Podcast Episodes

A Great Obelisk

In 1833, a small organization formed with the purpose to fund and build a monument “unparalleled in the world” in honor of once commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and the first President of the United States. Its completion, and its history, not unlike the Statue of Liberty, were fraught with funding issues, construction delays, and outside forces seemingly teamed against it. Today on America’s National Parks, the Washington Monument, part of the National Mall and Memorial Parks in Washington, D.C.

As far back as the victory in the Revolutionary War, proposals began flooding in to commemorate American hero George Washington. In 1783, the Continental Congress had determined “That an equestrian statue of George Washington be erected at the place where the residence of Congress shall be established.” But it wasn’t until his death in 1799 that a different type of monument would be considered. John Marshall, a Representative from Virginia, who later became Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, proposed that a tomb be erected within the Capitol. A lack of funds and disagreements over what type of vision for the memorial, coupled with the Washington family’s hesitation to move him stalled the idea. Still, Congress authorized a suitable memorial in the capital, but the decision was reversed when the Jeffersonian Republicans took control of Congress in 1801. Washington had become the symbol of the Federalist Party, their adversaries, and they were reluctant to construct an effigy in his honor. They also blocked his image on coins and the celebration of his birthday.

In 1833, a group of private citizens formed the Washington National Monument Society, and began raising funds. By 1836 they had raised $28,000 in donations, about $1,000,000 today, at which point a competition for the design of the memorial was announced.

“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” said the announcement. “[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.”

For the following decade, designs were solicited and more money was raised, until a winner was chosen, Architect Robert Mills. Mill’s design described a circular building 250 feet in diameter and 100 feet high from which raised a four-sided obelisk, another 500 feet tall. The obelisk was to be 70 feet square at the base and 40 feet square at the top with a slightly peaked roof. The top of the portico of the building would feature Washington standing in a chariot holding the reins of six horses. Inside the colonnade would be statues of 30 prominent Revolutionary War heroes, and statues of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

With costs estimated at $20 Million in today’s dollars, however, it would be nearly impossible to fund. Mills made some design modifications to cut costs, and construction began on the Washington Monument in 1848, with funding still lagging. The cornerstone was laid on July 4 with nearly 20,000 people in attendance including President James K. Polk, Dolley Madison, Eliza Hamilton, and future presidents Buchanan, Lincoln, and Johnson. Builders started work on the foundation, an 80-foot square step pyramid. With the substructure completed, the builders then proceeded to the above-ground marble structure, using a system of pulleys, block and tackle systems, and a hoist to place the stones. By 1854, the monument had reached a height of 156 feet above ground.

In the previous year, a new group aligned with the controversial Know-Nothing Party gained control of the Washington National Monument Society. The change in administration alienated donors and drove the Society to bankruptcy. Without funds, work on the monument halted, and then the following year, Architect Robert Mills died. For more than two decades, the monument stood only partly finished, an embarrassment on the front lawn of the nation. Attempts were made from within Congress to intercede, but as the civil war loomed, they all failed. Not until the patina of history set in would our first president’s memorial be picked up again, when the country put itself back together after the Civil War.

A joint resolution passed both houses of Congress on July 5, 1876, which assumed the duty to fund and complete the Washington Monument. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, led by Lt. Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey, was responsible for directing and completing the work. Casey’s first task was to strengthen the foundation of the monument, which he determined was inadequate for the structure as it was designed. For four years, builders shored up the foundation.

The quarry near Baltimore used for the stone during the initial construction had long been shuttered. A quarry in Massachusetts looked like a possible color match, but problems quickly arose with the quality and color of the stone, and the irregularity of deliveries. After adding several rows of this stone—a brown-streaked line one-third of the way up the monument—the builders shifted to a quarry near Baltimore that provided the stone for the upper two-thirds of the structure. The three slightly different colors from the three quarries are clearly visible today.

Casey reduced the height of the structure to ten times the width of the base, 555 feet. Plans for all the ornate embellishments and the ring of columns were scrapped in favor of what we see today: the simple, 4-sided obelisk. He also reduced the thickness of the walls from thirteen feet to nine feet between the 150 and 160 foot levels, visible in the monument’s interior. A steam-powered elevator was used to lift six tons of stone up to a movable 20-foot-tall iron frame.

