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Renovating Washington's Monument, Designer-style

Renovating Washington's Monument, Designer-style

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For the first time since 1934, the Washington Monument, just west of the Smithsonian Castle on the Mall, is covered with scaffolding, as it undergoes a $9.4 million renovation. Encased in a blue mesh overcoat that surrounds it from base to tip, it looks as though it has put on weight. A big tent out by 15th Street houses a temporary interpretive center, itself costing $2 million.

There I find a mock-up of the observation room that sits at the very top of the obelisk. Computers give a virtual view in all four directions of what visitors would be seeing were the scaffolding not obstructing their view. Then, in reality, we are sent in pulses of about 25 people each to the shaft itself, passing through a magnetometer on the way.

"The walls are 15 feet thick at the bottom and 18 inches thick at the 500-foot level," our guide tells us as we ride up in the elevator. "When the monument was completed in 1884, it was the world's largest building, and it's still the largest freestanding stone structure. The scaffolding is freestanding, too: 37 miles of aluminum wrapped around the shaft." The foundation is 36 feet 10 inches deep — unless there exists, as pop artist Claes Oldenburg depicted in a famous conceptual drawing, a giant pair of scissor handles underground. The structure does look rather like closed scissor blades.

The blue screen netting over the scaffolding is mostly decorative. It is designed to mimic the stone block pattern and preserve the general shape of the beloved national icon. Its creation was the idea of the distinguished restoration architect and designer Michael Graves.

"It's important for all Americans to understand the life cycles of our buildings," Graves has said. "If one thinks about the number of instances in places such as Rome or Florence where buildings are covered in scaffolding, one understands that in those cultures with buildings of greater age than ours, this is not an unusual occurrence." There definitely are scaffoldings and scaffoldings. Some are just a bunch of dangerous-looking boards set on a framework of pipes and all of it spattered with paint and plaster dust.

This one is a thing of beauty. It gives the monument a new solidity, although it loses that wonderful slim, spearlike effect of the structure itself. Graves is famous for his architectural light touch: he has designed everything from whistling teakettles on up. The reaction to the scaffolding has been mixed: some say it makes the shaft appear klutzy; others say the monument looks more interesting than ever. In any case, we all yearn for the day in the late spring of 2000 when it is unveiled.

What precisely is being done? Stephen Lorenzetti of the National Park Service explains that the entire exterior will be cleaned, all the joints repointed and the lightning protection system repaired. I didn't know this but I should have guessed: the structure gets struck by lightning about once a year. Thus, there are lightning rods in the pyramidion, even in its pencil-sharp point. These rods are made of copper, and are platinum-tipped and gold-plated. The platinum protects the copper from melting, and the gold keeps the copper from patinating — that is to say, staining — the stone.

The eight windows at the top will be reglazed and the red aircraft warning lights recaulked. But mostly the work will involve the marble blocks. "We'll seal the cracks and patch the stones where needed," Lorenzetti tells me, "and put in dutchmen where they are needed."

All right, what is a dutchman?

"That's where most of the stone is still good, but it's so damaged that a patch wouldn't hold, so we cut out part of the stone and replace it with a similar piece, pinning it into the stone. Marble doesn't take pressure that well. Pressure builds on the corners and they break off."

Already, especially on the bottom 40 feet of the shaft, there are a lot of dutchmen in place.

"To get the dutchmen," Lorenzetti says, "we went back to the original quarry sites, and though the first is still operating, it grinds stone for industrial uses, not for marble blocks. The second one is now a swimming club. We had a topographic map and we pulled in on a hot June day to look for stones, and they didn't have a clue what we were doing. But they were very helpful: they had some stones left around and donated them to the Park Service."

Then there is the matter of old stains, some from the dirt in the air, some from copper gutters that were installed over the windows at one time. Even when the gutters were finally removed, the hardware that held them to the building was left and stained the stone even more. That will be corrected. There are some 36,000 stones in the monument. The mortar between them has been replaced at least twice. Some were caulked — "that was popular in the '60s and '70s, but we're getting away from that," explains Lorenzetti. Caulking uses a rubbery substance, but the experts now prefer a very soft mortar mix, "so it won't be as strong as the stone and if anything moves, it won't be the stone that gives."

Inside, the 193 memorial stones — presented by cities, states, countries, groups and individuals — and two descriptive stones will be cleaned and restored, though not to mint condition, as that would be a sin against the venerable age of the shaft.

The restoration began in January 1998 when the monument was closed so that heating and air-conditioning systems could be upgraded. The elevator, which dates from 1959, also was modernized. That project alone cost $1.9 million. The exterior work is billed at $6 million.

As the work proceeds, there will be from 15 to 20 workers on the scaffolding at any one time. Five platforms are stationed at intervals up the shaft, and there is safety netting "to catch any errant tools, stones — or workmen," Lorenzetti says.

By the way, it is lit up at night with hundreds of fixtures donated by General Electric, one of several corporate partners in the project. Target Stores persuaded other corporations to join them, and together they have raised more than $5 million for the rehab job; Congress provided $1 million. Target added another $1.5 million for interior renovations to the observation room and exhibit areas, and to the elevator cab.

The monument envisioned in L'Enfant's 1791 plan for Washington was to have had a sort of Greek temple at the base, but Lt. Col. Thomas L. Casey of the Army Corps of Engineers, who directed part of the construction, disposed of that idea. He modeled the monument on the obelisks that the Romans had brought from Egypt to Rome as booty. The classic proportions were ten feet in height for every foot in width at the base, with the peak cut away at a 60-degree angle. This 550-foot obelisk measures 55 feet 1.5 inches wide at the base, 34 feet 5.5 inches at the top.

The monument was constructed in two phases, as funds allowed, from 1848 to 1855 and 1878 to 1884, and cost $1,187,710 to build.

Its moment of glory as the world's tallest structure was short. In 1889 the Eiffel Tower shot up 984 feet, celebrating the new technology of metal and achieving an effect of lightness that no stone monument could match. In the past 50 years the Washington Monument has settled two inches. (It weighs 80,000 tons.) In a 30-mile-per-hour wind it sways one-eighth of an inch. That sounds like a pretty solid piece of work. Maybe Claes Oldenburg was right — maybe there are giant handles underneath.

By Michael Kernan

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