As the Revolutionary War came to an end, the majority of Americans felt no other patriot commanded more respect than did George Washington. As the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, his leadership played a tremendous role in the victory achieved by the American patriots. In time, the desire to commemorate this hero’s dedication to his country’s cause grew by leaps and bounds.
The idea of creating an equestrian statue of General Washington was chosen and in 1783, the Continental Congress stated the statue was to be erected by Congress’ meeting location, engraved with this remark: In honor of George Washington, the illustrious Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States of America during the war which vindicated and secured their liberty, sovereignty, and independence. A statue of sorts was later erected and is currently on display at the north end of George Washington University.
Ten days after Washington died, a Virginia Representative, John Marshall (future Chief Justice) proposed a tomb be created, but the lack of funds and the reluctance of Washington’s family to move his body, put an end to that idea. However, the desire for a memorial to the beloved first president continued.
In 1832, the Washington National Monument Society was founded on the 100th anniversary of Washington’s birth. Their first task was to begin the acquisition of funds to erect the desired monument. By the mid 1830’s, their efforts resulted in a collection of over $28,000 (equivalent to $588,524 in 2010 dollars). Now it was time to select a design for the tribute. The board of managers decreed on September 23, 1835 what their expectations would be in the designs and competition began.
The board’s desire was for the monument to be like the man whom it honored, unparalleled throughout the world, and commensurate with the gratitude of the people who chose to have it constructed. It was to be created with materials found only in America – nothing imported. Marble and granite from each of the states would be added to the construction.
In 1836, the winning architect was Robert Mills, who had previously been chosen by the residents of Baltimore to build a monument to Washington. He was already rather well known due to having been chosen Architect of Public Buildings. His winning design was a 600 foot obelisk – a four-sided, upright pillar which tapers as it rises. His additional plans included a circular colonnade surrounding the obelisk, a likeness of Washington standing in a chariot at the top and 30 statutes of prominent Revolutionary War heroes inside the colonnade.
After Mills presented his design, the price tag totaled more than $1 million ($21 million in 2008), which was a bit much for the pocketbooks. They chose to go with the obelisk for now and think about the colonnade at a later time. Conservative minds were of the opinion that if they used the $87,000 they already had and built the obelisk, the monument itself would encourage donations for the other portions of the project.
The original site chosen for the monument was at a point where it would line up directly south of the center of the White House, and west of the Capitol’s center. The ground in this location, however, did not prove stable enough to support a structure of the planned height and weight, so another location was needed. Instead, the Jefferson Pier now stands on the spot originally chosen for the Washington Monument.
In early 1848, the excavation required for the monument’s foundation began. On July 4th, the cornerstone was laid in a ceremony hosted by the Freemasons, a fraternal organization to which Washington had belonged. Construction continued until 1854 when the funds ran out. Congress appropriated an additional $200,000, but rescinded the plans prior to the money being made available. In an effort to save money and to involve all the states in the building of the monument, the call went out for stones to be provided from each of the states. Maryland contributed blocks of granite, sandstone and marble. A number of professional organizations, Indian tribes and businesses, as well as foreign nations contributed stones 4’ x 2’ x 12-18” in size. Some of the stones donated were discarded due to the inscriptions found on them.
In the early 1850s, Pope Pius IX contributed a block of marble. In March 1854, the ‘Know-Nothings’, a group of anti-Catholics, stole the stone in protest and tossed it into the Potomac River. It was later replaced in 1982. This same group gained control of the monument’s construction, adding 13 courses to it. The work done, however, was of such poor quality, it was all removed. At that time, work on the monument was halted due to the advent of the Civil War.
At the close of the Civil War, interest in the monument – which had stood for nearly 20 years at 1/3 the height it was destined to be – returned and construction resumed. During the country’s centennial in 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill in which government funds were approved to complete the monument. In 1879, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Lincoln Casey, a member of the US Army Corps of Engineers directed the construction. He redesigned the foundation to support the structure, whose final weight was at that time estimated to be 40,000 tons. He also decided what to do with the collection of commemorative stones, most of which were placed on the inside walls. One challenge he was unable to conquer was that of finding quarry stones for the outside of the monument to match those already there. As a result, the stones on the lowest third of the monument have a slightly different appearance to them than do those on the upper two-thirds.
Under Thomas Casey’s direction, the monument was completed over the course of the next four years, with additional funding provided by Congress. On December 6, 1884, the monument was capped with 100 ounces of aluminum to form a lightening rod. This was the largest piece of aluminum ever cast in the country’s history. At this time, aluminum was as costly as silver, being priced at $1/oz. So unique was this quantity of aluminum at that time that was displayed in Tiffany’s prior to being placed on the monument.
Formal dedication of the monument took place in 1885 on Washington’s birthday, February 22nd. Thomas Casey and President Chester Arthur were among the speakers. After the speeches, General William Tecumseh Sherman led a procession of dignitaries, along with the audience gathered, to the east entrance of the Capitol. President Arthur received the passing troops, after which the president, his cabinet, diplomats and various others adjourned to the House chamber to hear Representative John Davis Long share the story about the laying of the monument’s cornerstone’s ceremony 37 years prior.
October 9, 1888, the monument was opened to the public. When it first opened, the elevator, which had previously been installed to haul stones to the upper levels of the structure, was converted to carry passengers. At that time though, only men were allowed to ride in it, due to concerns about safety issues. Women and children who desired to see the upper levels of the monument, were required to climb the 897 steps. Six months following the monument’s dedication and opening, 10,041 people had done just that. The stairs are now off limits to the general public, due to safety issues and past vandalism of the commemorative plaques found inside.
At the time the Washington Monument was completed, it was the tallest structure in the world. It still remains the tallest ‘stone’ structure, but the Eiffel Tower in Paris later gained the title tallest ‘structure’. The monument still stands as the tallest structure in Washington D.C. Rumor has it no other structure in D.C. shall be built higher than the Washington Monument, but no documented proof has been found to substantiate the statement.
When finished, the monument stood 555’ – 5-1/8” tall and weighing in at 81,120 tons. The walls are approximately 15’ thick at the base, and 18” in the upper shaft area. The majority of the white marble came from Maryland, with some contributed by Massachusetts. This is underlain with granite from Maine and blue gneiss from Maryland. 193 memorial stones are inlaid from various states, nations, individuals, societies and towns. Fifty flags surround the base, representing the 50 states. Though the height of the monument tends to assert its dominance over the other landmarks of the city, the simplicity of its style reflects the unadorned grace Washington chose for himself.
A unique fact about the Washington Monument – the same trowel used by George Washington to set the Capitol’s corner stone in 1793 was used to set the cornerstone for his monument.