15 Things You Might Not Know About the Washington Monument
Although the towering tribute to our first president is a ubiquitous patriotic icon, there might be a few things you didn't know about it or its construction.
1. Building a monument to George Washington was not a unanimously supported proposition.
Today, trumpeting George Washington as a hero and a symbol of national pride isn’t going to start any arguments. In the 19th century, however, Washington’s approval rating was far from 100 percent. The very idea of constructing a monument to honor the former president felt like an affront to the Democratic-Republicans—the opposing party to the Washington-aligned Federalists—who both favored Thomas Jefferson over Washington and decried such tributes as unseemly and suspiciously Royalist.
2. IT TOOK ALMOST 40 YEARS TO COMPLETE CONSTRUCTION.
After decades of deliberation about where to build a monument to Washington, what form it should take, and whether the whole thing was a good idea in the first place, the foundation for a great stone obelisk was laid at the center of Washington, D.C.’s National Mall on July 4, 1848. Although the design looks fairly simple, the structure would prove to be a difficult project for architect Robert Mills and the Washington National Monument Society. Due to ideological conflicts, lapses in funding, and disruptions during the Civil War, construction of the Washington Monument would not be completed until February 21, 1885. The site opened to the public three years later.
3. A COUP WITHIN THE WASHINGTON NATIONAL MONUMENT SOCIETY DELAYED CONSTRUCTION.
In 1855, an anti-Catholic activist group nicknamed the Know-Nothings seized control of the 23-year-old Monument Society. Once in power, the Know-Nothings rejected and destroyed memorial stones donated by Pope Piux IX. The Know-Nothing affiliation cost the project financial support from the public and from Congress. In 1858, after adding only two layers of masonry to the monument, the Know-Nothings abdicated control of the Society.
4. EARLY IDEAS FOR THE MONUMENT INCLUDED STATUES, GREEK COLUMNS, AND TOMBS.
Before the Society settled on building an obelisk, several other ideas were advanced to be the visual representation of Washington’s grandeur. Among them were an equestrian statue of the president (which was part of Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan for Washington, DC), a separate statue situated atop a classical Greek column, and a tomb constructed within the Capitol Building. The last idea fell apart when Washington’s family was unwilling to move his body from its resting place in Mount Vernon.
5. LATER DESIGN PLANS INCLUDED AN ELABORATE COLONNADE...
Even after Mills’ obelisk model had been accepted, a few flashier design elements received consideration as possible additions to the final project. Mills had originally intended to surround the tower with a circular colonnade, featuring not only a statue of Washington seated gallantly atop a chariot, but also 30 individual statues of renowned Revolutionary War heroes.
6. ...AND AN EGYPTIAN SUN.
Mills placed a winged sun—an Egyptian symbol representing divinity—above the doorframe of the monument’s principal entrance. The sun was removed in 1885.
7. THE MONUMENT ORIGINALLY HAD A FLAT TOP.
It has become recognizable for its pointed apex, but the Washington Monument was originally designed to bear a flat top. The monument's design was capped with a pyramid-shaped addition in 1879.
8. THE ENGINEER WHO COMPLETED THE MONUMENT ASKED THE GOVERNMENT TO SUPPLY HIS WORKERS WITH HOT COFFEE.
Several years after the 1855 death of Mills, Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey Sr., Chief of Engineers of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, assumed responsibility for completing the Washington Monument. Among his most memorable orders was an official request to the U.S. Treasury Department to supply his workers—specifically those assigned to the construction of the monument’s apex—with “hot coffee in moderate quantities.” The treasury complied.
9. DOZENS OF MISCELLANEOUS ITEMS ARE BURIED BENEATH THE MONUMENT.
On the first day of construction, a zinc case containing a number of objects and documents was placed in the monument’s foundation. Alongside copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are a map of the city of Washington, publications of census data, a book of poems, a collection of American coins, a list of Supreme Court justices, a Bible, daguerreotypes of George Washington and his mother Mary, Alfred Vail’s written description of the magnetic telegraph, a copy of Appleton’s Railroad and Steamboat Companion, and an issue of the arts and leisure magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, among many other items.
10. SOME OF THE MONUMENT’S MEMORIAL STONES BEAR STRANGE INSCRIPTIONS.
The vast majority of the 194 memorial stones lining the Washington Monument are not likely to inspire confusion. Common inscriptions celebrate George Washington, the country, and the states they represent. However, a few of the monument’s stones bear engravings of a more curious variety. A stone donated by a Welsh-American community from New York reads (in Welsh), “My language, my land, my nation of Wales—Wales for ever.” Another stone from the Templars of Honor and Temperance articulates the organization’s rigid support of Prohibition: “We will not make, buy, sell or use as a beverage any spirituous or malt liquors, wine, cider, of any other alcoholic liquor, and will discountenance their manufacture, traffic and use, and this pledge we will maintain unto the end of life.”
11. THE APEX WAS DISPLAYED AT TIFFANY’S BEFORE IT WAS ADDED TO THE STRUCTURE.
The men who created the Washington Monument, though reverent in their intentions, were hardly above a good publicity stunt. William Frishmuth, an architect and aluminum magnate connected to the project, arranged for the pointed aluminum top of the monument to enjoy an ornate two-day display at New York City’s luxury jewelry store Tiffany’s. The apex was placed on the floor of the storefront so that shoppers could claim to have walked “over the top of the Washington Monument.”
12. OPENING CEREMONIES ATTRACTED SEVERAL BIG NAME GUESTS.
Among the 20,000 Americans present for the beginning of construction in 1848 were then-President James K. Polk, three future presidents (James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Johnson), former first lady Dolley Madison (John Quincy Adams' widow was too sick to attend), the wife of Alexander Hamilton, and a bald eagle.
13. THE WASHINGTON MONUMENT WAS THE TALLEST STRUCTURE IN THE WORLD FOR ABOUT SIX MONTHS.
Upon its official opening on October 9, 1888, the Washington Monument—standing an impressive 555 feet high—boasted the superlative of tallest manmade structure on Earth. The honor was short-lived, however, as the following March saw the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower, which topped out at 986 feet.
14. IT IS STILL THE TALLEST OF ITS KIND.
As of 2015, the Washington Monument still reigns supreme as both the world’s tallest all-stone structure and the tallest obelisk. (The stone San Jacinto Monument in Texas is taller, but it sits on a concrete plinth.)
15. A FEW DECADES AFTER CONSTRUCTION, THE MONUMENT CAUGHT “TUBERCULOSIS.”
Wear and tear had begun to get the best of the Washington Monument by the early 20th century, prompting an exodus of the cement and rubble filler through the structure’s external cracks. The sweating sensation prompted John S. Mosby Jr., author of a 1911 article in Popular Mechanics, to nickname the phenomenon “geological tuberculosis.”