Tall Tales

Weird Washington Monument History

From indignation over a bare-chested statue of Washington to a gift from the pope tossed in the Potomac, here are 10 interesting facts about the newly reopened Washington Monument.

Getty,Mark Wilson

After being damaged by an earthquake nearly three years ago and then closed for repairs, the Washington Monument will reopen to the public on Monday.

On August 23, 2011, a 5.8-magnitude earthquake opened cracks in the monument wide enough for light to shine through, damaged the elevator, and broke off stone. To repair the damage and to prevent further damage, 2.7 miles of new sealant was placed between stones, and 53 stainless steel saddle anchors were bolted into the monument. In addition, stone rescued from the steps of Baltimore townhouses was used to replaced loose chunks of marble on the monument. The repairs cost an estimated $15 million, but the price tag was cut in half by a donation from David M. Rubenstein. During the repairs, 500 feet of scaffolding covered the monument—however, the remaining distance to the top was only reachable by ladder.

In honor of the restoration of this iconic memorial, here are 10 interesting facts you may not have known.

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 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,” 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. The statue now belongs to the American Art Museum and is, according to the museum’s website, not currently on view. 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.

So get the government out of the way.

It turns out the genesis of the current Washington Monument began 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 a lot fancier than what we have today.

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.

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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 group remained in power until 1858, during which time they added 13 courses to the monument, all of which had to be removed when construction began again years later.

It has suffered its share of indignities.

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 (it’s 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 the 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 both taller.

Its once high-end top has become 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.

It’s been a magnet for some intense stories

Since opening to the public, the Washington Monument has managed to attract its fair share of public incidents.

In 1982, anti-nuclear weapons activist Norman Mayer was shot and killed by U.S. Park Police after he drove a white van that he claimed was loaded with 1,000 pounds of TNT to the base of the Washington Monument. Eight tourists were trapped inside until Mayer let them out, and buildings in the area were evacuated. Hours into negotiations, Mayer attempted to drive off. He was shot and killed—and no explosives were found in his van.

In 1908, Washington Senators catcher Gabby Street attempted to catch a ball being dropped from the top of the Washington Monument. After letting 12 balls slam into the ground and bounce, Street, who caught for notorious flamethrower Walter Johnson, managed to catch and hold onto the 13th.

Finally, on October 15, 1923, a mother fell through the guardrail for the elevator shaft trying to prevent her 3-year-old child from falling. The child was found on the 400-foot level, bruised and crying, but alive. The mother died after falling all the way to the 270-foot level. It was the third death at the monument before safety screens were introduced. A man had killed himself by jumping out the window at the top, while a woman had done so by jumping down the elevator shaft.

The Washington Monument re-opened to the public for tours on Monday, May 9, 2014 at 1 p.m.