Dysfunctional Erection: the Washington Monument

This Presidents Day article is from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Presidency.

What weighs 40,000 tons, towers 555 feet 5 1/8 inches high over the nation's capital, has 897 steps to the top, is made of 36,491 stones, and can boast with certainty that George Washington never slept there? The Washington Monument!

Today surrounded by 50 flags at the base, symbolizing each of the 50 states, the white marble obelisk is the jewel in the crown of the National Mall -but it took a surprisingly long time for the nation to get around to building it.


Immediately after the War for Independence, the Continental Congress made plans to honor General George Washington. As far back as 1783, there was a plan for an equestrian statue of Washington to be placed near the Capitol building -once they figured out where the capital city was going to be. But the new nation was busy, and the capital moved several times, making it difficult to find a good spot for a tribute.

After Washington died in 1799, Congress again made noises about erecting a monument in his honor, and they settled on creating a tomb in the Capitol building. But they forgot to ask his family's opinion. Washington's heirs did not want to move his remains, which stayed firmly planted in his tomb on the grounds of his home, Mount Vernon, in Alexandria, Virginia.

As the 100th anniversary of Washington's birth approached, there was again a push to memorialize the first president. Congress coughed up $5,000 in 1832 for a marble statue intended for the Capitol Rotunda. However artist Horatio Greenhough's creation -a 20-ton seated seminude figure- was not exactly what most folks had in mind. This statue ended up at the Smithsonian Institution in 1908.

In 1833 George Watterson (a former Librarian of Congress) formed the Washington National Monument Society, whose purpose was to finally erect a fitting memorial. The society held a design competition that architect Robert Mills won. His original plan was a much more elaborate design than the current simple obelisk seen today. Mills wanted an even bigger obelisk surrounded by a colonnade, which was to be interspersed with statues of other Revolutionary War heroes and capped by a classically-inspired statue of a toga-clad Washington driving a chariot. There were even plans to entomb the remains of these heroes in underground catacombs. But money -and enthusiasm- were short-lived. In 1848, the society decided to just build the obelisk and worry about the colonnade later. Excavation was begun later that year, and the cornerstone was laid on the Fourth of July.


The society encouraged all states and territories to donate memorial stones to be used in the interior walls of the monument. Donations poured in from other sources as well, including blocks from Native American tribes, businesses, and even foreign countries. Perhaps the most well-known memorial stone came in the early 1850s from Pope Pius IX: a marble stone that had been part of the Temple of Concord in Rome. In March 1854, however, members of the Know-Nothings (an aptly named anti-Catholic, anti-immigration political party) stole the stone and allegedly threw it into the Potomac River.

Donations to the society began to dry up in 1854, and Congress was reluctant to step in and help. The nation was embroiled in controversy over the spread and existence of slavery; a monument to honor the Father of the United States seemed a folly to build when that very nation was in danger of being torn apart. Social turmoil and economic uncertainty stalled the plans. The monument would stand unfinished for more than twenty years as the country went to war with itself and then struggled to put itself back together again.


After the Civil War ended Congress appropriated $200,000 to resume construction on the Washington Monument. Plans for the colonnade were finally scrapped, and the size of the obelisk was changed to make it conform more to classical Egyptian proportions. Construction finally began again in 1879, The new architect, Thomas L. Casey of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, incorporated the original donated memorial stones in the interior walls. The first memorial stone to be placed was the Alabama stone. The last two stones to be placed were installed in 1982: the Alaska stone, which is made of solid jade, and another stone donated by the Vatican to replace the original that was pilfered. The monument was opened to the public on October 9, 1888, and it typically has more than 800,000 visitors each year.

Beginning in 1997 the Washington Monument closed down to undergo a huge restoration effort. Scaffolding enfolded the exterior so the outside could be cleaned and repaired. On the inside, the masonry and historic donated stones were restored. On the practical side, the elevators, heating, and cooling systems were upgraded, too! The new elevator cab features glass panels so riders can view the commemorative stones on the 180-, 170-, 140-, and 130-foot levels. The elevator takes viewers to the top in only 70 seconds, but the ride down takes 138 seconds so people can really see the stones.

The monument grounds underwent upgrades in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. But the monument itself remained open to visitors, who could still ride the elevator to the top and enjoy sweeping views of the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, the Jefferson Memorial, the Capitol, and the city beyond.

[Ed. note: the monument was closed after sustaining damage during the Virginia earthquake of August 23, 2011, and remains closed until repairs are completed.]


Because the monument was left unfinished (at about 150 feet tall) for so long, it is actually two colors. Even though the same type of stone was used after construction resumed, it had to be mined from a different quarry, and the white shade could not be matched exactly. If you look closely, you can see the change in color about a third of the way up.


The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Presidency.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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