Today in 1885, the Washington Monument was dedicated in Washington, D.C. The giant obelisk is probably the best known of the United States Presidential Memorials, having been named in honor of George Washington, the nation's first President and leader of the Continental Army during the War for Independence.
The building of the structure that would become known as the Washington Monument was begun in 1848; the cornerstone of the monument was laid on July 4th of that year. The Washington National Monument Society, a group of citizens who raised the initial money for the construction, settled on a design for a giant obelisk surround by a circular colonnade. Had the monument been built to these plans, the finished product would have resembled the Jefferson Memorial with a giant Egyptian-like obelisk protruding from the top. The designer, chosen from among contestants in a design competition, was Robert Mills. While Mills’ design was incredible for its day, there was one problem: the Society had raised $87,000, but the finished structure would cost over $1 million.
Undeterred by this lack of funds, the Society decided to begin work with the money it had in the hopes that a partially finished monument would help them raise more money. This money ran out in 1854, but soon thereafter Congress appropriated $200,000 to the project. However, this money was withdrawn from the Society when members of the American Party (better known as the “Know-Nothings”), effectively took over the Society and began to build their anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic beliefs into the monument by refusing some of the stones donated by different states and foreign powers. The block of marble contributed by Pope Pius IX in the early 1850's was removed and purportedly thrown into the Potomac River.
Mismanagement by the hijacked Society and the Civil War brought construction to a halt for almost twenty years, until 1876. That year marked the centennial of the Declaration of Independence and Congress, feeling patriotic, once again granted $200,000 to the project. The obelisk had been stuck at 1/3 of its planned height for two decades and engineers were worried that the monument’s foundation was no longer stable. Studies were made and it was eventually decided to move on with the project.
Tastes in design had changed significantly in the 30 years since Mills had submitted his plans in the 1840’s. It was eventually decided to abandon the colonnades and build a simple obelisk shaped like those found in Egypt. When construction got underway again in 1879, the US Army Corps of Engineers was managing the project.
One of the initial challenges facing the Corps can still be seen today. The bottom third of the monument is lighter than the rest of the 40,000 ton structure. This is because the same quarry stones used in the initial construction beginning in 1848 could no longer be found a generation later.
Upon its completion in December, 1884, the Washington Monument was the world's tallest structure, a record that would stand for five years, when Paris' Eiffel Tower was completed.
The monument’s apex point is made of 100 ounces of aluminum, a metal that was almost unknown by people not familiar with metallurgy in the 19th century. It was placed there in December, 1884, over 35 years after the cornerstone was laid. The final monument was and is today 555ft 5 1/8 inches tall and 55ft 1 1/2 inches wide at the base, at least according to who you ask. These figures are the ones used by the National Park Service; others vary only because the aluminum pyramid at the top of the monument has been blunted by about a half inch by lightning strikes. Eight lightning rods were added in 1934, which extend six inches above the tip. Some documentation includes these rods in the height total. The walls of the monument become thinner as the obelisk grows taller. At the base, they are 15 feet thick at the base and only 18 inches thick at the observation level. In 2004, nearly 400,000 people visited the monument.