Magnificent Metal Monday

In honor of President’s Day, MMM examines the monument that honors the first President of the United States. Upon its completion in 1884, the Washington Monument was the tallest building in the world. Designed by Robert Mills and eventually completed by Thomas Casey and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it honors and memorializes George Washington at the center of the nation’s capital.

According to the US National Park Service, “The Washington Monument was completed in two phases of construction, one private (1848-1854) and one public (1876-1884). Built in the shape of an Egyptian obelisk, evoking the timelessness of ancient civilizations, the Washington Monument embodies the awe, respect, and gratitude the nation felt for its most essential Founding Father. When completed, the Washington Monument was the tallest building in the world at 555 feet, 5-1/8 inches.”

First phase of Washington Monument construction; Photo Credit: US National Park Service

In 1848, builders commenced work on the blue gneiss foundation, an 80-foot square step pyramid. With the substructure completed, the builders then proceeded to the above-ground marble structure using a system of pulleys, block and tackle systems, and a mounted derrick to hoist and place the stones, inching the structure skyward. By 1854, the monument had reached a height of 156 feet above ground, but then construction stalled and for more than two decades, the monument stood only partly finished.

By a joint resolution passed on July 5, 1876, Congress assumed the duty of funding and building the Washington Monument. Using a steam-powered elevator that could lift six tons of stone up to a movable 20-foot-tall iron frame replete with a boom and block and tackle systems for setting the stones, the masons inched their way up the monument, building twenty feet of stone and mortar, then moving the iron framework up twenty feet, repeating as they went upward. Once complete, an 8.9-inch aluminum tip was placed atop the capstone, inscribed with notable names and dates of the monument’s construction, and on the east face, facing the rising sun, the Latin words “Laus Deo,” which translate to, “Praise be to God.”

After nearly 40 years to complete, the Washington Monument was dedicated on February 21, 1885, one day before George Washington’s birthday. After the completion of the iron staircase in the monument’s interior, the Washington Monument was first accessible to the public in 1886, closed much of 1887 until it could be better protected from vandals, and reopened in 1888 with a public elevator. 

As compiled by the “Constitution Daily,” here are 10 “fun facts” about the Monument:

  • James Madison had an early role in getting the monument project started.
  • The initial winning bid came from architect Robert Mills, whose designed a flat-topped obelisk with a statue of Washington in a chariot.
  • At the 1848 dedication ceremony a container that held copies of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and other objects was buried in the cornerstone.
  • Abraham Lincoln was at the 1848 cornerstone ceremony.
  • Pope Pius IX donated a memorial stone of marble.
  • The monument became stalled for 22 years and was used as a slaughter yard and cattle pen during the Civil War.
  • The aluminum cap was placed on top as a lightning-protection device.
  • The Monument was the tallest building in the world when it was finished, soon to be surpassed by the Eiffel Tower.
  • The Monument’s marble blocks are held together by just gravity and friction, and no mortar was used in the process – making it an engineering marvel.
  • The Monument has movie star credentials having appeared as the backrop in major motion pictures and in a real-life moment, when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke on the mall in August 1963.
Photo Credit: Constitution Daily

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