Saturday, July 21, 2012

The troubled history of the Washington Monument

Stone of a slightly different shade
completes the upper two-thirds
of the Washington Monument.
   A close look at the Washington Monument in our nation’s capital shows a subtle – but very discernible – difference in color, or shade, of the stone beginning nearly one-third of the way up this memorial to the nation’s first president. That’s a testament to the troubled history of this structure.

   Congress authorized a monument to George Washington soon after his death in 1799, but nothing came of it until 1832, when a group of private citizens established the Washington National Monument Society. They raised funds for the project and held a design competition for it in 1836. The winner was well-known and highly recognized architect Robert Mills. His design included an obelisk (a tall, four-sided column) with a nearly flat top, surrounded with columns at its base, enclosing statues of 30 other Revolutionary War heroes. Although the $1 million cost was well beyond what the Society had collected, work was begun on the obelisk, in hopes that its construction would spur more people to donate money to the project.
Design of the national Washington Monument
Only some elements of the
Washington Monument's original design
were ultimately put in place.
   As part of its fundraising efforts, the Society also solicited the donation of large commemorative stones to be used for the construction of the interior of the monument. Many stones arrived at the site, but some were inscribed with controversial statements, often without any reference to Washington.  And one stone, donated by Pope Pius IX, appears to have be stolen and destroyed by members of a secretive political organization called the Know-Nothings (based on their “know nothing” response to questions about the organization’s anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic beliefs, which were based on concerns that rising numbers of German and Irish immigrants threatened native-born Protestants in the U.S.).
   Construction began in 1848 and continued until 1854, when private funding became exhausted, leaving the obelisk somewhat less than one-third completed. Congress appropriated $200,000 to the effort in 1855, but quickly rescinded the money after members of the Know-Nothing organization engineered a takeover of the Monument Society at about the same time. Ultimately, the Know Nothing-led Monument Society funded only a bit of more work, which was of such low quality that it was later replaced. By 1858, leadership of the Society returned to people without the divisive beliefs of the Know-Nothings, but interest in completing the monument fell victim to the political and other pressures that led to the outbreak of the Civil War only a few years later.
5.  Photocopy of photograph (from collection of the Smithsonian Institution) sometime between 1855 and 1880 UNFINISHED SHAFT OF MONUMENT - Washington Monument, High ground West of Fifteenth Street, Northwest, between Independence & Constitution Avenues, Washington, District of Columbia, DC
The Washington Monument
remained an unattractive, unfinished
stub of stone for about 25 years.
   The unfinished, neglected monument stood as an eyesore before, during, and after the war. Mark Twain, writing just after the war, noted that it “has the aspect of a factory chimney with the top broken off…you can see cow-sheds about its base, and the contented sheep nibbling pebbles in the desert solitudes that surround it, and the tired pigs dozing in the holy calm of its protecting shadow.”
   After the Civil War, interest in the monument renewed, but it wasn’t until 1876 that Congress again appropriated money – again, $200,000 – for the effort. Before work began, questions arose about design of the monument. Some people wanted to proceed with the original Mills plan from 1836, but others sought or submitted new plans. While these new designs were under consideration, Congress in 1879 ordered work to continue on the obelisk, and ultimately no additional structures were added. The final two-thirds or more of the obelisk, taking it to a height of just over 555 feet, were completed in December 1884 – but with stones from a different quarry than when the lower part of the structure was put in place some 25 years earlier. At first, the newer stones appeared to match the color of the original stones. But over time, they have weathered differently, producing the different shade we see today.

   Since it was completed, the Washington Monument has been closed to the public several times for routine maintenance or restoration. A 2011 earthquake caused significant damage, and the monument was closed again in July 2012 for repairs. Reopening is expected in 2014.

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