Blending Stupendousness With Elegance: The Washington Monument


This week, David Clark will be our tour guide as we take a closer look at some of America's greatest monuments. His series continues today with the story of the Washington Monument.

Born to Broken Promises

Only ten days after the death of George Washington (in 1799), Congress decided they should build some kind of grand monument for the late president-general, the "Father of His Country." A couple of schemes came up, a few elaborate fantasies, but nothing material happened. And nothing continued to happen, as nothing does, despite several fervid public statements made by G.W. enthusiasts, decrying the delay and upbraiding a nation of ingrates and ditherers.

A New Resolve, and a Search for Stupendousness

This guilt-ridden procrastination continued on until the most passionate Washington Monument devotees formed a Washington National Monument Society in 1833, to kick-start the long-postponed project and give the Father of Founding Fathers his due. They had lofty ambitions for a piece of work that would "blend stupendousness with elegance," and they invited artists nationwide to submit designs in an open competition. Where the pointy spire now stands, we could have had an ornate Gothic tower, a creepy mini-pyramid, a rectangular column with a Washington-Colossus perched atop. But final victory went to the offering of Robert Mills, whose obelisk expressed that special "stupendousness" everyone was looking for.

(Obelisks, of course, were a favorite shape first for the Ancient Egyptians, and then for the Romans. Conquering Roman armies often pilfered Egyptian obelisks and lugged them back to Rome or some other imperial metropolis. After the Empire had its way, there were more obelisks in Rome alone than in all of Egypt. So anything the Romans liked that much was bound to be an instant hit with the early American Republic, as Mills no doubt knew.)

Construction Begins, Despite the Displeasure of Poets

Now that Congress had the basic idea -- something tall, thin, and decidedly phallic -- nothing happened again for a while as partisans bickered over details. The obstructive effect of these minor revisions was compounded by lackluster fundraising, and some public opposition. Walt Whitman, for instance, wrote in 1847 that "of that plan [for the Washington Monument], we cannot find terms to speak in sufficient contempt!" (Virulent patriot that he was, Whitman thought stone monuments more worthy of "mere common heroes," like Napoleon, or Roman Emperors.) Still, the cornerstone was laid at last in 1848, amid all the parading and hoopla one would expect from that kind of event.

Some people make a big fuss about the Monument's chosen location, how it's in the entirely wrong place and it spoils L'Enfants' visionary layout for Washington D.C. But that's all based off arcane symbology, esoteric Freemasonry, astronomy, and over-learned gibberish. So forget it.

Know-Nothings Hijack Monument to Save Nation From Popery

Funds remained scarce until Alabama initiated a breakthrough strategy. The states were each asked to donate money to the monument project; so Alabama, lacking money, offered a commemorative, engraved brick. It said, "Alabama. A union of equality, as adjusted by the constitution." -- subtly uppity, perhaps, but not out of line for a pre-Civil War motto. Organizers appreciated the gesture and asked the country for more stones. Before long, states, cities, societies, native tribes, companies, and lots of Freemasons were sending custom-chiseled bricks to D.C. -- sometimes with money attached, often without.

Things looked up for the Monument until the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know Nothings -- officially known as the American Party -- got wind that Pope Pius the IX had donated a stone. Unwilling to endure such vile papist poison in an American monument, the Know Nothings abducted the Pope's stone and, most likely, drowned it in the Potomac. Soon after, they managed to seize the whole Monument Society in a kind of democratic coup. In reaction, Congress withheld funding from the project until the Know Nothing party collapsed at last in 1857. After that, though, the Civil War happened, soaking up the available money and labor, and the Washington Monument had to wait a little longer.

Disgraceful Chimney Becomes Impressive Obelisk: Washington Honored At Last

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Stalled with construction less than one-third complete, the grand monument was an eyesore and a disgrace, little more than a silly-looking rectangle. Mark Twain wrote in 1868, "It is just the general size and shape, and possesses about the dignity, of a sugar-mill chimney." Others around the country called for the monument to be completed at once or gracefully demolished.

And yet Congress managed a few more years of puttering and reconsidering. Some alternate designs were entertained again. Although they stuck with Mills' original, in the end, they imposed some dramatic revisions. Among other things, Congress ended up cutting the classical temple Mills' intended for the obelisk's base, a prominent image of the Egyptian Winged-Sun, and a thirty-foot statue of Washington in a toga, riding a six-horse chariot. They added a pointy tip. Mills reportedly complained that his obelisk without its temple-colonnade would look as ridiculous as "a stalk of asparagus" -- nobody listened.

Congress built up the nerve by 1880 to lay a new cornerstone 150 feet in the air: an official "second chance." This time they were determined to get the thing done, and by 1884 the capstone was set on the pyramidion at the peak, the obelisk finished at 555 feet, and George Washington was the worthy honoree of the tallest manmade structure in the world. That statistic changed, of course, but the Washington Monument does remain to this day the tallest freestanding masonry built up by human hands.

Previously: The Statue of Liberty, The Gateway Arch, The Unfinished Tribute to Crazy Horse