutional Convention, and the man who could have been king, but instead served two terms as president and then voluntarily stepped down from office.
It is not surprising that calls for a monument to the young nation’s greatest hero came within days of his death in 1799.
Washington, who during the Revolutionary War continually had to appeal for food and clothes for his hungry and often-barefooted army, would probably have understood the reason that the project was delayed for almost 50 years—
lack of funds.
Architect Robert Mills had already designed Baltimore’s monument to Washington when he won the 1836 competition to design the capital’s monument to the great man.
Mills’s plan for an obelisk surrounded by a circular colonnade complete with a statue of Washington at the reins of a horse-drawn chariot came with an estimated million dollar price tag, which was far more than fundraising efforts had secured.
Planners decided to begin construction thinking that contributions would flow in. Quite fittingly, the cornerstone for the monument was laid on the Fourth of July in 1848. Construction continued until 1854, when the money ran out.
The monument stood unfinished through various brawls as different political parties and factions fought over funding and design. The American Civil War proved the biggest impasse, as money, materials, and men were needed for the battlefields. Only after a Congressional appropriation and a decision to abandon the more elaborate parts of the design did work begin again in 1879.
If you look closely, you can see a slight color differentiation between the stones used for the initial construction and the stones used to finish the job. The stones in the bottom third of the monument are a lighter shade than those above. The monument opened to the public in 1888.
The best view in Washington is said to be from the monument’s observation deck. Closed for repairs for almost 3 years after a 5.8 magnitude earthquake on August 23, 2011 it reopened for visitors the afternoon of May 12, 2014 after a morning reopening celebration.
While the scaffolding was up the height of the monument was remeasured using modern international standards for the base point—lowest open-air pedestrain entrance vs brass plates now below a recently installed plaza. Now 554 feet 7 11/32 inches instead of the 555 feet 5 1/8 inches, though the original measurement will continue to be used on tours and NPS brochures.
The approximately $15 million expense was split between the federal government and philanthropist David Rubenstein. There are new exhibits around the base.
The Washington Monument is open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Entrance and tickets to ride the elevator to the observation floor are free, and are given out daily (beginning at 8:30 a.m.) on a first come, first serve basis at the ticket kiosk near the base of the monument. Since tickets go quickly, many people use the National Park Service reservation website to reserve tickets in advance; there is a small fee per ticket.
Rangers may provide occasional guided tours down the stairs from the top if staffing permits. You will view commemorative stones provided by states, countries and civic organizations as the ranger explains the history of the monument on the one hour tour.
Slideshow—all photos on this page
Website and all photos copyright © 2001–2016 Lee W. Nelson