Why is There a Pyramid Atop the Washington Monument?

iStock / jkbowers
iStock / jkbowers

When the monument was constructed in the 1880s, aluminum was pretty rare and pretty expensive. Although it's very abundant in the Earth’s crust, the metal occurs tightly bonded and combined with other minerals, so it was very difficult and costly to extract. In 1884, aluminum was $1 per ounce, or about the same price as silver, and equal to the wage a laborer working on the monument got for one of his 10+ hour workdays.

Modern myth says that the pricey topper was sort of an "only the best" tribute to the first President, but the metal's value had no real impact on the decision, nor did the choice seem to involve any design evaluation, testing, or comparative competition among available materials. Instead, aluminum was selected because William Frishmuth, conveniently one of the only U.S. aluminum producers at that time, thought it could take a shock.

The pyramid was supposed to serve as a lightning rod, and since Frishmuth had already done some plating work for the monument, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called on him to fashion the topper as well. They requested a small metal pyramid, preferably made from copper, bronze, or platinum-plated brass. Frishmuth suggested that he instead use aluminum for its conductivity, color, and the fact that it wouldn't stain. He gave them a quote of $75, and the Corps agreed.

Frishmuth cast a cap that he called a “perfect pyramide of pure aluminum," weighing in at 100 ounces and standing nine inches tall. It was the largest piece of cast aluminum that had ever been created at the time, and Frishmuth was so tickled with his accomplishment that he arranged with the Corps to exhibit the pyramid in New York before he brought it to Washington. For two days, the pyramid sat in the window of Tiffany's in New York City, displayed like a precious jewel. Later, it was put on public display, on the floor, and visitors were allowed to carefully step over so they could tell their friends that they had walked "clear over the top of the Washington Monument."

Frishmuth's delays in delivering the pyramid to the monument site finally wore thin, and its tour came to an end when Colonel Thomas Lincoln Casey, the engineer in charge of the monument project, threatened him with force. The pyramid finally arrived with Frishmuth's request that it be displayed in the House and the Senate. He also wanted it wiped free of fingerprints with a chamois after being set atop the monument.

Budget Problem

Casey's eroded patience with Frishmuth completely gave way when he received the bill. Frishmuth exceeded his estimate by more than three times and submitted an invoice for $256.10. No more than a few hours after the papers arrived, Casey sent his assistant to Frishmuth's foundry in Philadelphia to investigate the bill. The entire accounting of the bill isn't clear, but one major factor in the unexpected cost appears to have been that Frishmuth could not use a standard sand mold to cast the pyramid and had to construct an iron one for the project. Another problem was that the cost of the aluminum alone, at the day's prices, was higher than Frishmuth's estimate of materials plus labor.

Davis managed to negotiate Frishmuth down to a final price of $225 and the pyramid was placed on top of the monument on December 6, 1884. But just a few months later, the pyramid fell down on the job. In June 1885, lightning struck the monument and cracked the north face of the spire just under the capstone. The pyramid was apparently not cut out to handle lightning on its own, and it was soon surrounded by a crown of gold-plated copper bars.

During a 1934 rehab of the monument's exterior, workers found another flaw in Frishmuth's pyramid. Repeated lightning strikes had blunted its tip, and pieces had melted and re-fused to the sides. Frishmuth's promise that the pyramid would not tarnish was good, though, and the inscriptions made on the metal 50 years prior were still readable.

8 Frank Lloyd Wright Buildings Join the List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Mariano Mantel Follow, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Mariano Mantel Follow, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The UNESCO World Heritage Center recognizes sites of great cultural, historical, or scientific importance, from manmade cities like Venice to natural wonders like the Great Barrier Reef. A group of new locations honored this month aren't nearly as old as some other sites on the list, but in just the past century or so, they've made a huge impact. During its 43rd annual session, the World Heritage Committee elected to add eight buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the American architect who pioneered the Prairie School movement in the 20th century.

The Frank Lloyd Wright structures joining the UNESCO list include Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona; Hollyhock House in Los Angeles; the Frederick C. Robie House in Chicago; Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City; Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pennsylvania; the Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House in Madison, Wisconsin; and Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Each building was constructed between 1905 and 1938, and they represent just a handful of the more than 400 Wright works still standing today.

The group makes up a single World Heritage Site known as "The 20th-Century Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright." Together, the buildings are the 24th World Heritage Site recognized in the U.S., accompanying such places as Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Everglades National Park in Florida, and the Grand Canyon in Arizona. They're not the first example of modern architecture to be added to the list, though. The Sydney Opera House, the city of Brasilia, and the Bauhaus School in Germany are also World Heritage Sites.

According to organization's website, adding landmarks to the UNESCO World Heritage list "helps raise awareness among citizens and governments for heritage preservation," and that "greater awareness leads to a general rise in the level of the protection and conservation given to heritage properties." Countries that house heritage sites are also eligible for funding from UNESCO to preserve them. All of the sites included "The 20th-Century Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright" are already protected as National Historic Landmarks, and many are open to visitors.

The World’s Largest Underwater Restaurant Just Opened in Norway—Take a Peek Inside

Ivar Kvaal
Ivar Kvaal

Months before it opened, the world's largest underwater restaurant in Norway was already flooded with reservations. Recently, Business Insider reported that Under has finally started serving its first guests. If you can't book a table at the hottest restaurant below sea level, you can look at the photos taken inside to get an idea of the unique dining experience.

In addition to being the largest underwater restaurant on Earth, Under, from the architecture firm Snøhetta, is also the first of its kind in Europe. It's located in the notoriously treacherous waters off Norway's southern coast.

Underwater restaurant jutting out of the sea.
Ivar Kvaal

After entering the angled building from the shore, guests descend into a 100-person dining room with panoramic views of the ocean and passing marine life. The concrete structure is designed to blend seamlessly into the surrounding environment, eventually acting as an artificial reef that attracts plants and animals. The location boasts such biodiversity that Under is also being used as a research center for marine biologists.

Dining room of underwater restaurant.
Ivar Kvaal

Jellyfish in the ocean.
Ivar Kvaal

Once seated, diners will be treated to a seasonal meal from an international team of chefs led by Nicolai Ellitsgaard. The menu highlights locally sourced produce and sustainably caught wildlife. A full meal lasts roughly three-and-a-half to four hours.

Shellfish dish at Under restaurant.
Stian Broch

Spiny crab.
Stian Broch

Dining room of Under, the underwater restaurant.
Ivar Kvaal

Dining room of Under
Inger Marie Grini/Bo Bedre Norge

Seats at Under are fully booked from now to the end of September. If you're content with getting your name on a waiting list, you can try to reserve a table for earlier in the year through the restaurant's website.

[h/t Business Insider]

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