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What's the Point? The Pyramid Atop the Washington Monument

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There's an aluminum pyramid perched on top of the Washington Monument. Here's how and why it got up there.

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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.

* Frishmuth is the kind of guy a trivia junkie drools over. Not only was he America's first aluminum magnate, but after he campaigned for Lincoln in German-speaking communities, he developed a close friendship with the president. During the Civil War, Lincoln appointed Frishmuth as a special secret agent in the U.S. War Department and reportedly awarded him $200 from his own pocket for the capture of three Confederate spies.

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13 Fantastic Museums You Can Visit for Free on Saturday
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On Saturday, September 23, museums and cultural institutions across the United States will open their doors to the public for free, as part of Smithsonian magazine’s annual Museum Day Live! event. Hundreds of museums are set to participate, ranging from world-famous institutions in major cities to tiny, local museums in small towns. While the full list of museums can be viewed, and tickets can be reserved, on the Smithsonian website, we’ve collected a small selection of the fantastic museums you can visit for free this Saturday.

1. NEWSEUM // WASHINGTON, D.C.

The Newseum in Washington, D.C. is an entire museum dedicated to the First Amendment. Celebrating freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition, the museum features exhibits on civil rights, the Berlin Wall, and the history of news media in America. Their latest special exhibitions take a look back at the event of September 11, 2001 and go inside the FBI's crime-fighting tactics.

2. INTREPID SEA, AIR & SPACE MUSEUM // NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK

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New York's Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum doesn’t just showcase America’s military and maritime history—it is a piece of that history. The museum itself is one of the Essex-class aircraft carriers built by the United States Navy during World War II. Visitors can explore its massive deck and interior, and view historic airplanes, a real World War II submarine, and a range of interactive exhibits. Normally, a ticket will set you back a whopping $33 (or $19 for New York City residents), but on Saturday, general admission is free with a Museum Day Live! ticket.

3. AUTRY MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN WEST // LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA

Perfect for art lovers, history buffs, and cinephiles alike, the Autry Museum of the American West (named for legendary singing cowboy Gene Autry) offers up an eclectic mix of art, historical artifacts from the real American West, and Western film memorabilia and props.

4. MUSEUM OF ARTS AND SCIENCES // DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA

A massive art, science, and history museum located on a 90-acre nature preserve, the Museum of Arts and Sciences features the largest collection of Florida art anywhere in the world, as well as the largest collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia in all of Florida. Its diverse exhibits are alternately awe-inspiring, informative, and quirky, ranging from an exploration of 2000 years of sculpture art to an exhibition of 19th and 20th century advertising posters.

5. INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE HORSE AT THE KENTUCKY HORSE PARK // LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY

The International Museum of the Horse explores the history of—you guessed it!—the horse. That might sound like a narrow scope, but the museum doesn’t just display horse racing artifacts or teach you about modern horse breeds. Instead, it endeavors to tackle the 50-million-year evolution of the horse and its relationship with humans from ancient times to modern times.

6. THE PEGGY NOTEBAERT NATURE MUSEUM // CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

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The 160-year-old Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is pulling out all the stops for this year’s Museum Day Live! In addition to their vast exhibits of animal specimens and cultural artifacts, the museum will be hosting a live animal feeding and a butterfly release throughout the day.

7. OGDEN MUSEUM OF SOUTHERN ART // NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA

The Ogden Museum of Southern Art aims to teach visitors about the rich culture and diverse visual arts of the American South. Right now, visitors can view a collection of William Eggleston's photographs and check out the museum's 10th annual invitational exhibition of ceramic teacups and teapots.

8. BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF INDUSTRY // BALTIMORE, MARYLAND

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Located in a 19th century oyster cannery on the Baltimore waterfront, the Baltimore Museum of Industry tells the story of American manufacturing from garment making to video game design. Visitors this weekend can meet video game designers and create custom games at the museum’s interactive “Video Game Wizards” exhibit.

9. SYLVAN HEIGHTS BIRD PARK // SCOTLAND NECK, NORTH CAROLINA

You can meet 2000 birds from around the world this weekend at the 18-acre Sylvan Heights Bird Park. Visitors to the massive garden can walk through aviaries displaying birds from every continent except Antarctica, including ducks, geese, swans, and exotic birds from all over the world.

10. DELTA BLUES MUSEUM // CLARKSDALE, MISSISSIPPI

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Visitors to the Delta Blues Museum can learn about the unique American musical art form in “the land where blues began,” with audiovisual exhibits centered on blues and rock legend Don Nix, as well as Paramount Records illustrator Anthony Mostrom.

11. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NUCLEAR SCIENCE & HISTORY // ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO

America’s only congressionally chartered museum dedicated to the story of the Atomic Age, the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History features exhibits on everything from nuclear medicine to representations of atomic power in pop culture. Adult visitors to the museum will delight in its impressively nuanced take on nuclear technology, while kids will love the museum’s outdoor airplane exhibit and hands-on science activities at Little Albert’s Lab.

12. MUSEUM OF THE MOUNTAIN MAN // PINEDALE, WYOMING

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Dedicated to the mountain men who explored and settled Wyoming in the 19th century, the Museum of the Mountain Man brings American folklore and legends to life. The museum features exhibits on the Rocky Mountain fur trade and tells the story of American folk legend and famed mountain man Hugh Glass (the man Leonardo DiCaprio won an Oscar playing in 2015's The Revenant).

13. BESH BA GOWAH ARCHAEOLOGICAL PARK AND MUSEUM // GLOBE, ARIZONA

Arizona’s Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park and Museum lets visitors connect with history firsthand. The museum is home to the ruins and artifacts of the Salado Indians who inhabited Arizona from the 13th century through the 15th century, and even lets visitors wander through an 800-year-old Salado pueblo.

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‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
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In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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