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Daily Beast Cheat Sheet to the Washington Monument
From the true number of colors on its stones to the scandal that stopped its construction, here’s everything you need to know about the monument to enjoy your visit.
Sometimes you don't feel like paying for an audio guide, or have the time to go on a Wikipedia deep-dive. So, once a month we at Beast Travel are going to give readers a cheat sheet to some of the world's most iconic destinations that will make your experience just a little richer. For the 4th of July, we're kicking it off with the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C which finally reopens in August.
It Was Not the First Memorial to George Washington in the Capital
Upon the 100th anniversary of the founder’s birth, it became quite conspicuous that no major memorial existed to honor George Washington. So, in 1832, Congress commissioned Horatio Greenough for a statue of the first president, which was to be located in the Capitol rotunda. When it was finished and installed in 1841, the 11-foot-high statue of Washington—called “Enthroned Washington” and inspired by Phidias’s Zeus Olympios, all bare-chested and wearing sandals—was so unpopular it was moved outside in 1842, and then eventually dropped in the Smithsonian’s lap to hide away in a museum. It was once described as “the most reviled public statue ever erected” in the U.S. It turns out this was not Greenough’s only run-in with controversy. His other major work that was supposed to be displayed in the Capitol, “The Rescue,” (more popularly known as “Daniel Boone Protects His Family”), was also removed and placed in storage in 1958 for being seen as a justification for Indian removal. It depicted a white settler, assumed to be Boone, protecting a white mother and child from a nearly naked Indian about to whack them with a tomahawk.
The Government Wasn’t Behind the Monument
It turns out the genesis of the current Washington Monument was with a private group, not the government. In 1833, the Washington National Monument Society was founded to finance a monument to the founder that would be “unparalleled in the world.” Chief Justice John Marshall was the society’s first president, and was succeeded upon his death in 1835 by former President James Madison. After a decade-long fund drive and a design competition, they picked a winning design by Robert Mills in 1845.
The Original Design Was, Um, Very Fancy
Robert Mills, the man who won the commission, was a man of ambition. He had already designed a major 178-foot monument to Washington in Baltimore (the oldest surviving one) two decades prior. He had also just been designated Architect of Public Buildings for Washington, D.C., and would design the General Post Office (now the Hotel Monaco), Old Patent Office Building (American Art Museum), and the Treasury Building.
His original design, however, called for a circular temple with 30 columns, each 12 feet wide, ringing the obelisk at its base, and on top of the temple a statue of Washington in a chariot. Inside the colonnade there were supposed to be statues of 30 famous Revolutionary War heroes.
It Had Quite the Kick-off
The monument got off to a great start. Congress donated 37 acres for the project, President James K. Polk, Dolley Madison, Betsey Hamilton (Alexander Hamilton’s widow), George Washington Parke Custis, and future presidents James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Johnson all showed up on July 4, 1848 for the laying of the cornerstone. The Speaker of the House, Robert C. Winthrop, gave a two-hour speech.
But the coolest part may have been what was placed inside a zinc case in the cornerstone. Allegedly included were copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, a portrait of George Washington, all national coins then in circulation including the $10 gold eagle, the American flag, and newspapers from 14 states. Historic items also got a spot, such as the bylaws of Powhatan Tribe No. 1 and a copy of the constitution of the first organized temperance society in America.
The cornerstone itself was laid by the Grandmaster of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of D.C, Benjamin French, who wore George Washington’s Masonic apron and sash, as well as the Masonic gavel Washington used on the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol. And in case you aren’t familiar with Masonic rituals, French tipped vials of corn, wine, and oil on the stone, which are the traditional Masonic symbols.
Unfortunately, by 1854, construction came to a halt as the money dried up. The architect, Mills, died in 1855. Congress initially allocated $200,000 to finish the work, but then rescinded the appropriations before it was spent.
People Got a Little Crazy With the Stones
In the original plan from Mills, he wrote that the monument’s “material is intended to be wholly American, and to be of marble and granite brought from each state, that each state may participate in the glory of contributing material as well as in funds to its construction.” However, to cut costs—and to increase its prominence—the Washington National Monument Society accepted stones from Native American tribes, companies, foreign countries, and professional organizations. Evidently the opportunity for advertising was too enticing for some. The Templars of Honor and Temperance, for instance, had theirs inscribed “We will not buy, sell, or use as a beverage, any spiritous or malt liquors, Wine, Cider, or any other Alcoholic Liquor.”
But the real insanity came with a memorial stone of marble donated by Pope Pius IX. The anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant American Party, aka the “Know-Nothings,” went berserk, stealing the stone and reportedly throwing it into the Potomac in protest. Then, to make sure the monument stayed “American,” the Know-Nothings took over the Washington National Monument Society through fraudulent elections in 1853, which was the impetus behind Congress rescinding the appropriations.
The Monument Hasn’t Always Been So Dignified
During the Civil War, the grounds of the now stubby Washington Monument—described by Mark Twain as looking like “a hollow, over-sized chimney”—were used as a cattle pen for the Union Army. There was also a slaughterhouse behind the monument. It became known as the “Washington National Monument Cattle Yard.”
After the war, it became known as “Murderer’s Row,” as it became the destination of escapees and deserters.
No, the Monument Isn’t Two Different Colors.
It’s actually three.
Decades after Congress seized control of the project, in 1876, on the centennial, Congress appropriated $2 million for the completion of the monument, and turned over the project to the Army Corps of Engineers.
Unfortunately, the Maryland quarry where the stone had originally come from was no longer available, so the builders imported stone from Massachusetts. After several courses were added using this stone, the builders proved unhappy with the color (its brownish color is still visible) and quality, and switched instead to another quarry in Maryland for the final two-thirds of the monument. Thus the three shades.
It Was Once the Tallest Structure in the World.
Washington, D.C., today may be known for its incredibly flat skyline, but when the Washington Monument opened on February 21, 1885 (one day before Washington’s birthday), it was the tallest structure in the world. Rising 555 feet and 5.125 inches, it passed Cologne Cathedral to claim the record, only to be surpassed by the Eiffel Tower in 1889.
Today, there is some controversy of its title as the world’s tallest freestanding masonry structure, as both the Anaconda Copper Mine smokestack and the San Jacinto Monument outside Houston are taller.
Its Cap Was Once Extremely Expensive. Now It’s Worthless
While plentiful and cheap today, aluminum was once an extremely valuable metal. On the top of the obelisk is a 100-ounce aluminum cap, which acts as a lightning rod. At the time, the capstone was the largest single piece of cast aluminum, and was put on exhibit at Tiffany’s in New York City before being delivered to Washington. While at Tiffany’s, the cap was placed on the floor so people could jump over it and say they jumped over the top of the Washington Monument. On the western side of the capstone is the history of the construction. On the other side, it reads “LAUS DEO,” meaning “Praise be to God.” The capstone was set on December 6, 1884.
Editor's Note: An extended version of this story appeared for the reopening of the Washington Monument before it was closed again in 2017.