NPS Logo

Historical Background

Biographical Sketches

Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

Suggested Reading

THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
Survey of
Historic Sites and Buildings

National Park Service Washington Monument
District of Columbia
Washington Monument
Washington Monument

On the Mall, between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, to the south of the White House, Washington.

This towering 555-foot-high obelisk, a striking monument to the "Father of Our Country" and one of the most famous in the world, is the dominating feature of the Capital. Built between 1848 and 1885 with funds from public subscriptions and Federal appropriations, it commemorates the achievements and unselfish devotion to public duty of our first President—peerless military leader of the War for Independence and wise statesman of the Republic.

Between 1783 and 1833 the Continental and U.S. Congresses considered several proposals to erect a monument in honor of Washington, but took no action on them. In the latter year, influential citizens of the Capital organized the Washington National Monument Society, a civic organization dedicated to building a memorial. Progress was slow at first, but by 1847 a substantial sum had been collected by popular subscription. Meantime, the society had selected a design submitted by architect Robert Mills, but later substantially revised it. On January 31, 1848, Congress granted authority for erection of the monument. About 5 months later, on July 4, Benjamin French, Grand Master of the Washington, D.C., Masonic Lodge, laid the cornerstone, using the trowel employed by Washington at the Capitol in 1793.

Work proceeded rapidly until 1854, when the Washington National Monument Society became involved in a political quarrel. Many citizens grew dissatisfied with the progress; the collection of funds lagged; and, because of the mounting disagreement between the North and South, which resulted in the Civil War, construction soon came to a halt. For more than 20 years, the monument stood incomplete at the height of about 156 feet. Finally, in 1876, President Grant approved an act calling for the Federal Government to complete the monument. The Corps of Engineers of the War Department took over the project.

Washington Monument
Washington Monument. (National Park Service, Wilbur Dutton.)

In 1880 work resumed on the shaft. practically all the marble with which the remainder of the monument is faced was obtained from the same vein as the stone used for the lower part. Because it came from a different stratum, however, and has weathered to a slightly different tone, a "ring" is noticeable on the memorial. On August 9, 1884, its walls reached the height of 500 feet and on December 6 the capstone was set in place. On February 21, 1885, President Arthur dedicated the monument and on October 9, 1888, it was opened to the public.

The monument a hollow shaft of Maryland marble and a few courses of Massachusetts granite, is without embellishment or decoration. It has little in common with Mills' original elaborate plan, which provided for a decorated obelisk 600 feet high and 70 feet square at the base. It was to rise from a circular colonnaded building 100 feet high and 250 feet in diameter, surrounded by 30 columns, each 12 feet in diameter and 45 feet high. This temple was to be an American pantheon, a repository for statues of Presidents and national heroes, containing a colossal statue of George Washington. The proportions of Mills' shaft, at variance with traditional dimensions of obelisks, were altered to conform to the classic conception. The result was a creation of grace and delicacy of outline.

History of the Washington Monument

The top may be reached by elevator or a stairway. The iron stairway consists of 50 landings and 898 steps. Inserted into the interior walls or otherwise displayed are 190 carved stones presented by individuals, societies, Territories, States, and nations of the world, including a stone from the ruins of ancient Carthage. The observation platform at the top of the monument affords a majestic view of the central buildings, monuments, and outlying areas of Washington. To the east, at one end of the wide vista of the Mall, is the Capitol. To the north is the White House; to the west, the Lincoln Memorial; to the south, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. These memorials, along with the Washington Monument, are a national tribute to figures in our history who have made vital contributions to our independence, the preservation of the Union, and the concepts of liberty and democracy.

Previous Next
Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004