December 6, 2011 - Washington Monument Completed

– 1884

Have you ever wondered how monuments are designed? Why they are so varied? Why does the first U.S. president, George Washington, get a monument that is so stark and simple—an obelisk—whereas America's third president, Thomas Jefferson, gets a building, flights of steps, a statue, and quotes from Jefferson's most famous writings inscribed on the walls?

It all depends on who builds the monument, and when. Many monuments are designed after a sort of competition allows many different suggestions to arise—and then a committee decides which design to fund.

In the case of the Washington Monument, in 1783, long before George Washington died, Congress determined that an equestrian statue (a figure of Washington on a horse) should be erected in honor of the new nation's heroic general. However, to say that something should be built does not, in fact, build it, and for years, no monument or statue was funded or created. In 1799, Washington died, and there was a lot of general talk about honoring this national hero—by then not just the most important military figure in the victorious War of Independence, but also the nation's first president. (By the way, some people claim that a lot of other guys, including John Hanson, were U.S. presidents before George Washington, when the nation was struggling along with the Articles of Confederation. However, John Hanson and others were not chief executives of the nation—they were really only presidents of the Continental Congress.) Still, there was a lot of talk but no actual fund-raising, so no actual construction.

John Marshall, James Madison, and others created the Washington National Monument Society in 1833, and they held a competition to design an appropriate monument to Washington. The winner of the contest was Robert Mills. He planned the obelisk – but one that had a nearly flat top – and also a colonnade, that is, a circle of columns with a roof over all. On top of the roof, Mills planned a statue of Washington in a chariot. Inside the colonnade, Mills planned to put statues of thirty Revolutionary War heroes. This was not a simple design!

On July 4, 1848, the society held a ceremony in which the cornerstone of the obelisk was laid. A “recess” was built into the cornerstone, and into that hole were placed many things, including a copy of the Constitution of the United States, a copy of the Declaration of Independence, a design of the Washington Monument, a portrait of Washington, a map of the city of Washington, D.C., a census of the United States, statistics about the city of Washington, D.C., all the coins of the U.S., by-laws of the Powhatan Tribe, flags, a variety of books and magazines and other writings, military laws and records, a Bible, copies of letters from U.S. presidents to other important individuals, journals of the Senate and House of Representatives, and records of natural phenomena such as winds, currents, and astronomical observations. Oh, and much, much more!

Still, it was hard to fund the building of the monument. The obelisk rose up to a height of 156 feet—but then for twenty years, there was no progress. The Civil War broke out, distracting people. Eventually, the Union won the war, the nation began to get back to normal, and in 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant ordered the federal government to finish the construction of the monument. At this point, the guy in charge did a very smart thing: he scaled back the plans to just the obelisk, this time with a pyramid-top instead of a flat top. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took over the construction, and voila! The 555-foot-tall monument was finished in 1884.

And on this day in 1884, workers placed the 3,300-pound marble capstone at the top of the obelisk and then topped that with a nine-inch pyramid of cast aluminum.

Even though nobody can see the sides of the pyramid top of the monument, they are inscribed with words detailing the commission members at the time of the setting of the capstone, important dates in the building of the monument, names of the chief engineers and architects, and the Latin words “Laus Deo” (Praise God).

The Washington Monument is the tallest structure in Washington, D.C., and will remain so (there's a law!). When it was built, it was the tallest masonry structure in the world, and it still is the tallest freestanding masonry structure in the world. About 36,000 stacked blocks of granite and marble make up the obelisk, and inside the structure almost 896 steps surround an elevator so that visitors can either climb or ride up to the observation level.

By the way, that equestrian statue of Washington was also built, completed in 1858. It stands near the U.S. Capitol.

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