History Stories

Plans for a monument to George Washington in the U.S. capital named for him began even before the Revolutionary War hero was elected president. During his presidency, Washington himself scrapped the idea due to lack of funding, and later plans to build him a mausoleum after his death in 1799 also came to nothing. In the end, the cornerstone for the Washington Monument wasn’t laid until July of 1848. Six years later, when the structure had reached a height of 150 feet, construction stalled when funding and donations again ran low. It didn’t resume again until 1879, more than a decade after the Civil War ended, and was finally completed near the end of 1884.

At 555 feet high, with a 3,300-pound marble capstone topped with aluminum at its peak, the Washington Monument was the world’s tallest structure for five years after its completion, until it was eclipsed by Paris’ Eiffel Tower. It is still the world’s tallest freestanding stone structure, and one of the most iconic monuments in the United States. Before August 2011, between 600,000 and 700,000 visitors arrived at the monument each year, making it one of Washington, D.C.’s top attractions.

During the rare 5.8-magnitude earthquake that hit on August 23, 2011, most of the damage to the Washington Monument occurred at the top of the marble and granite structure. The tremors shook stones loose from the surface and opened up more than 150 cracks, including one near the peak that split a stone from top to bottom. Falling debris also damaged the monument’s internal elevator, used to ferry visitors to and from the observation level at 500 feet.

When engineers began to survey the damage in September 2011, they had to lower themselves on ropes from the top of the monument to conduct a thorough analysis of the repairs needed. In addition to earthquake damage, they were also confronting the effects of more than a century’s worth of wind, rain, snow and sleet. Starting in February 2013, workers encased the entire monument in scaffolding (a total of 500 tons), which was used to support work crews as well as to hoist up workers and materials. The scaffolding extended 500 feet, and ladders were used to reach the remaining distance to the top.

In many places, loose chunks of marble were pried out and replaced with patches known as “dutchmen.” Some of the damaged marble was replaced with salvaged stone from the same Maryland quarry used to build the original monument, which was obtained from a company that had salvaged stone steps from old Baltimore row houses. In addition, the Washington Post reported that 2.7 miles of new sealant was used between stones, while 53 stainless steel “saddle anchors” bolted slabs into place on the monument’s capstone to secure it in case of another earthquake.

Last July, a huge grid of decorative lights attached to the scaffolding was illuminated at night. It remained there until November, when the project began drawing to a close, and the first parts of the scaffolding were removed shortly thereafter. The Washington Monument finally reopened to the public earlier today, after an opening ceremony held by the National Park Service and featuring musical performances and speeches. The first tours began at 1 p.m., when about 1,800 members of public, including veterans wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their families, were welcomed inside.

The reopened monument is expected to draw big crowds after its extended closure, and the National Park Service is offering extended hours through the summer, from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. In addition to viewing new exhibits, including one on the life of George Washington, visitors can again take the elevator to the top–the highest point in Washington D.C.–and enjoy a sweeping view that encompasses the White House, the Capitol and the museums and monuments on the National Mall, as well as a glimpse of Arlington Cemetery in the distance.

In all, the restoration cost $15 million, half of which came from the U.S. government and half from a donation by the businessman and philanthropist David Rubenstein, co-CEO of The Carlyle Group. Rubenstein, who supplied the funds in order to ensure the project was completed on time, told the Associated Press that he has received many letters and emails from people about the restoration. “It became clear to me that the Washington Monument symbolizes many things for our country–the freedoms, patriotism, George Washington, leadership.” A champion of “patriotic philanthropy,” Rubenstein is also leading a fundraising campaign to help restore the National Mall and has made major gifts to the National Archives and Library of Congress.

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