Washington, D.C.’s unforgettable skyline is dominated by some of the world’s most celebrated monuments. The fantastic temples, structures and statues that grace the green expanses of the National Mall tell fascinating stories through their history and design. Here is some background information on the city’s most famous sights.
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The National Mall
(stretches from 3rd St., NW and the Capitol grounds to 14th St., between Independence and Constitution Aves)
Officially, the National Mall is a swath of green space that begins at 3rd Street and stretches to 14th Street. Visitors and locals, however, widely use the term to refer to the entire expanse of monuments and museums, from the grounds of the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. Pierre L’Enfant's original plans for the city called for this open space, which he envisioned as a grand boulevard to be used for remembrance, observance, and protest. Today, it serves this purpose, hosting concerts, rallies, festivals, as well as frisbee matches, family outings and picnics.
(15th St. and Constitution Ave., NW. Architect: Robert Mills. Dedicated: 1888)
Towering 555-1/8 feet above the National Mall, the Washington Monument was built as a powerful tribute to George Washington. George Washington initially objected to the allocation of federal funds for a monument in his honor, but relented and approved the site selected by Pierre L’Enfant—where the western axis of the Capitol intersects with the southern axis of the White House.
After Washington’s death in 1799, popular support grew for the erection of the monument, and Thomas Jefferson laid a stone in the precise spot where the monument was to be built. During Jefferson’s time, however, the grounds were quite marshy, and the stone sank into the earth. Enthusiasm for the project also sank as Congress and Washington’s heirs squabbled over the design.
In 1833, momentum resurged, thanks to the efforts of Washington’s fellow Freemasons and George Watterson, the Librarian of Congress. The proponents formed a group called the Washington National Monument Society and asked all Americans to contribute $1 each to fund the monument. A national design competition was held in 1836, and trustees selected a design by Robert Mills, who had previously designed the monument to Washington in Baltimore. His design called for a 500-foot obelisk rising out of a 110-foot circular Greek temple that would house statues of outstanding figures in American history.
Mills’s elaborate plans were met with fundraising difficulties, however, and the design was altered dramatically. The site of the monument was moved to a higher, more solid site, 350 feet east of the intended placement. Ground was finally broken on July 4, 1848. The trowel used during the groundbreaking ceremony was also used by Washington in the groundbreaking of the U.S. Capitol.
As costs for the monument construction rose, the Monument Society asked states, countries and dignitaries to donate blocks of marble that would be installed in the interior wall. One such stone was donated by Pope Pious IX, which brought immediate controversy to the monument effort. The anti-Catholic and xenophobic Know-Nothing Party burglarized the monument construction site in 1854 and tossed the “Pope Stone” into the Potomac River.
Construction came to a halt shortly after, as funding dried up, conflicts arose within the Monument Society, and Civil War loomed. The project stood unfinished at 156 feet for 22 years. Mark Twain referred to the monument as “a factory chimney with the top broken off.”
In 1876, the country celebrated its centennial with an unfinished monument to its first president. Later that year, President Ulysses S. Grant approved funds to complete the project according to Mills’s modified design. By 1884, the monument had grown to 500 feet. The marble used for the remaining 48 feet had weathered to a different stage, which can still be noted.
A pyramid-shaped apex, crafted from aluminum (which was highly valuable at the time) was placed atop the obelisk. The monument was dedicated by President Chester A. Arthur, and was opened to the public on October 9, 1888.