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Washington Monument

Washington, D.C.

The largest freestanding stone structure in the world is the obelisk built in honor of George Washington that stands about halfway between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. By legislation, it will remain the tallest structure in the U.S. capital The 91,000-ton (82,700-tonne) monument is 555 feet, 5 inches (166.7 meters) high and 55 feet, 5 inches (16.67 meters) square at the base. Its load-bearing granite walls are 15 feet (4.5 meters) thick at the bottom and 18 inches (45 centimeters) thick at the top, reflecting the 10:1 proportion of the overall dimensions. The granite structure is faced with white marble; because it came from different quarries—first from Maryland and later Massachusetts—there is a perceptible variation in color at about one-third of the height. Around the internal stair, 200 memorial stone plaques are set, presented by individuals, societies, cities, states, and foreign countries.

At first, Washington acceded to the Congress’s 1783 proposal to erect an equestrian statue of him in the planned federal capital. Faced with the problem of raising funds to build the city, he soon changed his mind. He died in 1799 and the following year, by agreement with his widow, Martha, Congress contemplated interring his remains in a marble pyramid beneath the dome of the Capitol Building, started six years earlier. Without money, the project was postponed until 1832, the centenary year of Washington’s birth. When his executors decided that his body should remain on his Mount Vernon property, the idea was abandoned.

Possibly reacting to official indecision, a group of influential Washington citizens established the Washington National Monument Society in 1833; Chief Justice John Maxwell was its president. Publicizing its intention in the press and by direct appeal to churches, societies, and individuals, the society set about fund-raising. All U.S. citizens were invited to contribute $1, for which a certificate would be issued, but it was not until 1836 that enough money had been collected to finance a design competition for American architects. That resulted in a stylistic potpourri of ideas, including a (larger) variation on the pyramid theme and at least a couple of Gothic Revival proposals. Meanwhile, the fund was growing while the society waited for the government to fix a location, which it did in 1848.

Robert Mills, said to be the first U.S.-born qualified architect, won the competition. He had been in government service for some years, designing among other public buildings the Patent Office and the Treasury in Washington, D.C. And about twenty years earlier he had produced a more modest Washington monument for Baltimore. His extravagant proposal for the national monument comprised a 500-foot (150-meter) obelisk, whose flattish pyramidal peak