Washington Monument (Washington, DC)
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Related Sites: National Mall
Related Terms: Obelisk
The Washington Monument (1848-1854, 1876-1884) is a towering obelisk on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., erected as a memorial to George Washington, 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. <ref> Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: 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;Liscombe, 1994, 265-68; Savage, 1987, 225-42; Freeman, 1973/74, 151-86> 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.” <Savage, 1987, 227> 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, D.C., 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.” <Morales-Vázquez, 2000, 14; Savage 1987, 227-28> After Washington’s death in 1799, Congress debated alternative schemes for the monument, including a grand mausoleum enshrining the President’s remains.< Savage, 2005, 38-43; Bryan, 2001, 220-21; Morales-Vázquez, 2000, 23-24> 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.” <Scott, 1989, 157> 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. < Bryan, 2001, 290-91; Liscombe, 1994, 260-63; Scott, 1989, 158-64; Scott, 1991, 50-52> 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. When construction resumed under the supervision of Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey 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. <Savage, 2005, 107, 112-17, 123-36> Nevertheless, upon completion in 1884, the Washington Monument was the tallest built structure in the world and it remains the tallest building in Washington, D.C. < Washington Monument: History & Culture> --Robyn Asleson
Robert Mills, "Sketch of the Washington Nat'l. Monumt.," 1845.
Joseph Goldsborough Bruff (artist), Edward Weber & Co. (lithographer), "Elements of National Thrift and Empire," c. 1847.
Robert Mills, Details of the Washington Monument for Mr. Daugherty, Superintendent of the Work, Washington, D.C., October 24, 1848.
Edward Weber, View of Washington City and Georgetown [detail], 1849.
Robert P. Smith, "View of Washington," c. 1850.
Seth Eastman, Washington's Monument, Under Construction, 1851.
Benjamin Franklin Smith, Jr., "Washington, D.C. with projected improvements," c. 1852.