Washington Monument (Washington, DC)
Site Dates: 1848–present
Site Owner(s): National Park Service;
The Washington Monument is a towering obelisk on the National Mall in Washington, DC, that was erected as a memorial to George Washington (1732–1799), commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and first president of the United States.
Although plans for the monument began during Washington’s lifetime, construction was delayed until several decades after his death as a result of protracted debate over the intentions, location, and design most fitting for this key emblem of the new nation.
The initial plan for the monument, authorized by the Continental Congress in 1783, was for a bronze equestrian statue with “the general to be represented in Roman dress, holding a truncheon in his right hand.” The statue and its support (a marble pedestal ornamented with bas-relief panels representing scenes from the Revolutionary War) were to occupy a central position at the convergence of two central axes in Pierre-Charles L’Enfant’s 1791 plan of Washington, DC, and would be “executed by the best Artist in Europe, under the superintendence of the Minister of the United States at the Court of Versailles.”
After Washington’s death in 1799, Congress debated alternative schemes for the monument, including a grand mausoleum enshrining the President’s remains. Finally, in 1833, a group of private citizens formed the Washington National Monument Society for the purpose of erecting a memorial “whose dimensions and magnificence shall be commensurate with the greatness and gratitude of the nation which gave him birth [and] whose splendor will be without parallel in the world.” In 1845 the Society accepted a design submitted by the American architect Robert Mills, whose previous memorial projects included a monument to Washington in the city of Baltimore. Returning to an architectural form he had suggested for the Bunker Hill Monument in 1825, Mills proposed a 600-foot Egyptian-style marble obelisk encircled by a colonnaded Greek temple replete with statuary, ornamental relief sculptures, and murals representing historical events.
Construction began in 1848 but came to a halt from 1854 to 1877 owing to lack of funds, the Civil War, and other difficulties. By then, Mills’s design had been radically simplified for aesthetic as well as financial reasons [Fig. 1]. When construction resumed under the supervision of Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey (1831–1896) of the Army Corps of Engineers, all decorative elements and inscriptions were eliminated and the height of the monument was scaled back to just over 555 feet, 5 inches. Nevertheless, upon completion in 1884, the Washington Monument was the tallest built structure in the world and it remains the tallest building in Washington, DC
- Mills, Robert, c. 1838, description of his design of the Washington Monument (quoted in Harvey 1903: 26–28)
- “DESCRIPTION OF THE DESIGN OF THE WASHINGTON NATIONAL MONUMENT, TO BE ERECTED AT THE SEAT OF THE GENERAL GOVERNMENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, IN HONOR OF ‘THE FATHER OF HIS COUNTRY,’ AND THE WORTHY COMPATRIOTS OF THE REVOLUTION.
- “This design embraces the idea of a grand circular colonnaded building, 250 feet in diameter and 100 feet high, from which springs a obelisk shaft 70 feet at the base and 500 feet high, making a total elevation of 600 feet.
- “This vast rotunda, forming the grand base of the Monument, is surrounded by 30 columns of massive proportions, being 12 feet in diameter and 45 feet high, elevated upon a lofty base or stylobate of 20 feet elevation and 300 feet square, surmounted by an entablature 20 feet high, and crowned by a massive balustrade 15 feet in height.
- “The terrace outside of the colonnade is 25 feet wide, and the pronaos or walk within the colonnade, including the column space, 25 feet. The walks enclosing the cella, or gallery within, are fretted with 30 massive antæ (pilasters) 10 feet wide, 45 feet high, and 7-1/2 feet projection, answering to the columns in front, surmounted by their appropriate architrave. The deep recesses formed by the projection of the antæ provide suitable niches for the reception of statues.
- “A tetrastyle portico (4 columns in front) in triple rows of the same proportions and order with the columns of the colonnade, distinguishes the entrance to the Monument, and serves as a pedestal for the triumphal car and statue of the illustrious Chief; the steps of this portico are flanked by massive blockings, surmounted by appropriate figures and trophies.
- “Over each column, in the great frieze of the entablatures around the entire building, are sculptured escutcheons (coats of arms of each State in the Union), surrounded by bronze civic wreaths, banded together by festoons of oak leaves, &c., all of which spring (each way) from the centre of the portico, where the coat of arms of the United States are emblazoned.
- “The statues surrounding the rotunda outside, under the colonnade, are all elevated upon pedestals, and will be those of the glorious signers of the Declaration of Independence.
- “Ascending the portico outside to the terrace level a lofty vomitoria (door way) 30 feet high leads into the cella (rotundo gallery) 50 feet wide, 500 feet in circumference and 60 feet high, with a colossal pillar in the centre 70 feet in diameter, around which the gallery sweeps. This pillar forms the foundation of the obelisk column above.
- “Both sides of the gallery are divided into spaces by pilasters, elevated on a continued zocle or base 5 feet high, forming an order with its entablature 40 feet high, crowned by a vaulted ceiling 20 feet high, divided by radiating archevaults, corresponding with the relative positions of the opposing pilasters, and enclosing deep sunken coffers enriched with paintings.
