- The Washington Times - Monday, July 31, 2000

The Washington Monument the tallest building in the nation's capital, which celebrates the life of founding father George Washington reopens to visitors today after undergoing a three-year, estimated $10 million face lift.

The 555-foot-tall obelisk, which remains the tallest free-standing masonry structure in the world, opens its doors at 9 a.m., nearly a month after its scheduled and long-awaited debut that was delayed by climate and minor construction problems.

"It's the hottest ticket in town right now," said Loren Goering, a park ranger with the National Park Service, who was standing outside the monument's gate yesterday afternoon, directing tourists to come back this morning. "It's not going to be quiet for very much longer."

Visitors yesterday said they couldn't wait to be one of the first to see the completed project. Quite a few said they would start lining up at the ticket booth at 7 a.m. to beat the crowds.

"Thank goodness I could stay in Washington one more day before I had to go back home," said Richard Haymon of New York. "I don't want to miss out on this."

Some weren't as lucky.

"Our flight out is early tomorrow morning," said Ingrid Berman of California as she and her two daughters stood outside the gates yesterday afternoon. "But at least we got a picture of it."

Park Service officials began the monument's renovation in late 1997, dividing the repair work into three phases to try to "minimize" the amount of time the monument was closed to visitors, said Vikki Keys, deputy superintendent of the National Park Service-Central.

In all, the monument was shut down for about 15 months during the entire renovation process, said Miss Keys.

For the first five months of the project, the 25-member crew repaired the structure's air conditioning, heating and elevator systems.

"We wanted to make it more pleasant for visitors," Miss Keys said. "We wanted them to feel comfortable when they visited the monument, especially during the hot summer months."

However, it still takes visitors 70 seconds to ride up 500 feet to the monument's observation deck, a far cry from the 12-minute-long elevator ride visitors had to take in 1888.

After the first phase was completed, the crews began to focus on fixing up the monument's exterior, which meant erecting a framework of scaffolding around the structure to allow them to climb up and down the monument. The framework was designed by noted architect Michael Graves.

The sides of the monument are so sheer, work crews had to be careful.

"They had to move up and down the structure and do it in an efficient way. Knock on wood, there were no accidents or mishaps," said Miss Keys.

It took crews less than a year to clean and repoint the monument's 36,000 blocks of cut and dressed white marble that came from a quarry in Baltimore.

In all, crews replaced 75 stones, all of which came from the same quarry, and repointed about 11 miles of mortar that holds the blocks together throughout the structure, said Miss Keys.

Finally, the third and final phase included rehabilitating the interior levels, particularly the observation deck at the 500-foot level whose windows were enlarged by an inch on all sides.

At the 490-foot level, visitors will now find a newly improved exhibit that features facts about George Washington's life and the construction of the monument, which originally opened in October 1888.

The exhibit level also contains replicas of artifacts, including an original donation box that was used in the 1840s to collect money for the monument's construction and a replica of the 100-ounce aluminum cap that now sits atop the obelisk, said Miss Keys.

The level also was expanded to allow visitors to walk all the way around the monument. Before the renovation, visitors could only walk two-thirds of the way around the structure, said Miss Keys.

"There's definitely more room to roam now," said Miss Keys.

A large number of commemorative stones located inside and donated by all 50 states, foreign governments and private individuals were also restored. More than 190 of the carved stones have been placed under protective glass so visitors could see them.

The lengthy restoration project was made possible through a public-private partnership with the National Park Service, National Park Foundation and Target department stores, said Park Service officials.

Target had donated about $6.5 million to fund the restoration. The federal government paid the remainder of the project.

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