Washington Monument

Initial construction 1848-1854  Completed 1877-1888

Architect, Robert Mills,  Chief Engineer, Thomas Lincoln Casey

The Washington monument orients almost everything else in the symbolic landscape of Washington, DC. It’s always useful in explaining directions to tourists on the Mall, and is thrilling to see out of the airplane window when landing at National airport. It’s so familiar that we can barely recognize how radical it is.   Completely unadorned and without visible inscription, it is best seen as a sort of mirror.

It is not just vast in height, but also earliest in time: the only major monument on the Mall dating from the 19th century. In shape it is an obelisk, an Egyptian solar tower. Like other Egyptian architectural forms, such as the pyramid (which was also proposed for a monument to Washington), this one has long been used in the West as a funerary marker. But this obelisk is like few before in that it is completely stripped of any exterior inscription or decoration: a smooth blank slate more than 550 feet high.   In this, the monument resembles the pure, and often huge, geometric forms dreamed (and rarely accomplished) by the architects of the late 18th century.  Fittingly enough, this is the same historical moment that produced the very conception of our Constitution. The Washington Monument, that is, has a lineage very similar to that of America itself.  The monument to the “father of our country” shows much about what fathered that country.

But the monument we have now is at least as much forward-looking, transcending the intention of its designer.  The original design of Robert Mills called for a smaller tower surrounded by a colonnade with conventional heroic figures.  The tower was built first and got a few hundred feet up before (what else?) its backers ran out of money and descended into squabbling for control. Mills died in 1855, and the Civil War began a few years after.  The half-built obelisk inhabited Washington as a significant fragment for decades.  The rupture of the period around the Civil War haunted the capital of a nation otherwise preoccupied and unclear about defining itself, while the half-built monument served as a sort of illustration of America’s own inability to realize itself.  The Washington monument was only fully completed forty years after its start, long after the death of its architect, and bears the scar of its divided birth in the unmatching stone coloration clearly visible about halfway up its side.

The Washington Monument we know today was shepherded into existence by Lt. Col. Thomas Casey of the US Army Corps of Engineers, who skillfully warded off governmental meddling with the ongoing project. On the centenary of the external structure’s completion, in 1984, this triumph of technology was recognized by America’s primary association of engineers, who also (true to the sprit of their profession) sprang for some walkways to improve access.

The more recent history of the Washington Monument is just as revealing about our time as it was to the 19th century. Its renovation in 1997 was underwritten by the Target department store chain, serving as “corporate partner” to the National Park Service. For a while it was scaffolded in what resembled a giant condom with the Target logo.  Even more, after a century of openness, beloved for views of the city from its apex, the monument was closed to the public again after being damaged in 2011 by a hurricane and earthquakes centered in nearby Virginia. These highly unusual earthquakes were suspected by many to be a result of the process of underground gas extraction (called “fracking”) practiced across the country. After being reopened three years later, it was again shut down in 2016 due to breakdowns in its aging elevator system.  In September 2019 it opened again, after being closed for 5 of the last 8 years. While half the funds for renovation come from the government, half were raised by a private “angel” who candidly remarked that it’s tougher to find funds for monuments than more “important” things.

The monument that was hobbled by political division in the 19th century is victim of governmental practice today as well, particularly its increasing dependence on private wealth.  A vision that thrived through the 20th century is not doing so well in the 21st.  Our monuments, indeed our public sphere itself, are far more fragile than they appear. Rather than the nebulous question of the Age of Trump, of whether democracy will survive, we might narrow our focus more concretely to ask whether this monument will, and in what condition.  It’s a gigantic stone straw in the political wind.