Washington Monument: Stories And Facts You Didn't Know About America's Most Underrated Landmark
The first monument to George Washington was reminiscent of ancient Greece. (blinds.kent.ca)
On February 21, 1885, President Chester Arthur (remember him?) unveiled the Washington Monument. The iconic structure is now visited by more than 800,000 tourists each year and appears in just about every movie and TV show set in Washington, D.C., but how much do you know about the towering obelisk that was built to honor our first president? Did you know, for example, this it originally looked like that beefcake up there? Let's look at some of the things you didn't know about America's most underrated landmark.
Before the Obelisk, There Was A Shirtless Statue Of President Washington
A few decades before work started on the Washington Monument that we see today, the only monument to George Washington in the nation's capital was a giant, shirtless statue of America's first president looking like a Greek god. The statue was commissioned by Congress and sculpted by Horatio Greenough, and the plan was to display the monument in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building. Greenough's creation was modeled after the ancient Statue of Zeus at Olympia, a now-destroyed statue that was named one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Titled Enthroning Washington, the immodest statue created a stir when it was unveiled in 1832. Almost immediately, a group of concerned citizens who found the sight of the father of our country so scantily clad unsettling and kind of weird got together to pursue the construction of a new monument. Don't worry: You can still see Magic George if that's what you're into. It was moved to the Smithsonian Castle in 1908 and then to the National Museum of American History in 1964, where it's currently on display.
The Washington National Monument Society
After Greenough's statue tanked with the public, James Madison, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, and others formed the Washington National Monument Society in 1833 to explore new ideas for a monument and raise funds for its construction. Architect Robert Mills submitted the design for an obelisk, but it was initially topped by a statue of Washington driving a chariot. In 1876, the design was tweaked, and the chariot was removed.
Groundbreaking Took Place In 1845
The Washington National Monument Society selected a location in the National Mall for the obelisk, and a groundbreaking ceremony took place in 1845. Three years later, a cornerstone ceremony was held to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument. (Listen, it took a long time for things to get done in the 19th century.) The cornerstone ceremony was filled with hype and fanfare, attended by such luminaries as then-President James K. Polk, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan, Dolley Madison, and Elizabeth Hamilton. The hollow cornerstone was ceremonially filled with copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and other important historical objects.
The Project Ran Out Of Steam
As much as it was hyped, work on the monument stalled after the Washington National Monument Society sent requests to prominent people and groups for donations of ceremonial stones. Pope Pius IX sent a large slab of marble to the Society, angering the Know Nothing Party, which was the real name of a powerful organization that didn't look too kindly on Catholicism. As a result, the Know Nothing Party rigged ballots that resulted in members of their party taking over the Society's leadership. In retaliation, Congress suspended the monument's funding until the Know Nothings could be ousted from the Society. This took more than five years. It turns out they did know something.
The Washington Monument Slaughter Yard?
The Know Nothing controversy was only the beginning of the fits and starts that would characterize construction of the Washington Monuments. From 1854–1876, no work was done on the monument at all. In fact, during the Civil War, the site was used as a cattle pen and slaughter yard. Following the end of the Civil War, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was finally brought in to complete the project. Heading up the project was Lt. Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey, who not only oversaw the completion of the monument but modified the original design. He was the one who nixed the statue of Washington in a chariot and gave the obelisk a clean, streamlined look.
No Mortar Was Used In The Construction Of The Washington Monument
It is a little-known fact that the Washington Monument was constructed from marble blocks that were simply set into place. No mortar was used; they're held together by nothing more than their own weight, gravity, and hope. This makes the Washington Monument the tallest freestanding work of masonry in the world.
The Monument Is Complete
The Washington Monument was completed on December 6, 1884, when the construction crew installed the aluminum cap on the top of the obelisk meant to protect it from lightning. Planning began for a huge dedication ceremony to take place the following February.
At the dedication ceremony, Robert Winthrop presented a stirring speech about the monument in which he said "An earthquake may shake its foundations, but the character which it commemorates and illustrates is secure." This line proved to be prophetic. In 2011, an earthquake struck the D.C. area and caused extensive damage to the Washington Monument.
The Washington Monument Was Surpassed By The Eiffel Tower
Standing at just over 555 feet, the Washington Monument surpassed the Cologne Cathedral as the world's tallest structure upon its completion. It didn't hold the record for very long, however. Just three years later, the 1,603-ft. Eiffel Tower was completed, dwarfing the Monument in comparison.
A Secret Mini-Monument
Hidden in a manhole near the Washington Monument is a 12-ft. replica of the structure that most people pass by completely unaware of its existence. "Bench Mark A," as it is called, is a geodetic control point that is used by surveyors to coordinate maps. It's also super cute.
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