Why the Washington Monument was once a national embarrassment
It took nearly 40 years to build a tribute to the first U.S. president. It was stalled by a lack of funds and, at one point, occupied by a political fringe group.
Few structures represent the United States as powerfully as the Washington Monument. At the center of Washington, D.C., the impressive marble obelisk (555 feet tall and 55 feet wide) pays grand tribute to the first U.S. president, George Washington. It stars in tourist selfies, postcards, and nearly every movie filmed in the U.S. capital, including some in which aliens attack it (Independence Day, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers).
But the construction of this stone salute to the Revolutionary War hero and “father of our country” was far from straightforward. It took nearly four decades to build the enormous monument in the mid-19th century, during which time it was occupied by a political fringe group, beset by controversy, and stalled by a lack of funds.
“The Washington Monument was as hotly contested in its day as Confederate statues are today,” says Erika Doss, a professor of American Studies at Notre Dame University and author of the book Monument Mania: Public Feeling in America.
Here’s how this famed presidential monument was built, and how it went from a national embarrassment to a national treasure.
Monuments for the father of a country
Proposals to build a monument to George Washington started as early as 1783, when the new U.S. Congress resolved “that an equestrian statue of General Washington be erected at the place where the residence of Congress shall be established.”
Washington was a god-like figure even before he died in 1799. He had led the Continental Army to victory over the British in the American Revolutionary War, going on to serve as the first U.S. president from 1789 to 1797. “But creating a monument for Washington wasn’t just about one man, it was about national identity,” says Paul McLane, a guide for D.C. tour company Washington Walks. “It was the U.S. saying to the world, ‘this is us.’”
In the early 19th century, the new democracy was low on money and unenthused about shelling out for fancy statues or stone tributes. So most monuments in early America were privately funded. “The U.S. government was very ambivalent about the arts. It saw decoration and ornamentation as representing royalty or the church back in England,” says Lance Humphries, executive director of the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy in Baltimore, Maryland, where the country’s first Washington Monument was completed in 1829.
Baltimore, then a booming, popular port (compared to still sleepy Washington, D.C., 41 miles south), used a public lottery to raise funds for its 155-foot-tall marble column capped by a dramatic statue of George. It took a mere four years to build.
In early 19th-century Washington, D.C., the already dysfunctional U.S. Congress couldn’t come to a consensus on what a monument to the first president might look like or how to pay for it. Some statesmen thought Washington deserved a facsimile of Egypt’s Great Pyramid. The monument would be the first memorial on the National Mall, the two-mile-long green space at the center of the capital city.
A group of private citizens took the reins and formed the Washington National Monument Society in 1833. Members, including Supreme Court Justice John Marshall and ex-president James Madison, proposed soliciting public donations to bankroll a 600-foot-tall obelisk designed by Robert Mills, the U.S. architect behind Baltimore’s monument. Mills envisioned surrounding the monolith’s base with a columned “National Pantheon,” populated with statues of early American heroes, including George Washington driving a Roman-style chariot.
Some 20,000 guests were on hand for the laying of the cornerstone on July 4, 1848, including former First Lady Dolley Madison and Alexander Hamilton’s widow, Eliza.
A monument starts—and stops
The society began seeking money from individual states and private citizens, who would each receive a lithograph of Mills’ original design if they donated more than $1. With $87,000 in funds, workers first installed a foundation of blue gneiss stone, then used pulleys, derricks, and other manual systems to hoist and place blocks of marble one on top of the other. The structure was held together by gravity and friction. By 1854, the monument was 156 feet tall.
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As construction proceeded, the society raised funds and interest by having states, foreign countries, Masonic lodges, and other entities donate commemorative blocks of stone to be displayed inside the shaft of the obelisk. These were mostly patriotic statements (“Illinois. State Sovereignty. National Union” reads one).
But when Vatican City sent a stone in 1854, it unwittingly helped bring the whole project to a dramatic halt. The slab of variegated marble came from a 366 B.C. temple in Rome. This riled up the anti-Catholic, anti-immigration sentiments of the Know-Nothings, a nativist political party.
Party loyalists reportedly broke into the Washington Monument site, absconding with “the Pope’s Stone” and throwing it in the nearby Potomac River. It was never recovered, but the interior walls of the finished monument hold 193 of the commemorative stones, visible on the elevator descent from its top.
The Know-Nothings then infiltrated the monument committee and essentially occupied the site from 1855 to 1858. The controversy—and the economic downturn caused by the American Civil War—essentially stopped construction. George’s obelisk remained a half-finished stump, and the land surrounding it became a cattle pasture during the war.
Finishing the job
After the Civil War ended in 1865, the incomplete monument was decried as a national embarrassment. “The ungainly old chimney…is of no earthly use to anybody else, and certainly is not in the least ornamental,” wrote Mark Twain in 1868. “It is an eyesore to the people. It ought to be either pulled down or built up and finished.”
Monument supporters successfully rallied Congress to pay for the monument to be completed, securing $200,000 to finish the job. Construction resumed in 1876. “But the government didn’t want to spend too much on the project, so there went all the froufrou around the base,” says historian John Steele Gordon, author of Washington’s Monument and the Fascinating History of the Obelisk. “What they ended up with was not at all what Mills had in mind, thank God.“ Mills sniffed that the unadorned obelisk would resemble “a stalk of asparagus.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with overseeing construction, was concerned that the existing foundations wouldn’t support the original design’s 600 foot height. So they rebuilt and expanded the existing foundation and trimmed the monument’s height to 555 feet.
A newfangled steam elevator was installed to aid with construction; it would later be repurposed to take tourists on 10- to 12-minute trips to the top. By late 1884, the obelisk was completed with a capstone or pyramidion on top, making it the tallest structure in the world—at least until the Eiffel Tower came along in 1889. The Washington Monument was dedicated on February 21, 1885, the day before the first president’s 153rd birthday.
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Since then, the monument has gotten a series of ever faster, ever fancier elevators. It closed for renovations several times over the years, including after it suffered damage during a rare-for-D.C. earthquake in 2011. The COVID-19 pandemic kept it shuttered for six months in 2020 and 2021.
Today, visitors can reserve a spot online and zip to the top of the Washington Monument. There, they find a small museum on Washington’s life as well as dazzling views of the city that bears his name. “Plus, you see the monument from all over Washington, peeking around every corner,” says Steele. “It’s iconic, the ultimate symbol of the capital.”