The Washington Monument is back. The one-two punch of an unexpected earthquake and hurricane three years ago left the landmark scarred and leaky. While under repair, the structure was off-limits to tourists, students, joggers, families, visiting dignitaries and 700,000 others who flock each year to the attraction at the center of the National Mall.
While under repair, the smooth white obelisk — a symbol of American fortitude and resolve — was hidden in a mass of scaffolding that resembled giant structural crutches.
Half of the $15 million needed to straighten the monument came from the public treasury, with another $7.5 million donated by Carlyle Group co-founder David M. Rubenstein, who nudges others to join him in “patriotic philanthropy.”
Such cooperation wasn’t always easy. Construction was often delayed, with setbacks and controversy as troublesome as any that a bureaucrat could devise. Construction began in 1848, but was soon halted by the nativist Know-Nothing Party. In 1854, they stole a block of marble donated by Pope Pius IX and threw it into the Potomac to protest papal participation. (The stone was replaced in 1982.)
When the Know-Nothings retreated, Civil War and other fighting, not all of it physically violent, intervened to keep workers idle. Robert Mills, the architect who drew the original design, lamented that a committee had taken his vision of an obelisk surrounded by a temple like Rome’s Pantheon and left it standing in a field by itself like “a stalk of asparagus.”
Will Rogers called the monument “the only thing in Washington with a point to it.” Later, others imagine it to be a giant finger, boasting, “We’re No. 1!” By 1884, a final point, a single-cast piece of aluminum called the apex, was lowered into place. It was an engineering marvel, as the world’s tallest building was capped with what was then a precious metal serving as a lightning rod. Though the 555-foot structure was soon eclipsed by other construction around the world, the monument retains its primacy in Washington where it stands above all else.
Anthony Trollope, the towering British author, was no fan of the monument. “I have much faith in the American character,” he said, “but I cannot believe either in Washington city or in the Washington Monument. The boast made has been too loud, and the fulfillment yet accomplished has been too small.” We disagree. Welcome back, old friend.