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Renovating Washington's Monument, Designer-style

Renovating Washington's Monument, Designer-style

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."

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