Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings
This towering 555-foot-high obelisk, a striking monument to the "Father of Our Country" and one of the most famous in the world, is the dominating feature of the Capital. Built between 1848 and 1885 with funds from public subscriptions and Federal appropriations, it commemorates the achievements and unselfish devotion to public duty of our first Presidentpeerless military leader of the War for Independence and wise statesman of the Republic.
In 1783 the Continental Congress first considered a monument in honor of Washington, but by 1833 Congress had still not taken any action on additional proposals. In the latter year, influential citizens of the Capital organized the Washington National Monument Society. Progress was slow at first, but, by 1847, $70,000 had been collected by popular subscription. A design submitted by Robert Mills, a well-known architect, was selected but later substantially revised. On January 31, 1848, Congress granted authority for the erection of the monument. About 5 months later, on July 4, the cornerstone was laid, using the trowel employed by Washington at the laying of the cornerstone of the Capitol in 1793.
Work continued until 1854, when the building of the monument became involved in a political quarrel. Many citizens became dissatisfied with the work; the collection of funds lagged; and, because of the growing disagreement between the North and South, which resulted in the Civil War, construction soon came to a halt. For almost 25 years the monument stood incomplete at the height of about 153 feet. Finally, in 1876, President Grant approved an act calling for the Federal Government to complete the monument. The Engineer Corps of the War Department took over direction of construction.
In 1880 work resumed on the shaft. Practically all the marble with which the remainder of the monument is faced was obtained from the same vein as the stone used for the lower part. Because it came from a different stratum, however, and has weathered to a slightly different tone, a "ring" is noticeable on the shaft. The walls of the memorial reached the height of 500 feet on August 9, 1884. The capstone was set in place on December 6, 1884. The monument was dedicated on February 21, 1885, and opened to the public on October 9, 1888. Its total cost was $1,187,710.
The monument, a hollow shaft of Maryland marble, without decoration or embellishment, which contains a few courses of Massachusetts marble, has little in common with Mills' original elaborate plan. The plan provided for a decorated obelisk 600 feet high and 70 feet at the base. It was to rise from a circular colonnaded building 100 feet high and 250 feet in diameter, surrounded by 30 columns, each 12 feet in diameter and 45 feet high. This temple was to be an American pantheon, a repository for statues of Presidents and national heroes, containing a colossal statue of George Washington. The proportions of Mills' shaft, at variance with traditional dimensions of obelisks, were altered to conform to the classic conception. The result was an obelisk unexcelled in grace and delicacy of outline.
The top may be reached by elevator or a stairway. The iron stairway consists of 50 landings and 898 steps. Inserted into the interior walls or otherwise displayed are 190 carved stones presented by individuals, societies, cities, Territories, States, and nations of the world, including a stone from the ruins of ancient Carthage. The observation platform at the top of the monument affords a majestic view of the central buildings and monuments in Washington. To the east, at the end of the wide vista of the Mall, is the Capitol. To the north is the White House; to the west, the Lincoln Memorial; to the south, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. These memorials, along with the Washington Monument, are a national tribute to those figures in our history who have made vital contributions to our independence, the preservation of the Union, and the concepts of liberty and democracy.
Last Updated: 29-Aug-2005