▶ Watch Video: Building the Washington Monument

In a town full of monuments, there’s one that stands above them all. Paul Goldberger, professor of design and architecture at the New School in New York, calls the Washington Monument, in our nation’s capital, “the tallest, the simplest, the most straightforward, the most direct. It’s very much like Washington himself in that way actually.”

In our nation’s capital one monument stands above them all: the 555-foot-tall Washington Monument.

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The monument’s iconic design was not, in fact, by design. 

“Robert Mills, who designed the Washington Monument, originally envisioned a classical colonnade going around the bottom of columns, basically kind of like a round, classical temple,” said Goldberger. “They had all kinds of financial problems as well as political problems. And so, only the obelisk was built.”

An engraving of Robert Mills’ original design for the Washington Monument. 

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Construction began in 1848 and was painfully slow due to the challenge of 19th century crowd-funding, according to Mike Litterst, spokesperson for the National Mall. “No one person could give more than a dollar to the Washington Monument, because they wanted it to be a monument of the people,” Litterst said. “But when everybody can only give a dollar, and you need 250,000-plus to finish the project, that’s going to be a problem over time.”

An 1854 illustration of the incomplete Washington Monument, as published in Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion.

Library of Congress

Financial troubles aside, the monument had no shortage of groups who wanted to be associated with it. Litterst showed Salie some of the stones, engraved by the monument’s supporters (Masons, locomotive makers, temperance societies) that came from all corners of America, giving us a window into 19th century America – a time capsule of states that were tenuously united.

That theme is illustrated no better than by the Tennessee stone, on which is engraved the slogan, “Federal union, it must be preserved.”

“We’re talking mid-1850s here,” said Litterst. “This is a direct reference to the storm clouds gathering that will eventually erupt in civil war in 1861.”

Engraved stones, from the interior of the Washington Monument.

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Even foreign countries left their mark. And then there was a legendary stone from the Vatican. “Pope Pius IX sent a stone from the ruins of the Temple of Concord in the Forum in Rome,” Litterst said. “And this outraged a number of people in the country, specifically a political party called the Know-Nothings. Their platform was decidedly anti-Catholic and anti-foreigners.”

The Know-Nothings threw the so-called Pope Stone into the Potomac, then staged a coup, taking over the society charged with building the monument, in 1855. Construction ground to a halt.

For more than twenty years the obelisk was a stump. Cows were kept on the site during the Civil War, almost as if to symbolize the United States’ unrealized ideals. 

Litterst said, “The centennial of American Independence comes in 1876. That’s the renewed interest, not to just finish it; we’re either going to finish it or we’re going to tear it down, because this is a complete embarrassment.”

And it’s one of the reasons that, if you look closely at the monument today, you can see a difference in its marble cladding.

When it was finally finished in 1885, it stood at 555 feet and 5 1/8 inches tall, and was the world’s tallest structure.

Goldberger said, “The Washington Monument is just a pure shape, and it suggests that Washington is an idea as much as a man. An idea of singularity, an idea of clarity and perfection and heading for the sky.”

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Story produced by Anthony Laudato. Editor: Remington Korper.