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Washington Monument

Washington Monument

Anyone who has visited Washington DC has certainly seen the grand Washington Monument, located on the National Mall. The monument has a long history, with numerous setbacks caused by political tension, budget limitations, and disagreements over the design plan.

Early Stages

After the victory in the Revolution there were many proposals to build a monument to George Washington. In 1783 the old Confederation Congress authorized the construction of an equestrian statue of the General in the future capitol city of the American nation. Following Washington’s death in 1799, the US Congress authorized a memorial in the planned national capitol, which was then under construction.

However, the decision was reversed in 1801 when the Democratic-Republican Party (Jeffersonian Republications) took control of congress, following the 1800 election. This marked the first change of power between opposing political parties. 

Political Disagreements Caused Delays

The values of Republicanism were hostile to the notion of building monuments to powerful men, and the Republicans worked to block Washington’s image on coins, as well as the celebration of his birthday. The completion of the Washington Monument was delayed until the late 19th century due to further political disagreements, as well as the North-South division on the Civil War. By this time, memorials to Washington were no longer controversial, as he had become the image of a national hero who could be celebrated by the North as well as the South. 

Fundraising and Design Proposals

In 1833 a group of citizens formed the Washington National Monument Society. After raising donations over the next several years, they announced a design competition for the memorial. The group had raised $28,000, the equivalent of one million dollars in 2020. The board of managers of the society described their expectations as such: 

It is proposed that the contemplated monument shall be like him in whose honor it is to be constructed, unparalleled in the world, and commensurate with the gratitude, liberality, and patriotism of the people by whom it is to be erected ... [It] should blend stupendousness with elegance, and be of such magnitude and beauty as to be an object of pride to the American people, and of admiration to all who see it. Its material is intended to be wholly American, and to be of marble and granite brought from each state, that each state may participate in the glory of contributing material as well as in funds to its construction.

The winner of the design competition was announced in 1845 as Robert Mills. Mills was considered to be the first native-born American trained professionally as an architect. Mills had also been chosen by the citizens of Baltimore to build one of the first monuments to Washington. 

The Original Design Plan

Mills’ design for the Washington Monument called for a large, circular colonnaded building, from which a four-sided obelisk would rise, with the obelisk standing 500 feet tall. A large cylindrical pillar would support the obelisk at the center of the building. The obelisk would feature a slightly peaked roof, and would taper to 40 feet square at the top, from 70 feet square at the bottom.

The obelisk would be hollow, with a stairwell inside. The colonnaded building itself would be well adorned. The portico of the building would feature Washington standing in a chariot, holding the reins of six horses. Inside there were to be 30 statues of prominent Revolutionary War heroes, as well as statues of the 56 signs of the Declaration of Independence. Below you can see what the proposed design looked like.

The original proposed design for the Washington Monument

Design Changes Due to Budget Limits

The cost of the design caused hesitation. The estimated cost was $1 million, the 2020 equivalent of $20 million. Due to a lack of significant funds, it was decided that the monument would simply be a plain obelisk. The location of the monument had to be moved, as the ground at the originally intended location was too unstable to support the construction of the heavy obelisk. The location was moved 390 feet east-southeast of the original location in Washington DC

Construction Begins in 1848

In 1848, the excavation of the site marked the beginning of construction, along with the laying of the cornerstone and original foundation. The following year construction of the walls began. After reaching a height of 152 feet in 1854, donations ran out and construction was stalled. Public contributions had ceased due to political and economic conditions at the time, so the Society appealed to Congress for additional funds.

Further setbacks

The Know-Nothing Party seized control of the Society on February 22, 1855, just as the request for funding had reached the floor of the House of Representatives. Congress tabled the expected contribution, totaling $200,000. Only two courses of masonry, amounting to 4 feet, were added to the Monument during the tenure of the Know-Nothing Society. Rejected masonry found on site was used for this construction. The original Society refused to acknowledge the takeover, causing the rival Societies to exist side by side until 1858.

In October of 1858, the Know-Nothing Party surrendered its possession of the monument after being unable to secure funding with the Party disintegrating. The Society was incorporated by the US Congress in February of 1859 to prevent any future takeovers and establish a set of rules and procedures. 

Construction was once again stalled during the American Civil war, but interest was renewed after the war ended. After 20 years of effective inactivity, it was necessary for engineers to study the foundation to determine if it was strong enough to continue construction. In 1876, Congress appropriated an additional $200,000 to continue construction. 

A photograph of the Washington Monument while under construction in 1860

Renewed Design Arguments

Arguments began once again about the most appropriate design for the monument. There were many who believed a simple obelisk, without the colonnade, would be too bare. Architect Mills allegedly stated that the monument would look like “a stalk of asparagus” if the colonnade were to be omitted, which another critic stated that it offered “little… to be proud of”. These attitudes resulted in alternative designs to be submitted. The Washington National Monument Society, as well as Congress, held discussions about what the final design of the monument should be. In the meantime, work on the obelisk was ordered to continue. It was eventually decided to abandon the colonnade and simply alter the obelisk to make it conform to classical Egyptian proportions. 

Construction Resumes Again

In 1879 construction resumed under the direction of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Lincoln Casey, a member of the US Army Corps of Engineers. Casey redesigned the foundation of the monument, strengthening it to ensure it could support a structure that would ultimately weigh more than 40,000 tons. The first stone was placed atop the unfinished obelisk on August 7, 1880. There was a small ceremony for the occasion, attended by President Hayes, Casey, and several others. The president placed a coin, which he had scratched his initials and the date onto, in the bed of wet cement before the first stone was placed. The lower portion of the monument is a lighter shade than the remainder of the monument, because the marble was obtained from different sources during the different phases of construction. 

Once Congress approved sufficient funding, construction proceeded quickly. The monument was completed in just four years, with the aluminum lightning-rod being placed at the top of the monument on December 6, 1884. At the time, this lightning rod was the largest single piece of aluminum cast, noteworthy because aluminum commanded a price that was comparable to silver. 

Final Completion and Dedication

The Washington Monument and its reflection

In February of 1885 the Monument was dedicated. Over 800 people attended, hearing speeches from a number of people, including Ohio Senator John Sherman, Freemason Myron M. Parker, Col. Casey, and President Arthur. President Arthur proclaimed: “I do now … on behalf of the people, receive this monument … and declare it dedicated form this time forth to the immortal name and memory of George Washington.”

You can order reproduction prints of this vintage image of the iconic Washington Monument here.

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Looking for something else to read? Check out the history of the Library of Congress!

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