DC Explorer: Washington Monument

Photo by Eric Dekker on Pexels.com

Last time on American Nomad we started our tour of The National Mall – the heartbeat of Washington DC. The National Mall is home to a dozen museums (including The Smithsonian and National Gallery), 65 monuments and memorials, thousands of trees and twenty-six miles of pedestrian sidewalks – all in the heart of the nation’s bustling capital city!

Recap: The National Mall runs over two miles west to east from The Capitol Building to The Lincoln Memorial. The area between The Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial is an extension of The Mall and features the serene Reflecting Pool.

Today we’re going to visit one of my favorite spots in DC – The Washington Monument.

I still remember my first visit to the Washington Monument when I was around four years old. My eyes were wide with wonder as we took the elevator up 500 feet to the observation deck to witness the stunning 360 degree views of DC below.

Located in the heart of The National Mall, The Washington Monument is a story of perseverance and grit. Washington city-planner, Pierre L’Enfant, originally intended there to be a statue of Washington in the current location of the monument. The statue ended up in several government buildings before being housed in The Smithsonian.

While there was a consensus that a monument should be erected to honor America’s first president, George Washington for his sacrifices and leadership in the founding of the nation, from the early founding of DC – funding and building the monument took decades.

In 1833, the Washington National Monument Society formed as a private organization to raise money to build a monument to the first president that would be “unparalleled in the world.” The Society sought donations from civic organizations and individuals for a decade, as they simultaneously evaluated monument designs.

Robert Mills, a South Carolina architect’s design was selected for the monument. He originally envisioned a 600-foot Egyptian style obelisk righed by 100-foot columns, but that was scaled down due to complications during construction (including budget).

The cornerstone was laid on July 4th 1848, with over 20,000 people in attendance, including President James K. Polk, former First Lady Dolley Madison and Eliza Hamilton (widow of Alexander Hamilton)…Future President Abraham Lincoln was also at the event…

By 1854, the monument soared to a height of 156 feet above ground…unfortunately the fate of the monument would soon be stifled by the ‘Know-Nothing Party.’

To fund the monument – blocks, engraved with civic institions, clubs, and invidual donors were sold to become part of the monument. The pope at the time, Pius IX, donated a ‘stone’ for the monument. This was meant to be an act of grace, but the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party immediately protested. They took control of the Washington National Monument Society’s periodic board election, which alienated donors and bankrupted the organization. Learn more here

Architect Robert Mills died in 1855, which all but ended work on the monument. The unfinished monument, loomed as a stone stump (even at 156 feet) for forty years.

It wasn’t until after The Civil War and Reconstruction that the nation focused once again on completing the monument. Congress assumed the duty of funding and building the monument in 1876. Lt. Col Thomas Lincoln Casey of The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was appointed to complete the project.

The biggest issue was that they couldn’t find the exact stone from the original quarry. The result – the monument has two different colors. This is not readily noticable to the naked eye, but standing in the direct shadow of the monument in sunlight, you’ll notice the slight change in color. In fact three different stone quarries were used (three unique stone colors) to create the monument.

The Washington Monument is 555 feet tall. When completed in 1885, it was the tallest building in the world, surpassing the Cologne Cathedral in Europe.

The Eiffel Tower surpassed The Washington Monument in height several years later, but it remains an engineering marvel. To this day it remains the tallest stone structure in the world.

An earthquake damaged the monument in 2011, but it has been repaired. The monument was closed for a time to repair the elevator operating system.

Visiting the Monument:

  • The monument is free of charge, but I recommend paying the $1 fee to reserve your time slot online (directions here). The lines have increased as tourism grows in our nation’s capital. A small few ensures you don’t spend your day waiting in line.
  • The National Park Service manages the site. You will have opportunity to learn about the history and building structure during your tour
  • A two minute elevator ride takes you up 500 feet to the observation deck. This is the best view of the city. On a clear day you can see well into Maryland and Virginia.

One of the highlights is the elevator ride, which reveals 193 commemorative stones of civic organizations and individuals who helped make the monument a reality. Another reminder of the call of citizens to be part of this democracy and society.

Fun facts:

  • The Washington Monument is the largest stone structure in the world at 555 feet and 5 1/8 inches tall. It is 55 feet wide at the base
  • There are over 36,000 stones in The Washington Monument
  • The monument pays homage to founding father, President George Washington. He served as commander of The Continental Army in the Revolutionary War, helping America win its War for Independence. He served as the First President of the United States, serving two terms from 1789 to 1797
  • The Washington Monument structure weighs 100,000 tons

Next up we’re continuing our tour of The National Mall with The Lincoln Memorial.

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Purpose of American Nomad: To share my love of travel, history and museums with others.

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