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History of Early American Landscape Design

Washington Monument (Washington, DC)

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Revision as of 19:23, January 7, 2015 by R-Asleson (talk | contribs)


Alternate Names:

Site Dates: 1848-1854, 1876, 1884

Site Owner(s): National Park Service

Site Designer(s): Robert Mills

Washington, D.C.
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Related Sites: National Mall

Related Terms: Obelisk

Discussion The Washington Monument 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. [1]

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.” [2] 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.” [3]

After Washington’s death in 1799, Congress debated alternative schemes for the monument, including a grand mausoleum enshrining the President’s remains. [4] 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.” [5] 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. [6]

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 (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. [7] 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. [8]

--Robyn Asleson





  1. 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, 118-123, 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), 265-268, 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): 225-242, view on Zotero; Robert Belmont Freeman, Jr., “Design Proposals for the Washington National Monument,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, 49 (1973/74): 151–186, view on Zotero.
  2. Savage, 1987, 227, view on Zotero.
  3. Morales-Vázquez, 2000, 14 view on Zotero; Savage, 1987, 227-228, view on Zotero.
  4. Savage, 2005, 38-43, view on Zotero; John M. Bryan, Robert Mills: America’s First Architect (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001), 220-221, view on Zotero; Morales-Vázquez, 2000, 23-24, view on Zotero.
  5. Pamela Scott, “Robert Mills and American Monuments,” in Robert Mills, Architect, ed. John M. Bryan (Washington, D.C.: American Institute of Architects Press), 1989, 157, view on Zotero.
  6. Bryan, 2001, 290-291,view on Zotero; Liscombe, 1994, 260-263, view on Zotero; Scott, 1989, 158-164, view on Zotero; Pamela Scott, “‘This Vast Empire’: The Iconography of the Mall, 1791-1848,” in The Mall in Washington, ed. Richard Longstreth (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art), 1991, 50-52, view on Zotero.
  7. Savage, 2005, 107, 112-117, 123-136, view on Zotero.
  8. "History & Culture," Washington Monument web page, National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/wamo/historyculture/index.htm.

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