Located near the west end of the National Mall and built to honour George Washington, the first President of the United States of America, the 555-feet tall Washington Monument towers high up in the sky as the tallest structure in Washington, D.C. Shaped like an Egyptian obelisk and made of marble, granite, and bluestone gneiss, the tower is regarded as the most iconic structures of the capital city of the country.
To commemorate the contribution of the country’s military commander during the Revolutionary War, a monument to erect a statue of Washington on horseback was first proposed in 1783, when the Continental Congress voted to install the statue in the nation’s yet-to-be constructed new permanent capital city. However, when George Washington became the President, he totally scrapped the plan, as the federal funds were tight and he was strongly against the idea to spend public money for such a project.
The site of the proposed statue was eventually chosen by Pierre-Charles L’Enfant at the centre of the original District of Columbia and to the west of the US Capitol, when he designed the city in 1791. After the death of Washington in 1799, President Thomas Jefferson drove a stone marker into the proposed site in 1804, though it later sank into the marsh and ultimately the project was abandoned due to bureaucratic red tapism and other problems.
In 1833, the Washington National Monument Society, a group of Washingtonians, unhappy that a proper memorial to the first president of the country had not yet been erected in the capital city, started to raise private funds for the project and following a competition, accepted the design of Robert for the project. The winning design of Robert Mill includes a 600 feet (183 m) tall obelisk with a circular base complete with 30 Doric Columns and statues of Declaration of Independence signers and Revolutionary War heroes. The design also includes a statue of George Washington driving a horse-drawn chariot above the main entrance. But, the sheer weight of the proposed monument required moving the site from the specific location to a point 350 feet (110 m) to the northeast, thereby slightly disrupting the axial relationship to the other buildings, situated on the National Mall.
The beginning of the constructional process was inordinately delayed. Finally, the cornerstone of the monument, embedded with a box containing a portrait of George Washington, newspapers, US coins and a copy of the Constitution, was ceremonially laid on the 4th of July 1848, attended by thousands, apart from George Washington Parke Custis, Washington’s step-grandson, President James K. Polk and a little-known U.S. congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln.
Unfortunately, immense financial crunch and unwanted political intrigues plagued the project from the very beginning and led to major architectural modifications, including the abandonment of the structure’s magnificent base. Memorial stones for the interior were contributed by various states and numerous fraternal organizations. Pope Pius IX also donated a stone from the Temple of Concord in Rome for the project, which ignited flame of hate and anger of an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic activist group called the Know Nothings. In the darkness of the early morning hours of March 5, 1854, they broke into a shed at the base of the Washington Monument, dragged out the particular stone and probably disposed of it in the Potomac River. Finally, the project was suspended indefinitely at the outbreak of the American Civil War, with the obelisk standing only 152 feet (46 m) tall.
Later, President Ulysses Grant authorized federal funding, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of America in 1876, to finish the monument. But, when Lt. Col. Thomas L. Casey resumed work on the project, he found it impossible to find marble matching that used to construct the earlier portion, the colour of the upper two-thirds of the monument is visibly different from that of the lower third. The original design was changed radically, so that it resembled an unadorned Egyptian obelisk with a pointed capstone. On December 6, 1884, some 36 years after the beginning of the construction, the 1,500 kg capstone with a small aluminium pyramid at its apex and inscriptions on all four sides, was set on the structure.
Though the Washington Monument was officially dedicated by President Chester Arthur on February 21, in 1885, the monument was not opened to the public until October 9, 1888, following the installation of a steam elevator, which enabled visitors to reach the observation deck without taking the pain of climbing up the 897 steps of the tall monument. Till the completion of the Eiffel Tower, in 1889, It was the tallest man-made structure in the world.
The Washington Monument, a 500 feet (152.4 m) tall column with an additional 55 feet (16.8 m) tall pyramidion, is actually, a hollow Egyptian style stone obelisk. At its base, the walls of the obelisk are 15 feet (4.6 m) thick, while at the tapering top they are 1 1⁄2 feet (0.46 m) thick. The thin walls of the marble capstone or the pyramidion are only 7 inches (18 cm) thick, which are supported by six arches, two between opposite walls that cross at the center of the pyramidion and four smaller corner arches.
During the first phase of construction, the first 150 feet (45.7 m) of the walls at the bottom were erected with bluestone gneiss rubble stones, which were rough and not finished or polished. Those stones were bound together by a large amount of mortar with a facade of semi-finished marble stones of about 1 1⁄4 feet (0.4 m) thick. However, for the construction of the last 350 feet (106.7 m) of the walls at the upper section, which were constructed during the second phase, finished marble surface stones were used, half of which project into the walls, partially backed by finished granite stones.
The interior of the tower houses a set of iron stairs that spirals up the walls, along with an elevator in the center of the tower. Both the elevator and the stairs are supported by eight iron columns, which do not support the stone structure. The modern elevator makes the ascent to the top of the obelisk in about 60 seconds. The stairs contain many long landings stretched between them along the east and west walls. The capstone of the obelisk is equipped with eight observation windows, two per side, and eight red aircraft warning lights, also two per side.
The Washington Monument was closed for the public during the 1990s for major restoration project and reopened in 2001. On August 23, 2011, a rare, 5.8-magnitude earthquake, centered near Mineral in Virginia, rocked the tower causing a number of cracks near the top and shaking some of its mortar loose. Consequently the tower was closed again and after the necessary repairing, it reopened in May 2014.
People happily enjoy the reflection of the gigantic monument in the aptly named Reflecting Pool, a rectangular reflecting pool extending to the west. From the top of the tall tower viewers can also enjoy 30 to 40 miles visibility in clear weather.