Washington Monument
A History
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Chapter I:


By 1783 the fame of George Washington, Commanding General and first President of the United States, was assured in the pantheon of statesmen of the world. The Continental Congress recognized Washington's services and his unique role in the founding of the new Republic and, following numerous public and private suggestions to honor him, proposed in 1783 that an equestrian statue be erected "at the place where the residence of Congress shall be established." At the time the future of the infant Nation was as fraught with uncertainty as the location of its permanent seat.

Thus it was that when the French landscape engineer, Maj. Charles Pierre L'Enfant, drew up at Washington's request his first landscape plan for the future capital, the site for such an equestrian statue was included as one of the principal features of the Federal District. On his well known plan L'Enfant had made the following notation with approval of Washington: "The equestrian statue of George Washington, a monument voted in 1783 by the late Continental Congress." [1]

This same area, south of the Nation's principal residence, the Executive Mansion, is the site of one of the noblest architectural structures of the country, the Washington Monument.

Congress took no action until December 1799, when eight days after the death of Washington, United States Representative John Marshall, later the distinguished Chief Justice, proposed that "a Marble monument, be erected by the United States in the Capitol, at the City of Washington, and that the family of George Washington be requested to permit his body to be to be deposited under it." No action was taken on this proposal other than the preparation of a catafalque which now rests in a crypt in the depths below the central dome of the Capitol and which is used on occasion for state funerals.

In 1800 it was proposed that a "mausoleum of American granite and marble, in pyramidal form 100 feet square at the base and of proportionate height," be erected to Washington's memory. In 1801 the House appropriated $200,000 for the construction of such a mausoleum, but it was opposed by the Senate. In 1816 and again in 1832 Congress considered the placing of a tomb for Washington's remains in the Capitol building. On both occasions, however, this was opposed by members of the Washington family, who refused to permit the removal of Washington's remains from his Mount Vernon estate where the will of the late President specifically requested that he be interred.

Throughout the Nation there was a deep sense of disappointment over the failure of Congress to provide for the erection of an appropriate memorial to the Founding Father in the District of Columbia. Other communities had already erected monuments to the memory of Washington, the most pretentious being the 204-foot Doric column memorial erected at a cost of $150,000 in neighboring Baltimore, Md. The money for this was raised by popular subscription, lottery proceeds, and by a final appropriation from the State of Maryland. [2]


The example of Baltimore stirred action among various Washington groups. In September 1833, the Washington National Monument Society was organized in the District of Columbia for the purpose of redeeming, through private efforts, the congressional pledge to erect a memorial in the Nation's Capital that would be worthy of the memory of George Washington.

Chief Justice John Marshall was elected its first president. Upon his death two years later in 1835, former President James Madison was elected to succeed him. Other charter members who served as the Society's first officers were: William Cranch, Chief Justice of the District Court, First Vice President; Thomas Carbery, Mayor of Washington (1822-24), Third Vice President; Samuel Harrison Smith, founder of the National Intelligencer, Treasurer; and George Watterson, Chief Librarian of the Library of Congress, First Secretary. Other charter members were George Bumford, William Brent, Matthew St. Clair Clarke, Peter Force, Thomas S. Jesup, James Kearney, John McClelland, Thomas Munroe, John Rodgers, William Winston Seaton, Nathan Towson, John Peter Van Ness, and Roger Chew Weightman. [3]

To raise funds for the enterprise, the Society appointed collection agents for each State and Territory. To assure that the enterprise would be popular and national in scope, contributions were initially limited to $1 per year per person. This limitation was later removed as the Society sought contributions in any amount and in a number of ways for years. By 1847 a total of $87,000 had been collected, a sum considered by the Society to be sufficient to begin construction of the memorial.

As the Society proceeded with the collection of funds, it began to plan the type of memorial that would be erected. When in 1836, $28,000 had been raised, the Society advertised for competitive architectural designs. Many sketches were submitted, including one resembling France's Arc de Triomphe which had been completed that year. Of the designs submitted, that of Robert Mills, who had designed the Doric-columned obelisk in Baltimore, was chosen.

Mills, who was then 29 years of age, had been appointed that same year as the Nation's first Federal architect by President Andrew Jackson. Mills was to achieve additional fame for his work on other Federal buildings of the Nation's Capital including the old U. S. Post Office, the Patent Office, and the Treasury Building.

Mills' design for a memorial to Washington was blend of Greek, Babylonian and Egyptian architecture. Its enormous circular base was a temple—like building 200 feet in diameter and 100 feet tall. Around the rotunda were to be 30 massive columns, 12 feet in diameter. At the outer ring statues were to be placed of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Revolutionary War heroes, and Washington himself. Mills called the design a "National Pantheon." From the center of the rotunda was to rise a four—sided obelisk, or shaft, to a total height of 600 feet. A "railway" was to transport visitors to an observatory to be located atop the monument. Mills estimated its cost to be $1 million.

Contributions spurted for a time when the selected design was publicized and the Nation was better able to visualize the appearance of the memorial. The amount of the contributions was hampered, however, by the $1 limit placed upon them and by the Panic of 1837 which broke out the following year. In 1840 census takers aided in collecting funds for the memorial. Contributions were induced by United States Deputy Marshals who gave away two sizes of lithographs and portraits of Washington to contributors. Twenty percent of their collections was pocketed by the Marshals, an arrangement which undoubtedly spurred their enthusiasm for the project.

In the interest of economy, the Society was forced to modify the Mills design by reducing the proposed height of the shaft from 600 to 500 feet, and by holding in abeyance the proposed colonnaded pantheon at the monument's base. Later, as the Society sought to renew construction of the monument, some Congressmen thought the Mills design was a "horror."

In 1848, sixty—four years after Congress had made the first proposal for a memorial to the first President, it granted a 37-acre site for it to the Washington National Monument Society. It was the same site, Reservation No.2, on which L'Enfant had planned the memorial. Soil tests, however, showed the intended spot due south of the White House and due West of the Capital to be too marshy. A site about 100 yards to the southeast was chosen, thus altering both the monument's north-south alignment with the White House and its east-west alignment with the Capitol (see Illustration No. 27). This decision was of long—range significance in the development of the Mall area. In the next century the Lincoln Memorial was aligned with the Capitol and the completed Washington Monument, extending and perpetuating the relatively slight deviation from L'Enfant's planned east-west axis. The declination of the Washington Monument from the intended north-south axis through the White House was greater. This axis was eventually reaffirmed by construction of the Jefferson Memorial as its southern terminus, the Washington Monument being accepted as an asymmetrical element in this composition.

Despite the compromise with symmetry, the chosen site offered an excellent view of the Capitol and afforded ready access to materials brought into the city by river barge on the Potomac or by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which entered the city just 10 blocks from the site of the monument near Fourteenth and B Streets, South. Stone and sand quarries were nearby in Virginia and Maryland. Fine-grained white marble was to come from the quarry of Thomas Symington, known as the Beaver Dam quarry, near Baltimore. Symington donated the 24,500—pound block of pure white marble for the cornerstone and the B & O hauled it free to Washington.

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Last Updated: 18-Nov-2003