The Washington Monument: A Long Journey to the Top

This photo provides an unfamiliar view of a very familiar structure:

Washington Monument as it stood for 25 years. Photo by Mathew M. Brady, circa 1870. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpbh.03248

Washington Monument as it stood for 25 years. Photo by Mathew M. Brady, circa 1870. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpbh.03248

Yes, that is the unfinished stump of the Washington Monument, as it looked for about 25 years. In 1856, when funding shortages interrupted construction, the monument stood only 156 feet tall out of a projected 500 feet. During the U.S. Civil War, the site was used for the grazing and slaughtering of government cattle, earning it the nickname Beef Depot Monument, as seen in this engraving (below left) published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on Feb. 1, 1862. It was a rather ignominious period for the monument, after the cornerstone had been laid years before on July 4, 1848 to great fanfare in front of 20,000 people, with plans to build a design by architect Robert Mills (below right):

Beef Depot Monument. Wood engraving, published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Feb. 1, 1862, p. 173. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b07648

Beef Depot Monument. Wood engraving, published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Feb. 1, 1862, p. 173. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b07648

Design of the national Washington Monument. Lithograph by Charles Fenderich, from the original design by Robert Mills, 1846. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.03714

Design of the national Washington Monument. Lithograph by Charles Fenderich, from the original design by Robert Mills, 1846. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pga.03714

Initial funding was privately raised by the Washington National Monument Society, founded in 1833 with Librarian of Congress George Watterston as a charter member. To cut costs, the large temple structure at the base was put aside for the time being, but the collected donations still fell short.

This 1852 lithograph presented a rather idyllic view of the nation’s capital, with the Washington Canal re-imagined as a recreational boating site and the envisioned Washington Monument depicted as complete:

Washington, D.C. with projected improvements. Lithograph by B. F. Smith, 1852. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.31534

Washington, D.C. with projected improvements. Lithograph by B. F. Smith, 1852. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.31534

This 1863 photograph presents a far more accurate view of the land between the U.S. Capitol and the incomplete Washington Monument, here a faint pillar in the distance to the right of the Smithsonian Institution castle:

[Early photographic view of Washington, D.C. from the Capitol looking west-southwest]. Photo, circa 1863. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c27632

[Early photographic view of Washington, D.C. from the Capitol looking west-southwest]. Photo, circa 1863. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c27632

Finally, the country’s approaching centennial triggered action, and Congress passed a joint resolution on July 5, 1876 to complete the monument to the country’s first President. (The gap between the two stages of construction accounts for the noticeable change in the marble about 1/3 of the way up!) The next chapters in the monument’s tale involved shoring up an insufficient foundation and altering the design to remove the temple and re-shape the obelisk to the just over 555-foot monument we know today.

With the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Lt. Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey at the helm, the project moved forward with great efficiency. (Casey would also have a major role in the construction of the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building a decade later.) The citizens of the nation’s capital witnessed the growth of the long-planned monument and in December 1884, the capstone was finally put in place to top off a fifty-year journey. At the time of completion, the Washington Monument was the tallest structure in the world, surpassed in 1889 by the Eiffel Tower. The 1903 photochrom below features the finally completed monument that has become an iconic and indelible part of the Washington, D.C. skyline.

Washington Monument. Photochrom by Detroit Publishing Co., 1903. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.18241

Washington Monument. Photochrom by Detroit Publishing Co., 1903. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.18241

Climbers assessing damage to the Washington Monument following the 2011 earthquake. Washington, D.C. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2011 September. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.18678

Climbers assessing damage to the Washington Monument following the 2011 earthquake. Washington, D.C. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2011 September. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.18678

Popular since the beginning with visitors anxious to see the capital city from on high, the monument has needed a few renovations over the years to counter the damage done by heavy use and age. The most recent renovations were necessary to repair damage from a 2011 earthquake and to modernize the elevator. The photo at right shows climbers assessing the condition of the exterior after the earthquake. This week, the highest vantage point in the nation’s capital is available again, as the Washington Monument re-opens to the public after three years.

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One Comment

  1. Bob Hollowell
    September 20, 2019 at 2:24 pm

    Thank you. Glad to know the slow workings of the government is nothing new. However, “Beef Depot”, apparently, did not get cleared of all the b.s..

    Again, thanks for sharing.

    Bob

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