An overview of the Washington National Monument

In the heart of the capital city of the United States-Washington, D.C., two monuments to former presidents sit at opposite ends of a large reflecting pool. One is the Lincoln Memorial and the other is the Washington National Monument. The Washington National Monument is the tallest obelisk in the world and it commemorates all that President George Washington did for his country and everything that he signifies to its people, to this day.

The idea for the Washington National Monument was born in 1783. The Continental Congress agreed that it would be fitting to erect a monument to honor the man who had given so much to form the United States. The original idea was to erect a large statue of George Washington astride a horse. In 1790, Pierre Charles L’Enfant included a site for the proposed monument in his plans for the city. In 1799, the House of Representatives attempted to solidify plans for the monument, but wanting something on a larger scale. It was not until 1833 that serious action was taken to build a monument. That year, an organization was formed to take on the task. They called themselves the Washington Monument Society.

It took nearly 15 years for the Washington Monument Society to raise enough funds to start the project-$87,000, to be exact. The initial design they chose was from an architect named Robert Mills. Mills envisioned a circular building with a colonnade along the exterior. The building would be at the base of a 600-foot high obelisk. The building and obelisk were to contain several statues of presidents and prominent citizens, one of which was to be a grand statue of George Washington.

Construction on the Washington Monument began on July 4, 1848. L’Enfant’s suggestion for the site was taken into account, but it proved unsuitable for the monument they were building. A nearby site that was deemed more capable of supporting the structure was chosen. The foundation, a stepped pyramid, was the begun that day. Workers used the very same trowel to commemorate the historical moment that George Washington used when construction on the Capitol began in 1793.

Disagreements about the design plagued the construction of the Washington Monument from the very beginning. Eventually, the building idea was scrapped. The only thing that remained was the obelisk, though even that was significantly different from Mills’ design. It was hollow and contained no ornaments.

When the Washington Monument was roughly 150-feet tall, construction ceased. Disagreements about the building and the Civil War made it impossible for workers to continue the project. The country was torn apart. The monument to its most well-known and beloved founding father would have to wait. The legacy of the man who would occupy the space directly west of the monument was unfolding. Lincoln’s place among the greatest men ever to hold office in the United States was being earned.

It took nearly 25 years for interest in the project to be rekindled. On August 2, 1876, the government took control of the project. Four years later, the War Department’s Corps of Engineers picked up where civilian workers had left off. The first item on their agenda was to underpin the foundation. In the 25 years that had passed, the foundation had settled to a nearly critical point. If construction had continued, the structure would not have withstood the test of time.  

They used Maryland marble for the exterior of the Washington Monument, as they had done on the first 150-feet. However, it was from a different stratum, thus the obvious change in color from that point up. On August 9, 1884, the shaft was complete at 500-feet. On December 6 of the same year, the aluminum capstone was added, which is in the shape of a pyramid. The entire project cost nearly 1.2 million dollars and the material used weighs 90,854 tons. The entire Washington Monument, capstone included, is 555 feet tall.

The Washington Monument was dedicated on February 21, 1885. It was not opened to visitors until October 9, 1888. Today, an elevator will take you to the top of the monument in a matter of seconds, from where you can view the surrounding area. The Washington Monument has become a major tourist attraction and a symbol of the United States of America in the years since it was built. People come from all over the world to visit it.


Washington Monument, retrieved 11/2/10,

The Washington Monument Case History, retrieved 11/2/10,