The Washington Monument: An Analysis of the American Icon
Amber Richards Sarah Ann Allen Spencer Frankeberger Anais Tobar
George Washington has been given the title of the Founding Father of our great nation. For nearly a decade, he fearlessly led the colonies in the Revolutionary War against Great Britain. This victory put him in the forefront of the newly independent American people and when the young country found itself struggling to find cohesion between the states (formerly known as the colonies); it once again looked to Washington as someone who could help. He helped to write the Constitution of the United States of America, a set of laws that we still follow to this dayâ€”over 200 years later, effectively cementing his place in American History. The Peopleâ€™s hero-worship of Washington led to a unanimous vote to make him the earliest official leader of the adolescent nation; he became the first president of the United States of America. This earned him the recommendation (and eventually the actualization) of having a monument built in his honor. It took nearly four decades to complete the project with lapses to finish completion, due mostly in part to political squabbling, the North-South division of the Civil War, and the views of the Republicans vs. the Federalists on building monuments. Despite this, however, the final piece--the obelisk at the top--was finally put in place in 1884. The monument itself officially opened to the public in 1885. Congressional approval for a monument happened in 1783, originally for an equestrian monument. The site was selected in 1791 but no further action was taken until 1833, with the foundation of the Washington National Monument Society, even with Washingtonâ€™s death in 1799. The society called for archeological designs in 1836; Robert Mills won with a neoclassical plan which was a flat-topped column surrounded by a circular walkway with a statue of Washington in a chariot. Statutes of 30 Revolutionary War heroes would also rim the colonnade.
The cornerstone was laid July 4th, 1848, and the pillar was halfway built before lack of funds once again paused construction. Robert Mills created the design. Mills was the winner of the Washington Monument competition for proposed designs for the monument; he also proposed other elements of the monument that were rejected due to the lack of funding and the projected cost. This is masked by what one can see with the naked eye of the Washington Monument; visitors would not expect that it was such an arduous, tedious process to plan and build this national monument. Generally, there would not be years of stopping in-between building the monument or several reimaginings of a winning design. After the Civil War, and with the partial monument sitting for over 20 years, the proposals started coming in. Before work could resume, though, there were numerous arguments about the continuation of the design because several people thought that the obelisk design, without the proposed colonnade, was too simple and too bare to represent one of the greatest American heroes. In fact, architect Mills himself suggested that, without the colonnade, the monument would look like “a stalk of asparagus.” Others suggested that, without the colonnade, the monument would leave “little…to be proud of.” Eventually, the Washington Monument finished, and at the time, was the tallest building in the world. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas L. Casey was Mill’s successor after the Civil War phase. Casey decided to modify the design to an Egyptian-style obelisk with a pointed top. The United States Army Corps of Engineers of the War Department completed the monument and dedicated it in 1885.
Though Mills himself never explained why he felt this design was appropriate, the history of the design itself may shed some light. The obelisk’s significance grounded itself in Ancient Egypt as a sacred symbol to the sun-god Ra. The top pyramid gives meaning to the tall base. This tall form was known to be longer-lasting, and Egyptian pharaohs used this for their tombs to lift them closer to their divine ancestor. It is somewhat of a remark on the consciousness and insecurity of the newly-minted Americans that they had to borrow meaning form an ancient power instead of creating their own. Today, the Washington Monument remains the tallest stone structure in the world, something that one cannot determine just from looking at the obelisk itself. Once, visitors were able to climb 897 steps or take an elevator to the top of the Washington Monument; however, another criticism of the monument is the upkeep. Due to safety issues after the earthquake in 2011 and vandalism of interior commemorative stones, the stairs are no longer accessible to the general public, and the elevator ceased its departures and returns, at least until the renovations are complete in 2014. The monument also seems slightly unstable. Not only did safety issues and vandalism arise, but in the early 1900s, otherworldly material oozed out between the outer stones of the first construction period below the 150-foot mark of the monument, with several visitors referring to it as “geological tuberculosis.” This was caused by the erosion and breaking down of several materials used to build the monument, including cement and rubble. As a result of these incidences, insidences many citizens do not know as or after they tour the monument, the Washington monument underwent several extensive changes at the end of 90’s and continuing through the beginning of the new millennium.
Fun Fact: As referenced in The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown, there is, in fact, a Bible hidden underneath the monument, among other items, such as atlases, reference books, multiple guides to Washington D.C. and the Capitol, Census records from 1790 to 1848, various poems, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence. Interestingly enough, not everyone has a positive outlook about the way in which the Washington Monument was constructed. Just ask Achmed the Dead Terrorist, who says, â€œI think some idiots must live here. For example, The Washington Monument, it looks nothing like the guy. It looks more like a tribute to Bill Clinton.â€? Through criticisms of the design and production, the Washington Monument stands as an icon of American patriotism in the center of Washington DC since its creation. Its sleek, obelisk design gives a memorial-filled capital city an imposing quality. As stated in other sections, this remains as one of the tallest stone structures in the world; and at the time of construction, it was the tallest building in the world: showcasing the rise of the United States. Ultimately, all memorials seek to showcase power, grandeur, and, in a way, trademark a culture. Since George Washington remains one of the most important patriotic figures the United States has ever had, it is obvious why this monument needs to stand tall and proud in the American culture. Also, the fact that this memorial oversees so many other memorials in Washington DC highlights its meaning and importance. This is not just a statue of George Washington; this is a 555 foot obelisk that can be seen from some of the most iconic places in our country: The White House, The Capitol, and The Pentagon. These places command respect and showcase power, both tags related with Americanism; therefore, the Washington Monument does, too. Whatever the theories and rumors behind
the shape of this monument, it is unmistakable. Though derived from ancient Egyptian designs, one look at a photograph of the Washington Monument and Americans can instantly identify it without having to read a caption or explanation. In short, the Washington Monument is an American icon because of who its subject is, its physical greatness, and all the social connotations attached with what makes Americans American.