The Washington Monument is a 555-ft-tall (169 m.) obelisk built between 1848 and 1884 in honor of the first President of the United States, George Washington. It is the tallest freestanding masonry structure in the world.
Washington National Monument Society
As early as 1783, when George Washington was still alive, plans by Pierre Charles l’Enfant for an equestrian statue of Washington were approved by Congress. The plan was never realized so in 1833, on the centennial anniversary of George Washington’s birth, James Madison and John Marshall decided to take matters into their own hands and founded the Washington National Monument Society; its purpose was to build a monument for George Washington.
The Society tried to collect funds for the monument, and in 1836 they held a competition for designs. The winning architect, Robert Mills, had already created a monument to Washington in Baltimore. He won the competition with a design which called for a topped-off 600-foot-tall (183 m.) obelisk surrounded by a circular colonnade with a height of 100 feet (30.5 meters).
Start of Construction
The Society had only collected a fraction of the estimated cost of one million dollars, so they decided to start construction of the obelisk as a way to foster more financial support. The colonnade would be built later.
Finally, on July 4, 1848, the cornerstone was laid. The monument was built on top of a hill on a 37 acre (15 ha.) site donated by Congress.
Donations and Know Nothings
During construction, the Society invited states and private organizations to donate stones that could be used for the construction of the Washington Monument. Problems arose when a stone was donated by Pope Pius IX. An anti-Catholic American party, the Know-Nothings, stole the stone and took over control of the Washington National Monument Society. Congress, which was to donate $200,000 for the construction, refused to fund the politicized Society. Public support for the monument started to dwindle, and the Know Nothings were unable to collect money to finish the obelisk. In 1858, they returned the ownership of the project back to the original supporters of the Society but due to the outbreak of the Civil War, construction of the monument was halted. Only 152 feet / 46 meters was completed.
In 1876, at the centennial of the Declaration of Independence, Congress approved a contribution of $200,000. The design of the monument was simplified: it was decided the colonnade would not be built, and the obelisk would keep the proportions of a standard Egyptian obelisk. In 1879 construction resumed under the supervision of Lt. Colonel Thomas L. Casey and four years later the monument was completed. The rather flat top was changed into a pyramidal one. The tip of the pyramid top was made of aluminum, at the time a rare and precious metal.
The point at which construction was halted in 1858 is still visible, as a different quarry was used after the resumption of the works. The stones above 152ft have a darker tone of color than the original ones.
The monument was finally dedicated on February 21, 1885, thirty-seven years after construction started. It opened to the public more than three years later, in October 1888.
The Washington Monument is located on the National Mall. It is surrounded by flagpoles, with each flag representing one state. The monument is open to the public; an elevator brings you to the observatory at the top of the obelisk, from where you have a magnificent view over all of Washington. Admission is free, but you have to reserve a ticket.