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Washington Monument's troubled history continued two days after reopening May 12

Hundreds of visitors turned out for May 12 re-opening of the Washington Monument
Hundreds of visitors turned out for May 12 re-opening of the Washington Monument
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Washington Monument, reopened May 12 after almost three years to repair damage from an earthquake, had an elevator malfunction two days later -- continuing its troubles that date back more than 230 years.

The elevator malfunctioned twice May 14, forcing a group of visitors including an 86-year-old woman to descend almost 870 steps of the 555-foot-tall monument. No one was injured, and the elevator was repaired both times.

Here's some of its "tumultuous history", according to the American Institute of Architects' "AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C." by G. Martin Moeller Jr. (Johns Hopkins University Press):

  • Design

Numerous proposals for its design ranged from a statue of General Washington on horseback, to Hindu pagoda, to a 12th-century Italian campanile.

Even the chosen design, by architect Robert Mills, had a Greek-inspired circular temple at the base -- about 600 feet tall, with a 600-foot obelisk on top -- more than twice the actual monument's 555-foot, 5 1/8-inch height. When completed, it was the world's tallest structure. Today it's still the tallest masonry structure.

One proposal after Washington's death in 1799 was for a pyramid-shaped mausoleum, but Washington's descendants and Virginia officials refused to allow the body to be removed from its crypt at the family estate Mount Vernon.

  • Delays

It's a wonder that the Washington Monument was ever begun, much less completed -- in December 1884, almost a century after the idea was born in 1733. Delays included:

  • 65 years from the Continental Congress' proposal for a monument in 1783 to the groundbreaking on July 4, 1848.
  • Funding bills failed in Congress (surely you didn't think political stalemate was new).
  • Running out of money.
  • The Civil War.

For much of the 19th century, the monument was just a stump, about 152 feet high. The stones' hue changes slightly at that point, the somewhat darker Maryland marble on the bottom to Massachusetts marble on the higher 400 feet of the structure. ​

  • Thefts

Here're some of the thefts:

  • A stone donated by Pope Pius IX, stolen by the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party.
  • Records of the Washington National Monument Society, founded in 1833 to raise private funds after several funding bills had failed in Congress, and to select an architect for the design. The society launched a national design competition in 1836 (yes, another delay), and selected one by Robert Mills.
  • The monument's platinum-tipped lightning rods, taken in 1935 by someone who scaled scaffolding for the structure's first cleaning, a New Deal Works Progress Administration project, according to "On This Spot: Pinpointing the Past in Washington, D.C. by Douglas E. Evelyn and Paul Dickson (Farragut Publishing Company).
  • Location, location, location

It's not in either of the places originally proposed:

  • The Continental Congress voted to build it "at the place where the residence of Congress shall be enlisted."

But it's not, in other words, on Capitol Hill where the Capitol Building houses both houses of Congress.

  • President George Washington and the architect he chose to design Washington, D.C., Pierre L'Enfant, agreed on a different site -- but that didn't work out either. (Nor, by the way, did their collaboration: Washington fired L'Enfant, the first architect of Washington as well as Paris).
  • Their chosen site was to be at the apex of a perfect right triangle with the White House and the Capitol, but the soil was too marshy. So the foundation was placed east and slightly south of the original spot.

(Similar controversies afflicted numerous proposals for the Lincoln Memorial, wrote Moeller in his AIA Guide. Illinois Congressman Joseph Cannon, later Speaker of the House, balked at the designated spot, due to its marshiness: "I'll never let a memorial to Abraham Lincoln be erected in that G-damned swamp." But that spot prevailed.)

Despite all these controversies, and even an earthquake, the Washington Monument is now back to its full glory, and finally open for visitors. Dozens even lined up overnight to enter the hallowed landmark.

Ah, well, America has had a long history of waiting for the Washington Monument.

For more info and tickets: Washington Monument, http://www.nps.gov/wamo/index.htm. EarthCam view of the Washington Monument.

Hundreds of visitors turned out for May 12 re-opening of the Washington Monument
Hundreds of visitors turned out for May 12 re-opening of the Washington Monument Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Hundreds of visitors turned out for May 12 re-opening of the Washington Monument

Washington Monument reopened May 12 after almost three years of repairing earthquake damage. The earthquake was only the latest problem in its tumultuous history. All's well that ends well.

Washington Monument reopened May 12 after almost three years of repairing earthquake damage
Washington Monument reopened May 12 after almost three years of repairing earthquake damage Alex Wong/Getty Images

Washington Monument reopened May 12 after almost three years of repairing earthquake damage

Washington Monument reopened May 12 after almost three years of repairing earthquake damage. The earthquake was only the latest problem in its tumultuous history. All's well that ends well.

Re-opening ceremonies at the Washington Monument May 12
Re-opening ceremonies at the Washington Monument May 12 Alex Wong/Getty Images

Re-opening ceremonies at the Washington Monument May 12

Washington Monument reopened May 12 after almost three years of repairing earthquake damage. The earthquake was only the latest problem in its tumultuous history. All's well that ends well.

At the Washington Monument, repairs were made to hundreds of cracks caused by a 2011 earthquake
At the Washington Monument, repairs were made to hundreds of cracks caused by a 2011 earthquake Mark Wilson/Getty Images

At the Washington Monument, repairs were made to hundreds of cracks caused by a 2011 earthquake

Washington Monument reopened May 12 after almost three years of repairing earthquake damage. The earthquake was only the latest problem in its tumultuous history. All's well that ends well.

Inside looking outside at the Washington Monument, reopened after almost three years of repairs to earthquake damage
Inside looking outside at the Washington Monument, reopened after almost three years of repairs to earthquake damage Pete Marovich/Getty Images

Inside looking outside at the Washington Monument, reopened after almost three years of repairs to earthquake damage

Washington Monument reopened May 12 after almost three years of repairing earthquake damage. The earthquake was only the latest problem in its tumultuous history. All's well that ends well.

A view from the top, from the interior of the Washington Monument. It reopened May 12.
A view from the top, from the interior of the Washington Monument. It reopened May 12. Pete Marovich/Getty Images

A view from the top, from the interior of the Washington Monument. It reopened May 12.

Washington Monument reopened May 12 after almost three years of repairing earthquake damage. The earthquake was only the latest problem in its tumultuous history. All's well that ends well.

Washington Monument is gorgeous at all times of day and night.
Washington Monument is gorgeous at all times of day and night. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Washington Monument is gorgeous at all times of day and night.

Washington Monument is gorgeous at all times of day and night. One of the nation's capital's most visited places, it reopened May 12 after being closed almost three years to repair cracks caused by the 2011 earthquake.

Washington Monument is a monument for all seasons
Washington Monument is a monument for all seasons Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Washington Monument is a monument for all seasons

Washington Monument is a monument for all seasons. One of the nation's capital's most visited places, it reopened May 12 after being closed almost three years to repair cracks caused by the 2011 earthquake.