Washington Monument
A History
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Chapter VII:

As the Washington Monument became a center of world-wide interest and tourists made it the mecca of their journey to the Capital reaching an average of 150,000 per year from 1889 to 1912, greater attention was given to community use of the monument grounds by the city's inhabitants. Considerable attention was also paid to landscaping of the monument grounds by the McMillan Plan of 1901 which attempted to establish a permanent design for the overall landscaping of the Mall. [1]


Under the McMillan Plan of 1901, considerable attention was devoted to the development of the grounds surrounding the Washington Monument as part of the overall long-range planning for the Mall.

In the section of the plan dealing specifically with the monument grounds, the plan considered the obelisk as the cross axis of the Mall development. From this cross axis the carpet of greensward of the Mall stretched westward. The columns of elms from Union Square to Fourteenth Street were to march to the monument grounds, climb the slope and spread themselves to the right and left on extended terraces. They thus would form a great body of green, strengthening the broad platform from which the obelisk would rise in majestic serenity. The groves on the terraces would become places of rest from which one would get wide view of the Capital; of the White House surrounded by its ample grounds; of the Capitol crowning the heights at the end of the broad vista; and of sunny stretches of river winding at the foot of the Virginia hills. [2]

Specifically referring to the cross axis, the report states:

Axial relations between the White House and the Monument are created by the construction of a sunken garden on the western side of the great shaft, the true line passing through the center of a great round pool, to which marble steps three hundred feet in width lead down forty feet from the Monument platform. Surrounded by terraces bearing elms, laid out with formal paths lined by hedges and adorned with small trees, enriched by fountains and temple-like structures, this garden becomes the gem of the Mall system. Seen from the lower level, the Monument gains an additional height of nearly forty-five feet, while at the same time nothing is suffered to come so near as to disturb the isolation which the Monument demands. [3]

The plan's criticism of the contemporary effect of the monument states,

At present the immediate surroundings of the Monument are so inadequate as to cause the beholder near at hand to lose that very sense of grandeur which it inspires when seen from a distance; and the lack of harmonious relationship between it and the great structures with which it comes into juxtaposition disturbs one's sense of fitness. No portion of the task set before the Commission had required more study and extended consideration than has the solution of the problem of devising an appropriate setting for the Monument; and the treatment here proposed is the one which seems best adapted to enhance the value of the Monument itself. [4]

The report concluded by stating that when taken by itself, the Washington Monument stands not only as one of the most stupendous works of man, but also as one of the most beautiful creations of humanity. It is at once so great and so simple that it seems to be almost a work of nature. Dominating the entire District of Columbia, the monument has taken its place with the Capitol and the White House as one of the three foremost national structures. [5]

This major recommendation of the McMillan plan was unfortunately studied insufficiently. What the Commission report referred to as the sunken garden on the west was 40 feet lower than the base of the shaft. To accomplish this design would have required the removal of much of the embankment on which the monument rested and which had been man-made from earth filling as noted earlier in this study. It was here that the planners were confronted with two problems: (1) to provide a setting that would enhance the height and isolation of the monument, and (2) to reinforce the axis between the White House and the proposed pantheon facing the Executive Mansion which is now the approximate location of the Jefferson Memorial. The intrusion of the western embankment of the monument, then as now, prevented full realization of that axial placement. [6] In 1888 Colonel Casey had filled the embankment to strengthen the foundation of the monument and there it was to remain.

The Commission, apparently, had not investigated the engineering feasibility of this recommendation. In later years when engineering studies and test borings were made, it was found that unless extensive and costly underpinning of the monument was carried out as a prelude to further planning, the stability of the great obelisk would be reduced beyond the point of reasonable safety by the removal of the earth filing for the sunken garden. This portion of the McMillan Plan was therefore abandoned.


From its opening to the public in 1889, increasing numbers of visitors either rode on the steam elevator which took twelve minutes to reach the top or else walked the 898 steps of the monument. By 1895, visitation reached the one million mark, by 1902, two million, and by 1909, three million. Table gives the visitation figures from 1889 to 1912, by which time 3,734,419 persons had visited the monument. Of the 121,871 visitors in 1889, 51,984 walked and 69,887 rode the elevator. In 1912, when a total of 164,994 persons visited the monument, 20,770 walked up the steps and 144,224 rode the higher speed electric elevator that had been installed in 1901. Compared to the 12-minute trip of the old elevator, the new elevator took but five minutes to reach the top.