470 feet above the ground, builders began angling buttresses inward to support the marble pyramid which rests at the top of the monument. On December 6, 1884, Lt. Col. Casey supervised as the 3,300-pound capstone was brought out through one of the windows, hoisted to the scaffolding at the tip of the monument, and set in place. He then placed the 8.9-inch aluminum tip that sits upon the capstone as crowds cheered below. The Washington Monument was complete, and it was the tallest building in the world at 555 feet, 5.125 inches.

An iron staircase was build in the monument’s interior, and it was opened to the public in 1886, For six months after its dedication, 10,041 people climbed the 900 steps and 47 large landings to the top. After the elevator that had been used to raise building materials was altered to carry passengers, the number of visitors grew rapidly, and an average of 55,000 people per month were going to the top by 1888. Visitors could view memorial stones inset in the walls from various individuals, civic groups, cities, states, and countries from around the world.

The original steam-driven elevator, with a trip time of 10-12 minutes to the top of the monument, was replaced with an electric elevator in 1901.

In the early 1900s, material began to ooze out between the outer stones below the 150-foot mark, referred to by tourists as “geological tuberculosis.” It was caused by the weathering of the cement and rubble filler between the outer and inner walls. As the lower section of the monument was exposed to cold and hot and damp and dry weather conditions, the material dissolved and worked its way through the cracks between the stones of the outer wall, solidifying as it dripped down their outer surface.

The National Park Service was given jurisdiction over the Monument in 1933, after which the first restoration of the structure began as a Depression-Era public works project.

For ten hours in December 1982, eight tourists were held hostage in the monument by Norman Mayer, a nuclear arms protester. Mayer claimed to have explosives in a van he drove up to the monument’s base. U.S. Park Police shot and killed Mayer, and it was discovered later that the the van did not contain a bomb. The surrounding grounds were modified to restrict the unauthorized approach of motor vehicles.

The monument underwent an extensive restoration project in the late 90s. It was completely covered in scaffolding as the stonework was, cleaned, repaired, and repointed. The stone in publicly accessible interior spaces was encased in glass to prevent vandalism, while new windows with narrower frames were installed to increase the viewing space. New exhibits celebrating the life of George Washington, and the monument’s place in history were also added. A new elevator cab included glass windows, allowing visitors to see some of the 194 memorial stones embedded in the monument’s walls.

Just three years after the restoration, the monument closed for another renovation, which included numerous security upgrades and redesign of the grounds due to security concerns following 9/11.


“The storms of winter must blow and beat upon it … the lightnings of Heaven may scar and blacken it. An earthquake may shake its foundations … but the character which it commemorates and illustrates is secure” shared Robert Winthrop at the dedication on February 21, 1885, a day before Washington’s birthday. It’s a quote that would be an omen of things to come.

At 1:51 p.m. on August 23, 2011, the Washington Monument shook forcefully for nearly three minutes as a magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck 90 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. Visitors inside the observation deck were thrown about by the force of the quake; falling mortar and pieces of stone caused minor injuries, but all the people inside exited safely. Over 150 cracks were found in the monument. Pieces of stone, stone chips, mortar, and paint chips came free of the monument and littered the interior stairs and observation deck. Two days later, Hurricane Irene hit Washington DC, and water streamed into the monument. It was in danger of complete collapse. The National Park Service announced that the Washington Monument would be closed indefinitely.

After over three years of repairs, the Washington Monument re-opened to visitors on May 12, 2014. Repairs cost $15 million, with taxpayers funding half and philanthropist David Rubenstein picking up the rest of the tab. But the monument was still plagued with problems. The earthquake had cause the elevator system to become unreliable, and just two years after re-opening, the Washington monument closed again. The $3 million project is ongoing today, this time entirely funded by David Rubenstein.

The Washington Monument, if you dare plan a visit with the intention of actually getting a chance to go inside, is scheduled to re-open in the spring of 2019.

Each year, millions of people visit the National Mall and Memorial Parks to celebrate presidential legacies, to honor our nation’s veterans, and to celebrate our nation’s history. For more than 200 years, the National Mall has symbolized our nation’s democratic values.

The great swath of green in the middle of our capital city is an exciting visit, but be prepared for lots of walking, and very expensive or non-existent parking. Luckily, DC has a great public transportation system that you’d be wise to take advantage of. If you’re flying staying in a DC hotel, you can usually just avoid getting a rental car altogether. Many campgrounds and suburban hotels have shuttles that will link you up with the DC metro train system. Wear comfortable shoes, and be prepared for any weather.


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Music

Music for this week’s episode is provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

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