Washington Monument

Washington Monument at Sunrise – © David H. Enzel, 2021

The Washington Monument honors and memorializes George Washington (1732–1799), the country’s first president, at the center of the nation’s capital. It was designed by Robert Mills and eventually completed by Thomas Casey and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,

The structure was completed in two phases of construction, one private (1848-1854) and one public (1876-1884). Built in the shape of an Egyptian obelisk, evoking the timelessness of ancient civilizations, the Washington Monument embodies the awe, respect, and gratitude the nation felt for its most essential Founding Father. When completed in 1884, the Washington Monument was the tallest building in the world at 555 feet, 5-1/8 inches (169 meters). It remained the world’s tallest structure between 1884 and 1889, after which it was overtaken by the Eiffel Tower.

The geometric layout of Washington, D.C ‘s streets and green spaces, originally designed by Pierre L’Enfant, reserved a prominent space for a monument to George Washington at the intersection of lines radiating south from the White House and west of the Capitol. In 1833, the Washington National Monument Society, a private organization, formed to fund and build a monument to the first president that would be “unparalleled in the world.” The Society solicited donations and designs for a decade, settling on a design by Robert Mills in 1845. Mills’ design called for a 600-foot Egyptian-style obelisk ringed by thirty 100-foot columns. The design was ambitious and expensive, creating numerous complications during its construction.

The Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool – © David H. Enzel, 2023

Despite difficulties raising funds, construction began on the Washington Monument in 1848. The cornerstone was laid on July 4 with upwards of 20,000 people in attendance including President James K. Polk; former First Lady Dolley Madison; Eliza Hamilton, widow of Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s Treasury Secretary; George Washington Parke Custis; and future presidents Buchanan, Lincoln, and Johnson. By 1854, the monument had reached a height of 156 feet above ground. However, a turn of events stalled construction.

In 1853, a new group aligned with the controversial Know-Nothing Party gained control of the Washington National Monument Society. Having struggled to gather funding, the Society’s change in administration alienated donors and drove the Society to bankruptcy by 1854. Without funds, work on the monument slowed to a halt. Architect Robert Mills died in 1855. 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. Congressional attempts to support the Washington National Monument Society failed as the nation had higher priorities, including the American Civil War (1861–1865). Only as the nation was rebuilding did attention once again turn toward honoring the man who had once united the states in a common purpose.

By a joint resolution passed on July 5, 1876, Congress assumed the duty of funding and building the Washington Monument. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, led by Lt. Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey, was responsible for directing and completing the work. Casey’s first task was to strengthen the foundation of the monument, which he determined was inadequate for the structure as it was designed. For four years, the builders carefully beefed up the support at the base of the foundation to support the weight of the superstructure to come.

To continue building upward, the masons needed stone. The trouble was that the quarry near Baltimore used for the initial construction was no longer available after so many years. Seeking a suitable match, the builders turned to a quarry in Massachusetts. However, problems quickly emerged with the quality and color of the stone, and the irregularity of deliveries. After adding several courses of this stone from Massachusetts, still recognizable by the naked eye today as a brown-streaked beltline one-third of the way up the monument, the builders turned to a third quarry near Baltimore that proved more favorable, and used that stone for the upper two-thirds of the structure. The stone never matched exactly, and the three slightly different colors from the three quarries are distinguishable today.

In America: Remember – Exhibition by Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg honoring those who died from Covid – © David H. Enzel, 2021

Rather than ascend to 600 feet (183 meters) as Mills had intended in the original plan, Casey was persuaded to make the height of the structure ten times the width of the base, meaning the optimal height for the Washington Monument was 555 feet (169 meters). Plans for ornate adornments on the obelisk and the ring of columns were scrapped in favor of the clean, stark look of a simple obelisk shape. Aesthetic reasons aside, the design choice reduced the cost and allowed for faster construction.

The Washington Monument was dedicated on a chilly February 21, 1885, one day before George Washington’s birthday (which fell on a Sunday that year). Over 800 people were present on the monument grounds.

The monument had surpassed the Cologne Cathedral to be the tallest building in the world at 555 feet, 5.125 inches (169.291 meters). Inscribed on the aluminum cap, notable names and dates in the monument’s construction are recalled, and on the east face, facing the rising sun, the Latin words “Laus Deo,” which translate to, “Praise be to God.”

Washington, DC – © David H. Enzel, 2022

After the completion of the iron staircase in the monument’s interior, the Washington Monument was first accessible to the public in 1886, closed much of 1887 until it could be better protected from vandals, and reopened in 1888 with a public elevator. Visitors making the ascent could view commemorative stones inset in the walls from various individuals, civic groups, cities, states, and countries from around the world, the tokens of appreciation of Washington’s admirers and, in many cases, the donors that contributed to the construction of the Monument in its privately-financed phase. Today there are 193 of these commemorative stones.

The original steam-driven elevator, with a trip time of 10-12 minutes to the top of the monument, was replaced with an electric elevator in 1901. The National Park Service was given jurisdiction over the Washington Monument in 1933, and the first restoration of the structure began as a Depression Era public works project in 1934. Additional restoration work occurred in 1964, from 1998-2001, in 2011-2014 (to repair damage following an earthquake) and from 2016-2019 for modernization of the elevator.

Washington, DC – © David H. Enzel, 2023

The Washington Monument is open daily from 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. The monument is closed on December 25, Christmas Day and July 4, Independence Day. The monument is also closed one day a month for maintenance.

Timed reservations are required. You may reserve tickets online (recommended) or get free, same-day tickets at the Washington Monument Lodge on 15th Street near the Washington Monument. You must have a ticket to enter the Washington Monument. Supplies are limited and advance reservations are a good idea. While there is not a national park entrance fee, a reservation fee applies to advance reservations.

The Washington Monument is served by the Federal Triangle and Smithsonian metro stations.


Leave a Comment