Fiscal Year: By Elevator: Walked: Total: Grand Total:
1889:51,98469,887121,871from 10/9/1888


Even since the Washington Monument opened in 1889, it has been a challenge to persons seeking publicity in one form or another. Some have been of a casual type; others, more drastic. There have been suicides who jumped from the windows, prominent baseball stars who caught baseballs dropped from the top of the monument, a woman who dropped to her death in the shaft, and recluses who have hidden all night in the closed monument.

The magician Blackstone wanted to do his famous disappearing act at the top of the monument with his trained horse. He was prevented from doing so by one of the guards.

Five suicides have taken place at the Washington Monument. Two occurred by persons jumping out of the windows on November 20 and 22, 1926, before protective bars were installed across their faces; and three by persons who jumped down the elevator shaft before safety screen was installed across the top. These latter occurred on February 23, 1915, March 9, 1923, and on August 7, 1949. On October 15, 1923, a woman attempting to save her three-year old child who had slipped on the steps plunged through the guard rail to her death at the 270-foot level of the shaft. The child was found bruised and crying at the 400-foot level.


Appropriations for the maintenance and care of the Washington Monument and grounds were regularly made by the Congress. Among the figures that were found are the following: 1922, $20,360; 1923, $19,820; 1924, $17,840; 1925, $16,040; 1926, $17,760; 1929, $24,939; 1930, $17,512; and 1931, $19,667. [8] The estimated value of the 106.01 acres comprising the Washington Monument and its grounds as of June 30, 1932, was $24,588,987. [9] It included 15,555 feet of macadam roads and 5700 feet of bridle paths. [10]

When the National Park Service took over administration of the monument in 1933, one of its first jobs was to improve the appearance of the obelisk. In 1934 the monument was cleaned for the first time as a project of the Works Progress Administration. A tubular steel scaffolding, said to have been the highest ever built in Washington, was erected around the shaft and the monument was hand-scrubbed with steel brushes sand and water. The work took almost five months and cost $100,000. [11]


The Washington Monument was lit by floodlights for the first time in the summer of 1925 as a commercial stunt by the manager of the Powhatan Hotel, now the Roger Smith, at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 18th Street, Northwest. One day as an added attraction to summer roof garden activities, the hotel management installed a floodlight of sufficient power to light the distant Washington Monument. The public reaction was pleasing.

The Director of Public Buildings and Public Parks informed the hotel manager of tourist reaction to the floodlighting and asked if they would consider floodlighting the monument every night for two or three hours during the entire season. He added that it might also provide good publicity for the hotel.

As a result, the hotel borrowed a heavy duty searchlight from the Army and had it mounted on the rooftop for floodlighting the monument. It was continued during the summer and the searchlight was returned to the Army in November 1926. It proved to be such an attraction that the hotel management continued to floodlight the monument at its own expense until the present system was installed.

In January 1929 it was suggested that the Washington Monument be permanently lighted because of the hazards to aviation. The first experiment involved placing a searchlight on a wing of the Navy Department building at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 17th Street. It proved unsatisfactory. It was then suggested that the shaft be lighted on all sides from the base to the top with floodlights. After numerous experiments the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks prepared specifications in July 1931 for the installation of floodlighting units to be installed at the base of the shaft. The installation was to consist of 20 floodlighting units and two 24-inch searchlights.

The idea was approved and Park Service employees installed 20 floodlights near the curbing on the sidewalks surrounding the monument. They were arranged in batteries of five, one battery at each of the four sides of the monument. Each battery consisted of one lighting unit with a 1500 watt "G" type lamp, two lighting units with 1500 watt "PS" type lamps and two lighting units with 1,000 watt "PS" type lamps. The two searchlights were used to illuminate the apex of the monument. One was placed on the roof of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving and the other was installed atop the first wing of the Navy Department building. The project was completed in the fall of 1931 and the lights were turned on for the first time on the evening of Armistice Day, November 11, 1931.

Following the correction of initial problems such as reflector and lens breakage due to water leaking into the units, they operated successfully until turned off in December 1941, when the United States entered World War II. They remained off until the termination of the war in 1945.

