In 1783, the Second Continental Congress (see Continental Congress, Second ) began talking about building a monument near the capitol building in honor of George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97). Three decades passed, and still no action was taken. In 1833, the Washington National Monument Society was organized by powerful and influential citizens in Washington, D.C. , who wanted to honor the former president's memory.
Progress was slow, but by 1847, $87,000 had been collected to help finance construction of the monument. Though many applied, it was architect Robert Mills who submitted the winning design. Mills's design was elaborate, however, and bore little resemblance to the final monument, which is an obelisk made of marble, granite, and sandstone. At 555 feet, 5 1/8 inch, the monument weighs nearly 90,000 tons.
Progress stalled for several years
The cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1848, using the same trowel (digging tool) Washington used when constructing the nation's Capitol in 1793. Construction progressed until 1854, when the building of the monument became a political issue. Many people disliked the work and collection of funds slowed down. This conflict, in addition to the onset of the American Civil War (1861–65), caused construction to come to a complete halt. The unfinished monument stood for nearly twenty-five years at 150 feet. On August 2, 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; served 1869–87) approved an act which required the federal government to complete construction of the monument. The Corps of Engineers of the War Department took over the job, and work resumed in 1880.
The monument was completed on December 6, 1884, and was dedicated on February 21, 1885. In October 1888, the monument was opened to the public. A steam hoist elevator was installed and used until 1901, when the first electric elevator was installed. In 1959, a new elevator was installed, and it remains in place in the twenty-first century. This elevator makes the ascent to the top of the monument in seventy seconds. For those who prefer to walk, an iron stairway consisting of 897 steps is available. The interior walls are decorated by 188 carved stones presented by individuals, organizations, cities, states, and nations around the globe.
WASHINGTON MONUMENT. Pierre L'Enfant's plan for the federal city called for an equestrian monument honoring George Washington at the key location where the axes of the Capitol and president's house intersected. The Washington National Monument Society, formed in 1833, raised funds for a design competition, but no plans realized their expectations. In 1845 Robert Mills suggested an obelisk with a colonnaded base. After many sites had been considered, the cornerstone was laid 4 July 1848, near the spot designated on L'Enfant's plan. In 1854 members of the Know-Nothing Party, angered by the donation of an interior stone by the Vatican, stole the stone and took over the society. The project came to a halt, remained unfinished through the Civil War, and
resumed only in 1876, when Congress took control of funding and construction. The monument was finally dedicated 21 February 1885. At 555 feet, 51⁄8 inches it was, and still is, the tallest masonry structure in the world. The obelisk has had its admirers and detractors, but many commentators have noted a congruence between the form of the monument and the man it commemorates: "simple in its grandeur, coldly bare of draperies theatric" (James Russell Lowell), "a perfect simulacrum of our first president … powerful … eternal … elemental" (Richard Hudnut).
Allen, Thomas B. The Washington Monument: It Stands for All. New York: Discovery Books, 2000.
Harvey, Frederick L. History of the Washington National Monument and of the Washington National Monument Society. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1902.
The Washington Monument's tall, slender obelisk towers above the Mall in the nation's capitol, dominating the skyline. A grateful public constructed it in the nineteenth century to commemorate George Washington. Federal architect Robert Mills won a competition in 1845 with his proposal for a 600-foot obelisk and circular temple at the base. The monument was completed in 1884 without the temple and 45 feet shorter than Mills's design. Unlike the capitol's other presidential monuments, the Washington Monument is abstract, with no images or words; its power comes from the simple beauty of its form. It has been largely uncontroversial, which is unique for a political monument. And unlike the nearby Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument has not been the site of any significant political events. Instead, it has stood for over 100 years in quiet solemnity as a proud testament to "the Father of our country."
—Dale Allen Gyure
Scott, Pamela, and Antoinette J. Lee. Buildings of the District of Columbia. New York, Oxford University Press, 1993.