The Building of the Washington Monument

Washington Monument, Photo by David Bjorgen

Washington Monument, Photo by David Bjorgen

On December 6, 1884, the Washington Monument was finally completed. The word “finally” is appropriate since construction on the monument ended 85 years after George Washington’s death.

While Washington was still alive many people wanted to dedicate statues to him, but he declined. He thought the country should spend its money on other things. Shortly after Washington’s death, John Marshall proposed a memorial to the first president. The memorial was to be built in the style of the ancient Egyptian tombs with a pyramid serving as Washington’s burial place. However, Congress could not agree on the design.

Thirty-seven years later John Marshall, who was now Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, continued to fight for a memorial. In 1832 the Washington National Monument Society was formed. The society decided to hold a competition for the best design while collecting donations from citizens across the country.

Designs came in from around the world. The society required only that each design be “durable, simple, and grand.” Finally they chose a design by Robert Mills, a church architect from Charleston. Mills’ design included a temple with an Egyptian obelisk on top. Inside a colossal statue of Washington and a museum about Washington’s life were to be placed. Because the design was so expensive ($1 million in the 19th century), the society decided to start with the obelisk first.

The monument’s cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1848 with the same trowel that Washington used for the cornerstone of the capital. In a crowd of over 20,000 people that day were three future presidents, including a young congressman named Abraham Lincoln.

To raise money for the monument states were encouraged to donate commemorative stones to its interior. Even foreign countries donated stones to show their respect for the Revolutionary war hero and president. A controversy arose, however, when the Pope tried to donate a stone. Anti-Catholic groups stalled the construction.

During the Civil War the monument was again abandoned. Cattle grazed around it and soldiers practiced maneuvers in its shadow.

Congress decided to resume construction during the centennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1876. All the arguments about the design resurfaced. Congress was still short on money. This time, however, the US Army Corps of Engineers under Lieut. Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey was put in charge of the construction.

The country’s anniversary made both Congress and Casey eager to finish the monument. The design was scaled back. It was decided that the temple would not be constructed–only the obelisk. Despite these cost-cutting measures Casey still had several issues to deal with. For example, the scaffolding was rotted and there were flaws in the foundation of the monument. Casey’s crew reinforced the foundation with concrete. He also carried out the original plan to include the 193 memorial stones donated by states and countries into the interior walls.

The outside stones for the monument presented other problem for Lieut. Casey. The quarry used for the initial construction was no longer available. The builders ended up using two additional quarries with varying colors of stone. Today visitors can see three slightly different colored stones from the three different quarries on the outside of the monument.

On December 6, 1884 Lt. Col. Casey supervised as the capstone was brought out through a window and set on top of the monument. The aluminum tip made by Tiffany‘s was put into place by the lieutenant himself. At 555 feet and 5 inches the monument was the tallest structure in the world. However, the Eiffel Tower surpassed it the following year. Nevertheless, it is still the tallest structure in Washington DC and serves as a landmark for everyone who visits the National Mall.

The Washington Monument’s exterior and interior have endured quite a bit over the years. For example, in 2011 an earthquake struck 90 miles southwest of Washington DC. Though the monument was significantly damaged it was repaired successfully. The durability of the monument was anticipated at its dedication. During the ceremony, a speech by Robert Winthrop who had attended the opening ceremony in 1848 was read by Rep. John Long of Massachusetts. He said, “the storms of winter must blow and beat upon it…the lightnings of heaven may scar and blacken it. An earthquake may shake its foundations…but the character which it commemorates and illustrates is secure.”

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