On this day in 1884, the nation’s architectural tribute to its founding father, Revolutionary War hero and first president, George Washington, is completed. The Washington Monument, a 550-foot obelisk, still stands in the middle of Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Mall.
Washington died in 1799; only 10 days after his death discussions began in Congress regarding a fitting permanent tribute to the nation’s beloved first president. At first, Congress proposed to have Washington’s body entombed at the Capitol, but this idea was firmly rejected by his widow, Martha. Finally, in 1835, the Washington National Monument Society sponsored a competition for potential monument designs. The society requested a memorial that would reflect Washington’s “stupendousness and elegance.” In 1848, the society chose a design by South Carolina architect Robert Mills. The site for the monument was chosen for its visibility from all vantage points around Washington, particularly from Washington’s grave at his estate, Mount Vernon, in Virginia.
The monument’s cornerstone was laid on the Fourth of July in 1848 by the brotherhood of Freemasons, a group to which Washington had belonged. Construction of the marble, granite and sandstone structure began in 1848 and took 30 years to complete. Work on the monument was interrupted by the Civil War between 1861 and 1864 and at various points due to lack of federal funding.
Mills passed away in 1854 and never saw the completion of his project. The monument was officially opened to the public in 1888. Since then visitors have climbed the 897 stairs, or, in later years, taken the elevator to the top. The National Park Service, which administers the building, estimates that some 800,000 people visit the site every year.