An Architectural Marvel 40 Years in the Making

The Washington Monument. April 2, 2007. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The Washington Monument. April 2, 2007. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The Washington Monument is probably one of the most recognizable structures in all of D.C. At 555 feet, the Egyptian obelisk can be seen from miles away. A particularly picturesque vantage point is looking at the monument through the cherry blossom trees along the tidal basin.

Built to honor President George Washington, the Washington National Monument Society laid the monument’s cornerstone on Independence Day, 1848. However, it would take almost 40 years before the structure would be completed. The monument underwent two phases of construction, one private (1848-1854) and one public (1876-1884).

From the beginning, the monument was beleaguered with troubles, including difficulty with fundraising.

“The original design of the society was to allow every one an opportunity to contribute, and to carry out this idea the amount to be received from any one individual was limited to one dollar,” reported the May 17, 1876, issue of the Clearfield Republican.

The paper also reported that by 1826, only $28,000 had been raised. The monument society decided to lift the restriction and, by 1847, had about $87,000 and the wherewithal to begin construction.

 Lithograph from the original design of the Washington Monument by architect Robert Mills. 1846. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Lithograph from the original design of the Washington Monument by architect Robert Mills. 1846. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The monument also suffered from acts of vandalism, as an issue of the Daily Evening Star reported on March 13, 1854.

“We did not think that a paper published in this country could be found so lost to a sense of every thing that is decent and rights, a to justify the recent outrageous act of vandalism perpetrated in this city by the creatures who destroyed the block of marble sent by the Pope of Rome to the National Washington Monument Association,” began the article.

The paper then reprinted an excerpt from another paper in New York that extolled the destruction of a block of marble sent by the Pope.

Opposition to the Pope’s Stone largely stemmed from the Know-Nothing Party, a group who disapproved of immigrants, especially Catholics, entering the country.

When the obelisk was a little less than one-third its originally designed height, the society lost support and funding, and the monument stood incomplete and untouched some 20 years.

At one point, superintendent of the Washington Monument, William Dougherty, was thrown off the grounds following instructions by the board of managers of the Washington National Monument Society. At that time, the society had been taken over by members of the Know-Nothings. You can read his account in this article from the May 30, 1855, issue of the Evening Star.

Beef Depot Monument. 1862. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Beef Depot Monument. 1862. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The onslaught of the Civil War also contributed to a halt in construction and fundraising. In fact, Union soldiers drilled on monument grounds and used the area to graze cattle and store hay. By the end of the war, the monument and grounds was an eyesore. Mark Twain once referred to it as a “factory chimney with the top broken off.”

Finally, in 1876, the government resumed construction of the monument under the supervision of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Still, disagreements and criticisms about the project continued to be rampant, particularly where the design and foundation’s safety were concerned. The reason the monument looks like it is two different colors is because by the time the project resumed, the stone from the original quarry was no longer available.

When fully constructed, the Washington Monument was the world’s tallest structure. It was formally dedicated on Feb. 21, 1885, to much pomp and circumstance.

The Evening Star reported on the celebration, devoting several pages to coverage of the event and background on the planning and construction of the monument.

Washington Monument as it stood for 25 years. ca. 1860, Photo by Mathew Brady. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Washington Monument as it stood for 25 years. ca. 1860, Photo by Mathew Brady. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

“The Washington National Monument was formally dedicated today with imposing ceremonies. The day was cold and windy, but the sky was clear. Many buildings along the line of the procession were decorated with flags and gay bunting, which gave rich effects of color in the bright sunlight. The program arranged for the ceremonies was faithfully carried out in every detail.”

The monument didn’t officially open to the public until October 1888.

More historical newspaper articles documenting the Washington Monument project can be found through Chronicling America’s topics page on the landmark. The Prints and Photographs Online Catalog also has an abundance of images and architectural designs of the monument.

Sources: National Park Service, “The United States Army Corps of Engineers and the Construction of the Washington Monument,” by Louis Torres 

 

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