George Washington’s Monument

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The society gratefully deeded the thirty-acre monument site back to the United States, and a new completion date was announced: October 19, 1881—the hundredth anniversary of Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown. Only two questions remained to be resolved: Should the design of the monument be changed to conform with contemporary architectural tastes? Could the present foundation support the projected monument? Inertia on the part of a Senate public-works committee ended the debate on aesthetics, and an ominous report from Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Lincoln Casey of the Army Corps of Engineers made it clear that the base would have to be considerably strengthened with additional concrete footings. Previous engineering surveys had also urged that the height of the monument be lowered. This view prevailed after the U.S. minister to Italy, George P. Marsh, discovered that the classical proportion of obelisks called for a height about ten times the base line. Since the monument’s base measured slightly more than fifty-five feet, the engineers redesigned the shaft to reach a height of 555 feet.

President Rutherford B. Hayes laid a second cornerstone in 1880, and the work was now pressed upward in earnest under Casey’s direction. Once the foundation had been reinforced, the most serious problem the engineers faced was trying to match the Maryland marble facing on the first one hundred and fifty-two feet. The next thirteen two-foot courses were faced with Massachusetts marble, but the contractor defaulted, and the rest of the stone was quarried in Maryland. Later these New England blocks weathered to a different tone, thereby producing the visible “ring” around the monument. But the Army’s main objective was to finish the project as soon as possible. And on December 6, 1884, in a raging gale, six men climbed precariously to a wooden platform high atop the monument carrying the largest piece (100 ounces) of aluminum ever cast. (Before this tip was set in place, it had been displayed in New York and Washington, where visitors frequently asked to be allowed to step over it, so that they might later claim to have stepped over what was then the world’s tallest structure and is still the world’s highest piece of masonry.) At the moment of capping, a flag was unfurled, a salute was fired, and the assembled workmen and dignitaries hurled their cheers into the wind.

The formal dedication was not held until the next Washington’s Birthday. President Chester A. Arthur, the fourteenth Chief Executive to be named ex officio president of the monument society (a practice still followed today), gave a brief talk. He then retired to the comparative comfort of the House of Representatives for a lengthy speech, written but not read by the ailing Robert Winthrop, who had spoken and spoken and spoken almost four decades earlier at the original cornerstone ceremony. Three years later, or one hundred and five years after the Continental Congress first entertained the idea of a memorial to George Washington, the structure was opened to the American public.