precedent: Washington Monument

Title: Washington Monument

Author: Robert Mills

Location: Washington D.C., USA

Year Complete: 1888


The Washington Monument is a memorial dedicated to the nation’s first president, George Washington. Its history dates back to 1783, when congress proposed that an equestrian structure of George Washington be designed. In 1791, architect Pierre L’enfant left a place for the statue at the Western end of the sweeping National Mall (near the monument’s present location.)


Progress toward a memorial began in 1832. The year marked the 110th anniversary of Washington’s birth. A large group of concerned citizens formed the National Monument Society. In 1836, they had raised $28,000 (which would equal $17,400,000 now) and announced a competition for the design of the monument. In 1836, Robert Mills won this competition with an obelisk design surrounded by a circular colonnade with statues of prominent revolutionary war heroes.


Construction began in 1848 with the building of the substructure and part of the above-ground  marble structure. By 1854, the monument reached a height of 156 feet, but a turn of events stalled it.

wamo-construction Washington Monument

In 1854, a politically nativist group called the “no-nothing” party gained control of the Washington Monument Society. The change in administration drove the society to bankruptcy. For two decades, the monument stood unbuilt. Congressional attempts to support the National Monument society failed as attentions went toward the Civil War. In 1876, Congress assumed the funding for the rest of the monument. Builders spent four years working on the base in order to hold the weight of the superstructure. The quarry providing the stone for the original construction closed down, which corresponds to the moment the color seems to change in the construction (they had to find a new provider.)


Rather than ascend 600 feet (which was Robert Mills’ original plan) the monument was 555 feet tall. The ornate adornments on the obelisk and the ring of columns on the bottom were scrapped in favor of a starker obelisk shape. The design choice reduced the cost and allowed for faster construction. The monument was complete, and surpassed the Cologne Cathedral to be the tallest building in the world. In 1888, it opened to the public.


The Washington Monument stands in axis with the Capitol Building, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, and the White House. It is not a perfect cross because the ground proved to be too unstable to support a stone obelisk.

The majority of the building functions as an ascent from the bottom entryway to the observation deck at the top. The observation deck features two small windows on each of the four sides of the building, framing the relevant monuments in each cardinal direction. The building is surrounded by swirling, grand pathways and rests at the center of the city, near many subway stops.



Section of Monument .jpg

roads surrounding monument [Converted].jpg

In 2011, the Washington Monument sustained damage during a 5.8 magnitude Virginia Earthquake. Pieces of stone fell off and damaged the interior of the stairwell. The repair work includes a scaffolding system designed by Michael Graves. It is still closed to the public due to reliability issues with the elevator system and will reopen in 2019.


Thoughts: The Washington Monument is unique because it towers over Washington DC and defines the city as a whole- with the zoning practice that does not allow a single building to surpass the monument in height (let alone 16o feet). This puts the monument on display to the collective memory of the city as a whole. It is not a subtle, intimate, personal experience of remembering but a loud and calculated declaration of power and identity. Over time, it becomes less of an homage to our first president but more of a declaration of DC as a city, and the nation as a whole (which is why it is so fascinating that the builders of the monument chose to go with an obelisk form, an ancient classical appropriation.) This speaks to the strangeness of monuments, and the willingness to equate aged symbols with present identities.


National Park Service

History Channel



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