Blog Post Megan Cantrell Apr 25, 2014

FAQ: Celebrating the Monument of Monuments

As the tallest structure in the nation’s capital and one of the most iconic, the historic obelisk honoring America’s first president is the monument of monuments. After nearly three years of being closed to the public for repairs, the Washington Monument will reopen May 12.

Q: Why was the Washington Monument closed?

A: On August 23, 2011, the East Coast experienced its largest earthquake in 70 years. The 5.8 magnitude earthquake occurred at 1:51 p.m. EDT with its epicenter in Louisa County, Virginia, 85 miles away from D.C. The monument suffered cracks and stresses to the stone at the top and bottom of the structure. Some cracks spanned four feet. It was critically important to repair the monument for the safety of all visitors.


Q: When did the repairs start?

A: Repairs began in September 2012 after the Park Service secured funding and bid out the contract for repairs.


Q: How much did the repairs cost?

A: Roughly $15 million. Philanthropist David Rubenstein donated half of the funds, matching the $7.5 million allocated by Congress.


Q: How much scaffolding surrounded the Washington Monument?

A: Lots and lots of scaffolding—6,000 pieces in all. Interestingly, not one piece was attached directly to the structure, anywhere. The scaffolding was stabilized by wooden boards wedged against the monument every 26 feet. These wood-padded braces lined all four sides of the monument, squeezing it like a vice. To make the scaffolding look more appealing to the eye, a metal mesh was added, providing additional protection for construction workers and passersby. At night, 488 lamps lit the monument.


Q: How tall is the monument?

A: At 555 feet high, the Washington Monument literally towers over every other building in Washington, D.C., with 897 steps connecting the ground floor with the observation deck. The stairwell walls are lined with 193 commemorative stones that were given as gifts by individuals, states, civic groups, cities, and countries in honor of George Washington.


Q: Why are the stones different colors?

A: The monument was completed in two phases over 36 years, using marble, granite, and gneiss from three different quarries. The lower third of the monument was built using stone from a quarry in Baltimore, Maryland. The rest of the stone was taken from a second quarry in Massachusetts and a third quarry near Baltimore. The difference between the stone is most noticeable about a third of the way from the bottom, but you can see all three slight variations in color with the naked eye today.


Q: How long did it take to complete the monument?

A: More than 36 years. It took a decade to raise the initial funds and choose the designer, Robert Mills, before the first cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1848. Funding ran out in 1854, leaving the monument standing only 156 feet above ground. Robert Mills died in 1855, and the monument stood unfinished for nearly two decades with no architect or funding during the American Civil War and most of the Reconstruction Era that followed it. Congress finally passed a joint resolution in 1876 to fund and complete the monument, choosing Thomas Casey to oversee the project. On December 6, 1884, builders placed an 8.9-inch aluminum tip atop the 3,300 pound capstone, officially completing the structure.

Fun fact: Over 20,000 people attended the ceremony to lay the initial cornerstone in 1848, including President James Polk, Mrs. James Madison, Mrs. Alexander Hamilton, George Washington Parke Custis, and future presidents James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Johnson.


Q: When did the monument finally open to the public?

A: 1886. Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Robert Winthrop, one of the original attendees at the opening ceremony in 1848, wrote the dedication. Read by Representative John D. Long of Massachusetts, the speech included this prescient quote:

“The storms of winter must blow and beat upon it … the lightnings of Heaven may scar and blacken it. An earthquake may shake its foundations … but the character which it commemorates and illustrates is secure.”


Q: When did the National Park Service gain jurisdiction of the monument?

A: 1933. The Washington Monument used to be open to the public, and people could freely walk up and down the steps and take the elevator. Due to concerns about vandalism and safety, the stairs are now closed to the public and Park Service staff arrange access through free guided tours. Roughly 800,000 people visit the monument each year.


Q: How can I go up to the observation deck?

A: Free, same-day, timed tickets are available at the Washington Monument Lodge on 15th Street adjacent to the monument on a first-come, first-served basis, though they can sell out quickly during the spring and summer tourist season. You can also order advance tickets online. Learn more about the hours and contact information here.

About the author

  • Megan Cantrell Former Social Media Manager

    Megan Cantrell worked at National Parks Conservation Association for 10 years, much of that time shepherding NPCA’s social media program.