The capstone of the Washington Monument was set on this date in 1884, making it the tallest building in the world at that time. It remains both the world’s tallest stone structure and the tallest obelisk to this day. Taller monumental structures exist, but they are either not all stone or not true obelisks.
The monument, built as a tribute to General George Washington’s military leadership from 1775-1783 during the American Revolution, is an obelisk standing 555 feet 5-1/8 inches tall. Its walls range in thickness from 15’ at the base to 18” at the upper shaft. It was built of marble (primarily from Maryland with some from Massachusetts). It is underlain by Maryland blue gneiss and Maine granite. The casual viewer can detect a color change in the marble at about the 150’ level near where construction slowed in 1854.
In 1833, the Washington National Monument Society was formed - spearheaded by John Marshall and James Madison among others. The cornerstone was laid in an elaborate Fourth of July ceremony in 1848. Despite the almost unanimous respect afforded to George Washington (who died in 1799), the original construction was not without its problems, hence two major phases of its construction (1848-56 and 1876-84). Similar to issues commonly encountered today, the project ran into lack of funding, political turmoil and uncertainty about the survival of the American Union. The US Army Corps of Engineers of the War Dept was charged with completing construction and the monument was dedicated in 1885 and officially opened to the public in 1888.
After its opening, the public could climb flights of 896 steps (which surround an elevator) to reach an observation level and marvel at a panoramic view of the city of Washington from pyramidion windows. They also view 193 memorial stones presented by individuals, societies, cities, States and nations of the world.
The Washington Monument underwent a restoration beginning in 1996 that included sealing exterior and interior stone cracks, pointing exterior joints, cleaning and patching. That project was completed in 2000.
Then in 2011, a 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck. With an epicenter in the Piedmont area of Virginia, it impacted the entire Washington, DC area plus more than a dozen US states and several Canadian Provinces. The Washington Monument was closed immediately after US National Park Service investigators discovered a crack near the top of the structure, a dislodged block in the pyramidion, and pieces of stone, stone chips, mortar and paint chips littering the interior stairs and observation deck. The elevator system was also damaged and repaired. The monument is currently surrounded by scaffolding once again and undergoing repairs. Completion of the repairs are expected to take until some time in 2014. The current scaffolding includes lighting that holds visitors entranced until such time as, once again, over 800,000 people a year may visit this truly historic and beloved National Monument.
And can you guess which structure knocked the Washington Monument off the tallest building list? Yep, good guess. It was indeed the Eiffel Tower - when its construction was competed in Paris, France in 1889!