Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Brief History of WAMO

I worked at the top of the Washington Monument for 5 years with a company called the Parks & History Association. After working there for so long, I gained an intimate knowledge of the place, its history and its lore.

The idea for a tribute to our first president was conceived while he was still alive. Congress wanted to build something to honor Washington’s unparalleled contribution to our young nation. Washington himself however was reluctant to the idea. So a compromise was made in the idea of building a small statue of Washington riding a horse.

Unfortunately before the statue was erected Washington died. Congress quickly diverted the statue funds to building a tomb for Washington inside the US Capitol. And in fact they did build a tomb for him there, but Washington’s family refused to move his body from their cemetery at Mt. Vernon. You can still see Washington’s empty tomb today if you take an extended tour of the Capitol. Or you may have seen it if you watched any of the footage of Ronald Reagan’s funeral, which was held in the Washington crypt.

So now that Washington was dead and there was no public Monument yet constructed, the modest idea to honor him grew to epic proportions. A design competition was held by Congress to determine what the Washington Monument would look like. Every significant group or faction in America was represented in the competition and each design became more and more grand. Ultimately after a 64-year long debate a plan by Robert Mills was accepted as the winner. His design featured an Egyptian Obelisk. While many today consider the Monument’s shape to be a phallic symbol in fact the obelisk represents the geometric extrapolations of a beam of sunlight, originating in the Sun’s core and widening as it comes down to Earth. The idea being that Washington’s leadership was the light that guided the nation through the Revolution.

Construction of the Washington Monument began on July 4, 1848 under the supervision of the Washington National Monument Committee. A private group in charge of the Washington Monument Fund. Mismanagement of the construction fund, in fighting among committee members and rising Civil War tensions put a halt to construction in 1856. (More after the pic)

(Image courtesy of NPS)

The Washington Monument stood 1/3 of the way complete for several years, while the nation fought the Civil War. The incomplete Monument in the words of Mark Twain “looked like a hollow, over-sized chimney.” and the fields around it were used to graze cattle. In fact the actual unfinished Monument was used as a slaughterhouse at this time. When it wasn’t being used to store meat, the public was allowed to go to the top of the unfinished structure. Even at 1/3 its height the Monument was the tallest building in America and a tourist attraction because of it.

There is a legend about a woman from the mid-west who brought her cat along with her while visiting the Monument. Once at the top, the cat escaped from the woman and jumped off the edge, falling several stories to the ground and surviving! Rumor has it the cat lived several more years before dying. When it did die, it is said that the woman sent the cat to the Smithsonian Institute and somewhere in their collection its body remains today.

Construction of the Monument resumed 20 years later in 1876 under Government financial control and the supervision of the Army Corp of Engineers. The Army completed the project without incident in 1885.

After this long construction process, in 1888 the Monument was opened to the public and 107 years later, I went to work there. While I worked at the Washington monument I learned hundreds of interesting things about it.

The most impressive is that the Washington Monument is the tallest free standing stone structure in the world. This means that there is nothing holding the Monument together except gravity. There is no mortar or cement, just block stacked upon block held together by its own weight. This obelisk was built in the traditional ancient Egyptian way on a scale never before attempted or matched.

Another interesting fact is that the tip of the Monument, or the capstone of the pyramid is constructed out of solid aluminum, which in the 1800’s was the most valuable metal on Earth. Aluminum was so valuable back then because it required electricity to forge it. When the capstone was forged in the 1880’s it was the largest aluminum piece ever designed. It was displayed on the floor of Tiffany’s Jewelers in New York where anyone who wished could “jump over the Washington Monument” until it was installed in 1884. As if that wasn’t obscure enough there is another little known fact about the Monument capstone. It is inscribed with the words “Laus Deo” which means “Praise be to God”.

Finally, back in the DC baseball days of yore, the Washington Senators outfielders held a contest every year at the Monument where they would see who could catch the most baseballs dropped from the Monument’s top. Maybe this is something the Nationals could bring back after they finally get a stadium.

Originally published on February 21, 2006.

One of my all time favorite articles.

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