In 1783, the Continental Congress voted to erect a statue of Washington, commander-in-chief of the American army during the Revolutionary War, in the nation’s yet-to-be constructed permanent capital city. However, after Washington became president, he scrapped the plans for his memorial, as federal government funds were tight and he didn’t want to use public money for the project. After Washington died in 1799, Congress considered building him a pyramid-shaped mausoleum to be housed in the Capitol rotunda; however, the plan never came to fruition.
In 1833, a small group of Washingtonians, unhappy that a proper memorial to the president had not yet been produced in America’s capital city, established the Washington National Monument Society to raise private funds for the project. The group, headed by Chief Justice John Marshall, organized a design competition and eventually named as the winner architect Robert Mills (1781-1855), whose credits include the U.S. Treasury Building and the U.S. Patent Office, now home to the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The original design for the monument was much different than what ended up being built.
Robert Mills’ winning design called for a pantheon (a temple-like building) featuring 30 stone columns and statues of Declaration of Independence signers and Revolutionary War heroes. A statue of Washington driving a horse-drawn chariot would reside above the main entrance and a 600-foot-tall Egyptian obelisk would rise from the pantheon’s center.
On July 4, 1848, the monument’s cornerstone (embedded with a box containing such items as a portrait of George Washington, newspapers, U.S. coins and a copy of the Constitution) was laid in a ceremony attended by thousands, including a then little-known U.S. congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln. Construction commenced, but in 1854, with the structure at about 150 feet high, funds ran low and work came to a standstill. That same year, an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic activist group called the Know Nothings became angry that Pope Pius IX had donated a block of stone from the ancient Roman Temple of Concord for the monument. They confiscated the stone and then seized possession of the monument project. They did little work on the structure and disbanded within several years, but construction remained on hold through the Civil War.
Finally, in 1876, spurred by the 100th anniversary of America’s founding, President Ulysses Grant authorized federal funding to finish the monument, and work resumed in 1879. By this time, architectural tastes had changed and the pantheon at the base of the obelisk was deleted from the plan. (Additionally, because construction had stopped for two decades and ultimately took place in two phases, the quarry stone couldn’t be matched. As a result, the monument is two different shades; lighter at the bottom and darker at the top.) Construction wrapped up in 1884, and the project was dedicated the following year. When the monument opened to the public in 1888, it stood 555 feet and 5 1/8 inches high, contained 50 flights of stairs and weighed more than 81,000 tons. It was the world’s tallest man-made structure until it was surpassed by the Eiffel Tower, completed in 1889.
The monument was once the site of a hostage situation.
On December 8, 1982, a 66-year-old Navy veteran, Norman Mayer, drove his van to the base of the monument and threatened to blow up the structure with 1,000 pounds of dynamite he claimed to have inside his vehicle. A group of tourists was trapped inside the monument for several hours before Mayer, who was trying to draw attention to his stance against nuclear weapons, let them leave. Meanwhile, thousands of workers from nearby buildings were evacuated, streets were shut down and air traffic in the area was diverted. After an approximately 10-hour standoff with law enforcement officials, Mayer attempted to drive away, but was shot and killed by police. When authorities later searched his van, no explosives were found.
The monument has survived an earthquake.
On August 23, 2011, the monument was rocked by a rare, 5.8-magnitude earthquake,centered near Mineral, Virginia, causing a number of cracks in the structure and shaking some of its mortar loose. Although people were inside the monument when the quake hit, no one was seriously hurt. However, it’s been closed to visitors since that time, and a $15 million project to fix the damage is under way. While the repairs are being made, the landmark has been enveloped in a 500-ton scaffolding system wrapped in a blue, semi-transparent mesh. Developed by noted architect Michael Graves, the mesh design first was used when the structure underwent restoration work in the late 1990s. Additionally, as part of a temporary display while the repair work takes place, the monument, which is expected to reopen in 2014, has been illuminated each night by 488 decorative lights.
The monument might be the most famous memorial to Washington but it’s far from the only one.
The man known as the father of his country has racked up scores of tributes: cities, highways, lakes, mountains, schools and an entire state have been named in his honor. He’s even got multiple monuments. For example, in addition to the iconic structure in the nation’s capital, there’s a Washington Monument in Boonsboro, Maryland, consisting of a 34-foot-tall stone tower completed in 1827, and a Washington Monument in Baltimore featuring a 178-foot-high column finished in 1829. The monument in Baltimore was designed by Robert Mills, the same architect behind the D.C. landmark.