In March 1947 studies were conducted for improving the lighting system and for the construction of permanent vaults for the floodlights to replace the wooden boxes in which they had been initially installed. Although the work was included in the Service's 1951 Buildings and Utilities Program, it was curtailed owing to restrictions of the National Production Authority which prohibited the construction of such projects. The work was finally accomplished in 1958 under the Service's MISSION 66 program, [12] and the floodlighting of the monument makes it one of the outstanding attractions of the city.

Visitation to the Washington Monument continues to rise yearly. On March 7, 1969, the 50 millionth visitor was welcomed to the obelisk by Nash Castro, Director of the National Capital Region, and Supt. Wm. R. Failor of Central National Capital Parks. The visitor was Joseph E. Alfred of Kokomo, Indiana, and he was presented with a certificate verifying his visit and a copy of the leather bound book entitled, "Washington, Man and Monument," by the Washington National Monument Society. Other visitation milestones were the 20 millionth visitor on July 10, 1945; the 40 millionth on August 16, 1963; the 45 millionth visitor on May 16, 1966. The latter was a three-year-old girl, Miss Eileen Bridget, of Allentown, Pa. [13]

As shown by the official figures on the following table (1960 and 1966-69), "Visitation Figures for Washington Monument," there are two peak periods of visitation: in the spring around Easter, when the Nation's Capital is flooded with visitors for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival; and during the vacation period in summer when the month of August usually vies with July for the highest figure. For instance, 208,364 visitors are recorded for April 1960, and for the period 1966 to 1969, this same month has had an average of 255,887 visitors. For July 1960, 227,619 visitors were recorded. For the three—year period from 1966 to 1968, the peak month was August when an average of 279,012 was recorded. Although the Washington riots of April 1969 did not appear to affect the April visitation (265,606 being recorded), the summer visitation figures had dropped to 208,266 for July and 186,805 for August 1969. (No breakdown was given for the number of visitors using the elevator and those walking up the 898 steps of the monument.) Nonetheless, visitation to all the memorials of Washington is increasing and long range plans are being made to meet the future challenge posed by the Bicentennial Celebration of 1976, when enormous crowds are anticipated in the Nation's Capital. The new National Visitor Center has been authorized for establishment at Union Station, where preparations will be made for an anticipated 35 million visitors to Washington by 1980. [14] Plans have been underway for several years for a proposed Visitor Information Center at the Washington Monument and studies have been conducted by the Park Service in anticipation of its establishment. One outstanding problem which remains to be solved is that of dealing with peak visitation because of the monument's limited visitor handling facilities.


19601966 196719681969

January47,50142,937 63,02246,40553,108
February45,89761,408 57,02971,61852,693
March65,057137,946 188,639132,77585,160
April208,364309,661 240,039208,242265,606
May179,729267,098 237,571170,357233,306
June158,774263,252 232,120169,400226,764
July227,619277,926 256,610233,068208,266
August212,891325,854 262,603250,581186,805
September83,766107,644 114,59299,76183,673
October74,721108,294 101,37892,723110,394
November54,902100,120 87,10186,47697,057
December33,67057,127 59,47646,76755,643

Source: Information Office, National Capital Parks, April 10, 1970.

Proposed Visitor Information Center. In a study conducted on the proposed visitor information center for the Washington Monument, W. Drew Chick, Jr., then Regional Chief, Division of Interpretation and Resources Management, made a comparison in April 1966 of the visitor capacity of the elevator and the stairway and the attendance that was recorded on several peak days.

Pointing out the statistical limitations of visitor handling capacities at the monument, Chick said, in part.

The Otis Elevator Company rates the capacity of the elevator, posted in the cab, at 6,000 pounds. It has been determined that 44 passengers per trip is a normal elevator load. Allowing 5 minutes per round trip, only 582 persons per hour or 8,020 in 15 hours (8 a.m. to 11 p.m.) could be accommodated at the maximum. But such is not the case for visitor flow is uneven. Usually there are slack periods [for mealtimes] from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m., 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., and 10:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Therefore, the total that is actually accommodated would be below the maximum statistically arrived at above. Furthermore, on extremely busy days, it is often necessary to temporarily take a limited number or no persons at all on the up trips in order to relieve crowded conditions on the 490 and 500 foot levels caused by great numbers of persons walking up the stairway as well as those ascending by the elevator. The maximum number of visitors using the elevator recorded at the monument to date was 10,899 persons on April 16, 1965, while the highest total using the stair way was 10,612.

