Repairing the Washington Monument, 124 Years After It Opened

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The road to the public opening of the Washington Monument on October 9, 1888, was a long one: Though a design had been chosen in 1836, ground wasn’t broken until 1848, because of haggling over that design and its cost. After donations ran out in 1854, construction stopped, and didn’t resume until 1879, when Congress freed up some funds (and argued about the design some more).

The final 40,000 ton memorial was constructed using local marble, granite and sandstone, and topped with an aluminum apex—at that time, the largest single piece of aluminum ever cast. The 555 foot, 51?8 inch tall monument wasn’t just the tallest building in Washington DC—it was the tallest building in the world. But today, the Washington Monument is closed, thanks to the damage it suffered in a rare East Coast earthquake that occurred August 23, 2011.

Fixing the monument will cost $15 million, and is funded partially by Congress and partially by a donation from philanthropist David Rubenstein. Though some repairs—like the damage done to the elevator—have already been completed, the next phase is slated to begin at the end of this month and last 12 to 18 months. Massachusetts-based Perini Management Services Inc. will erect scaffolding around the monument and simultaneously work on its interior and the exterior. Repairing the exterior—including the uppermost pyramidion—involves removing some loose fragments and securing others with anchors; repairing stone and mortar damage; and fixing the lightning protection system. The interior requires structural repair of cracked stone panels and tie beams and replacing mortar joints, among other fixes.

There are other challenges to the repair job, too: Workers will have to abandon whatever work they’re doing and leave the monument with as little as 20 minutes' notice when the President flies into or out of the capital. Michael Morelli, project manager for the National Park Service Denver Service Center, told the Washington Times, “The people up there have these lines of sight that no on else has. Anytime the president moves, we have to bring everyone off the scaffold.” This could occur up to five times a week, and crews could be off the building for up to 2 hours. The cost and time of these delays have been built into the National Park Service’s repair plan.

The monument—which is still the tallest stone structure in the world—may not reopen until 2014.