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The Dedication of the Washington Monument

60 second histories
by: Squaducation date: 21 Feb

The Dedication of the Washington Monument


  -  February 21st 1885  -  


The idea to build a monument to the first President of America seemed natural. The fact that it should be awe-inspiring obvious. The problems that followed were less predictable and no-one could have envisaged when the cornerstone was laid on July 4th 1848 just what lay ahead. 20,000 people attended this ceremony including the current President – James K Polk – and future presidents Lincoln and Johnson.


Earlier, in 1833, a group entitled the Washington National Monument Society was formed to fund and design a suitable tribute to the first president. It was to remind the nation of his military and political greatness and the fact that he had set the standard for all those to follow. The site had been reserved – in an area where it would not stand in any other building’s shadow. It was to go at an intersection of lines radiating south from the White House and those from the west of the capitol. Pierre L’Enfant, who had designed the geometric layout of Washington DC, had picked this spot especially.


By 1845 a design by Robert Mills had been chosen. It was to be an Egyptian Obelisk 600 feet high ringed by thirty 100 feet columns. An obelisk, it was felt, had the timelessness of the ancient cultures. It was highly ambitious and even more expensive. The foundation was put in – an 80 square feet step pyramid – before the cornerstone was laid in 1848. By 1854 the obelisk had reached 156feet.


However, a new group took control of the Washington National Monument Society and quickly brought it into disrepute. The funding dried up and the society went bankrupt. Building soon stopped and was not to re-start again for over 2 decades, with a Civil War happening in that time too.


By the time Congress passed a resolution, July 5th 1876, to award the funds to complete the monument the designer had long since died. The state of the monument was a national disgrace and did anything but honour the great President. The building was now to be undertaken by the US Army Corps of Engineers under the supervision of Lt Col. Thomas Casey.


The first thing he had to do was to sure up the foundations as he deemed them insufficient. The height of the obelisk was also altered. It was felt it should be no bigger than ten times the diameter which meant a maximum of 555feet. The thirty columns were also abandoned as an obelisk standing on its own would be more dramatic and fitting. One problem they had was the stone with which to build it. The quarry in Baltimore had closed and they decided to use one near Massachusetts instead. This stone was rather darker and the deliveries were not reliable. The quarry was thus abandoned and a third quarry found just outside Baltimore. Thus you can see three slightly different coloured stones.


On a windy day on December 6th the capstone, weighing 3,300 pounds, was winched up, brought out through one of the windows and lowered slowly into position with the crowd cheering below. Lt Col Casey then leaned out and placed an 8.9inch aluminium tip on the top. On the east face of the cap are inscribed the words, ‘Laus Deo’, meaning Praise Be to God.


An iron staircase was erected so that people might be able to walk up inside the monument in 1886 but vandalism and graffiti meant that it was soon closed. In 1888 a steam-driven elevator was added that took people to the top in 10 minutes and meant they could view the 193 commemorative stones that were donated from individuals, cities, states and other countries from all around the world that were set into the internal structure.


In 1901 an electric elevator replaced the steam-drive one and in 1934 it was closed for restoration. It was closed again in 1964 and in 1998-2001. The latter of these closures saw a new elevator installed. At 1.51pm local time, an earthquake of 5.8 magnitude threw visitors around the structure and caused its closure. Internal and external cracks were found and bits of masonry had fallen down.


The monument, now in the care of the National Park Service, was not re-opened until May 12th 2014 and cost $15 million. $7.5m of this was public money, the other half was given by David Rubenstein, an American financier and philanthropist. However, the monument is currently still closed due to problems with the elevator.



Rather ironically at the dedication of the Washington Monument in 1885, a speech by then-elderly Robert Winthrop, who had attended the opening ceremony in 1848, was read by Rep. John D. Long of Massachusetts. He said of the Washington Monument, "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."


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