Chick drew attention to the slight possibility of transporting such mass visitation with the limited facilities that have existed at the monument since it was opened in 1889. "It is still difficult to see how 10,899 [visitors] could be transported in one day," Chick wrote, "even taking into consideration that more than 44 school children could ride this elevator under the limitation of 6,000 pounds per load." He pointed out that it would also require "long sustained periods of approximately 1,000 persons per hour climbing the stair way to total 10,612 in one day." [15]

The hopelessness of the dismal picture painted by Chick can easily be realized by even the casual visitor to the monument who would trust his safety in a public edifice overrun by thousands being carried into the limited confines of the upper levels of the monument, and the surging crowds trying to climb its narrow stairway as hundreds of others attempt to walk down the steps to view the memorial stones. In his concluding notes, Chick drew attention to the possibility of error in tallying the number of visitors to the monument and suggested that they be taken more accurately, if possible, "from the standpoint of visitor statistics and for public safety in elevator loading." [16] No reply is recorded of the then Superintendent Monte Fitch's reaction to Chick's memorandum.

Elevator Safety Corporation, Maintenance and Inspection. Elevator operation is conducted with a maximum of safety and regular and periodic maintenance and inspection is performed on it and the entire monument. Weekly examination, lubrication and adjustments are made to the elevator by an employee of the Otis Elevator Company. [17] Semiannual cleaning of the monument and inspection of the elevator takes place twice yearly, when the memorial is closed for two days, usually in February prior to the solemnities of Washington's Birthday, and in September, following Labor Day, when the hours of visitation return to their normal "off season" schedule of 9 a. m. to 5 p. m. (The "on season" schedule is from 9 a. m. to 11 p. m. At times, VIPs are given special tours of the monument despite the hours.)

Park maintenance crews use this two-day period to steam-clean and hand-scrub the interior of the monument from top to bottom. In areas requiring it, painting is also done. [18] An inspection is also made of any new vandalism that may have occurred during the year without being noticed, particularly to the memorial stones.


From the first huge fireworks demonstration that marked its dedication in 1885, the Washington Monument has been the scene of traditional annual observances. The most outstanding of these are the public observance of the birthday of George Washington under the auspices of the Washington National Monument Society, and the fireworks demonstration held on the grounds south of the monument each Fourth of July to mark the Nation's independence.

Beginning at 10:45 a. m. on February 22, 1970, for instance, patriotic selections were presented by the U. S. Navy Band, and a joint color guard, representing all the Armed Forces of the Nation, participated in the ceremonies. A wreath was placed at the base of the monument by John Lord O'Brian, second vice president of the Society. Since the completion of the Monument, the Washington National Monument Society has served as an independent agency advising the National Park Service on administration of the monument.

Among other members of the Society attending the ceremony were: Earl Warren, retired Chief Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court; Colgate W. Darden, Jr., former Governor of Virginia; David R. Finley, former director of the National Gallery of Art; Samuel Spencer, Benjamin M. McKelway, former Governor of Maryland; Gen. Alfred M. Gruenther, former Commander, North Atlantic Treaty organization (NATO); and National Park Service Director George B. Hartzog, Jr. In the 81 years since it was first opened to the public, 51 million visitors have been attracted to the Washington Monument. Following the public observance of Washington's 238th birthday, the Society held its annual dinner and meeting at the Metropolitan Club. About 10,000 persons attended the public ceremony.

The former boiler rooms to the south are now used as the survey lodge for the headquarters of the Monuments and Memorials Branch of National Capital Parks. The 2000-foot tunnel that carried the steam pipes for heating the monument is now closed off at both ends. The rooms beneath the floor of the monument are now used as locker rooms for Park Service guides.

The Jefferson Pier which Thomas Jefferson had had erected as a marker at the intersection of lines due south from the White House and due west from the Capitol stands about 200 feet northwest of the monument. It had been set in place the first time in 1810. It was removed subsequently but was reinstalled in 1925.

The Washington Monument lodge, the former home of the Washington Monument Society, is now used as a souvenir store and snack bar by the concessionnaire, Government Services, Inc.

During the past years, the war in Vietnam has been the subject of mass demonstrations on the monument grounds. For instance, on April 5, 1970, a crowd estimated by the Park Police as being as high as 50,000 demonstrated for a pro-war policy that would win the war in Vietnam. [19] Other observances included the Prayer for World Peace and Citizenship Day.

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Last Updated: 18-Nov-2003