Renovating Washington’s Monument, Designer-style

Renovating Washington’s Monument, Designer-style

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

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.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus