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 

 

Buying a Library

Two hundred years ago today, President James Madison approved an act of Congress appropriating $23,590 for the purchase of a large collection of books belonging to Thomas Jefferson in order to reestablish the Library of Congress. Under Madison’s leadership, the United States went to war with Great Britain in 1812. After capturing Washington, D.C. in […]

Pic of the Week: A Tree Grows … in the Great Hall

Every year, the Library of Congress decorates the Great Hall with a tall tree for the holidays, replete with lights and ornaments for the enjoyment of visitors. Zelma Cook of Tryon, N.C., recalls her first Christmas tree and holidays spent with her family and the mill workers of the village in this excerpt from American Life Histories: […]

Highlighting the Holidays: Happy Hanukkah

In 2014, December 16 marked the first day of Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by the forces of Antiochus IV. Also referred to as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah recalls the event. According to the Talmud, a central text of Rabbinic Judaism, at the re-dedication […]

A-B-C … Easy as One, Two, Three

On Oct. 16, 1758, Noah Webster, the “Father of American Scholarship and Education” was born. Lexicographers everywhere celebrate his contributions on his birthday, also known as “Dictionary Day.” As a young, rural Connecticut teacher, he used his own money to publish his first speller in 1783. Reissued throughout the 19th century, the 1829 “Blue Back […]

We the People

Today we celebrate the 227th anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution in Philadelphia, Penn., which was ratified at the Constitutional Convention on Sept. 17, 1787. The Library recently released a series of interactive eBooks for tablets, including a set on the Constitution, which can be downloaded for free on iBooks. The new Library […]

Celebrating Hispanic Heritage: Feliz Cumpleaños, Hispanic Division

(Today is the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month, which is celebrated annually Sept. 15-Oct. 15. This year, the Library’s Hispanic Division marks its 75th anniversary. The following is an article from the July-August 2014 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine .) Dating back to the middle ages, the Library’s Hispanic world collections are the largest in […]

Out of the Ashes

(The following is an article written by Guy Lamolinara, communications officer for the Center for the Book, featured in the September-October 2012 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine. Aug. 24 was the 200th anniversary of the burning of the Capitol building and the Library.) The story of the phoenix that rises triumphantly from its […]

Abraham Lincoln’s “Blind Memorandum”

(The following is a guest post by Michelle Krowl, a historian in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.) Could George B. McClellan have become the seventeenth President of the United States? It certainly appeared to be a possibility as Abraham Lincoln assessed the military and political landscape of the United States in the summer of […]