- “The spaces between the pilasters are sunk into niches for the reception of the statues of the fathers of the Revolution, contemporary with the immortal Washington; over which are large tablets to receive the National Paintings commemorative of the battle and other scenes of that memorable period. Opposite to the entrance of this gallery, at the extremity of the great circular wall, is the grand niche for the reception of the statue of the ‘Father of his Country’—elevated on its appropriate pedestal, and designated as principal in the group by its colossal proportions.
- “This spacious Gallery and Rotunda, which properly may be denominated the ‘National Pantheon,’ is lighted in four grand divisions from above, and by its circular form presents each subject decorating it walls in an interesting point of view and with proper effect, as the curiosity is kept up every moment, from the whole room not being presented to the eye at one glance, as in the case of a straight gallery.
- “Entering the centre pier through an arched way, you pass into a spacious circular area, and ascend with an easy grade, by a railway, to the grand terrace, 75 feet above the base of the Monument. This terrace is 700 feet in circumference, 180 feet wide, enclosed by a colonnaded balustrade, 15 feet high with its base and capping. The circuit of this grand terrace is studded with small temple-formed structures, constituting the cupolas of the lanterns, lighting the Pantheon gallery below; by means of these little temples, from a gallery within, a bird’s eye view is had of the statues, &c., below.
- “Through the base of the great circle of the balustrade are four apertures at the four cardinal points, leading outside of the balustrade, upon the top of the main cornice, where a gallery 6 feet wide and 750 feet in circumference encircles the whole, enclosed by an ornamental guard, forming the crowning member on the top of the tholus of the main cornice of the grand colonnade. Within the thickness of this wall, staircases descend to a lower gallery over the plafond of the proanos of the colonnade lighted from above. This gallery, which extends all round the colonnade, is 20 feet wide—divided into rooms for the records of the monument, works of art, or studios for artists engaged in the service of the Monument. Two other ways communicate with this gallery from below.
- “In the centre of the grand terrace above described, rises the lofty obelisk shaft of the Monument, 50 feet square at the base, and 500 feet high, diminishing as it rises to its apex, where it is 40 feet square; at the foot of this shaft and on each face project four massive zocles 25 feet high, supporting so many colossal symbolic tripods of victory 20 feet high, surmounted by fascial columns with their symbols of authority. These zocle faces are embellished with inscriptions, which are continued around the entire base of the shaft, and occupy the surface of that part of the shaft between the tripods. On each face of the shaft above this is sculptured the four leading events in General Washington’s eventful career, in basso relievo, and above this the shaft is perfectly plain to within 50 feet of its summit, where a simple star is placed, emblematic of the glory which the name of WASHINGTON has attained.
- “To ascend to the summit of the column, the same facilities as below are provided within the shaft, by an easy graded gallery, which may be traversed by a railway, terminating in a circular observatory 20 feet in diameter, around which at the top is a look-out gallery, which opens a prospect all around the horizon.” [Fig. 2]
Edward Weber, View of Washington City and Georgetown [detail], 1849.
Robert P. Smith, View of Washington, c. 1850.
- Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington, DC, the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 36–60, 118–23, view on Zotero; Rubil Morales-Vázquez, “Imagining Washington: Monuments and Nation Building in the Early Capital,” Washington History 12, no. 1 (Spring–Summer 2000): 14–17, 22–24; 28–29, view on Zotero; Rhodri Windsor Liscombe, Altogether American : Robert Mills, Architect and Engineer, 1781–1855 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 265–68, view on Zotero; Kirk Savage, “The Self-Made Monument: George Washington and the Fight to Erect a National Memorial,” Winterthur Portfolio 22, no. 4 (Winter 1987): 225–42, view on Zotero; Robert Belmont Freeman Jr., “Design Proposals for the Washington National Monument,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society 49 (1973/74): 151–86, view on Zotero.
- Savage 1987, 227, view on Zotero.
- Morales-Vázquez 2000, 14 view on Zotero; Savage 1987, 227–28, view on Zotero.
- Savage 2005, 38–43, view on Zotero; John M. Bryan, Robert Mills: America’s First Architect (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001), 220–21, view on Zotero; Morales-Vázquez 2000, 23–24, view on Zotero.
- Pamela Scott, “Robert Mills and American Monuments,” in Robert Mills, Architect, ed. John M. Bryan (Washington, DC: American Institute of Architects Press, 1989), 157, view on Zotero.
- Bryan 2001, 290–91, view on Zotero; Liscombe 1994, 260–63, view on Zotero; Scott 1989, 158–64, view on Zotero; Pamela Scott, “‘This Vast Empire’: The Iconography of the Mall, 1791–1848,” in The Mall in Washington, ed. Richard Longstreth (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1991), 50–52, view on Zotero.
- Savage 2005, 107, 112–17, 123–36, view on Zotero.
- “History & Culture,” Washington Monument web page, National Park Service.
- Frederick L. Harvey, History of the Washington Monument and Washington National Monument Society (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1903), view on Zotero.