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How much can you teach to an elevator full of people in roughly 70 seconds? The Washington Monument’s knowledgeable guides provide the answer more than 50 times a day: nothing.
Nevertheless, they keep trying. Thanks to the elevator ride, day after day, year after year, millions of visitors to the monument receive two brief lessons on the obelisk’s historyan ascending and a descending version.
On the way up, tourists get the basics, which include the monument’s height555 feetdate of completion1888and number of steps896.
On the trip down, the elevator slows to give viewers two predetermined peeks of the monument’s interior, as revealed through the translucent panels on either side of the elevator. Compared with its bland exterior, the inside of the Washington Monument displays a bowl of visual candy: 193 memorial stones honoring George Washington decorate the walls. During the elevator fly-by, the stones rush together in a geologic blur.
So it has gone for decades: With fast-talking delivery worthy of an auctioneer, the guides, National Park Service rangers, have attempted to present all the fun facts about the monument in the span of a commercial break.
Now they want more time with their
Over the past several months, the guides have been advancing a multi-million-dollar plan to move the historical lectures out of the elevator shaft to an adjacent underground center. “The additions would allow for a more friendly, more hospitable, more substantive experience for visitors,” says Bill Line, spokesperson for the Park Service. “The new facilities would allow for a more educational trip to the monument.”
The underground visitors’ facility would be roughly the size of a movie multiplex, featuring bathrooms, a bookstore, and multimedia exhibits about George Washington’s life. A metal-and-glass pyramid would replace the snack shack at the back of the old Monumental Lodge. The new hybrid structure would serve as a screening facility and entranceway to the subterranean digs.
Park Service officials hope that the additions will help protect the monument and its visitors from the threat of terrorism. “Because of its symbolism, the Washington Monument is a potential target for terrorists,” says Line. “We think that this option will best protect the visiting public.”
On the grass hill surrounding the monument, three granite walls designed by landscape architect Laurie Olin would form a cluster of protective rings around the obelisk. A stone plaza would replace the current asphalt. In all, the Park Service estimates, the changes would cost about $31 million.
On Jan. 9, the nine members of the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC)a federal board that serves in part as a gatekeeper for the National Mallvoted 5 to 4 in favor of the Park Service’s plans for the renovation. (The exact size of the glass addition was left open for more refinement.) John Parsons, the Park Service’s associate regional director for this area, cast one of the votes to proceed.
“Everything they touch, they make worse,” says Dorothy Miller, an advisory neighborhood commissioner for the area. “John Parsons is the Energizer Bunny. I think it’s time we take his batteries out.”
Public criticism about buildings and monuments tends to flourish during the design phasewitness the ongoing drama over plans for New York’s World Trade Center site. But once a building has risen in the established skyline, debate dies. The reflective mind surrenders to the inevitability of the built environment. We accept the status quo and criticize what is changing, even when it’s the lack of change that needs criticizing.
For more than a century, complacency shielded the Washington Monument from our analytical eye. But in the late ’90s, as part of the monument’s exterior renovation, the Park Service erected a sheath of scaffolding, designed by architect Michael Graves, around the shaft. The metallic makeover charmed some longtime maligners of the monument’s dull looks.
Chad Allen, a D.C. resident at the time, launched a campaign with the motto “Keep your monument covered.” Allen, who has since decamped to New York, recalls that his Web site, www.keepitcovered.org, stirred up strong feelings about the structure. “Most of the people that wrote me were really pissed off,” says Allen. “I got about a dozen e-mails from people calling me an unpatriotic loser.”
Now, once again, with the Park Service meddling with the monument, local residents have renewed interest. Critics are charging that the proposed underground rec rooms would drag down the soaring majesty of the monument. “For the main entrance one must experience an open, inviting space with views of the monument, not be forced to crawl through long underground tunnels,” testified Elena Sturdza, a Maryland architect, at the Jan. 9 NCPC meeting. “We are Americans, not mole people.”
Sturdza and other critics want the Park Service to consider more options. “The tunnel may yet be the best solution,” said George Idelson, president of the Cleveland Park Citizens Association, in remarks before the NCPC on Jan. 9. “But how would you know? No credible alternatives have ever been subjected to critical review….May the best argument win.”
Yes, the best argument should win, and a derivation of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s axiom “Less is more” should guide our future plans for the monument. Much, much less would be much, much more.
The tricky balance of protecting the public from terrorists, preserving city planner Pierre L’Enfant’s vision for the National Mall, and honoring our first president in an appropriate manner calls for a simple solution.
Knock it down.
Since 1998, a string of Jersey barriers has formed a warped circle around the perimeter of the Washington Monument. Park rangers put the slabs of concrete there to prevent would-be car bombers from driving up the grassy slope and ramming into the obelisk. So far, nobody has attacked the monument, but plenty of pugilists have stepped into the ring to slam the barriers with some runaway rhetoric. Benjamin Forgey, the Washington Post’s architectural critic, has described the setup as a “tawdry concrete necklace,” “shameful,” and a “national disgrace.”
But from an aesthetic perspective, the concrete barriers complement the monument. They’re monochromatic, bulky, and unadornedjust like the monument. Lay the monument on its side and it would be the largest Jersey barrier in a city full of them.
Purists may marvel at the stonework and classic shades of marble and granite that give the monument its pale beige hue. But a 12-year-old kid could pull off the same effect with a pile of dirty snow.
And modernity has debased the monument. In 1958, flashing red lights were added to the monument’s top pyramid to protect against wayward airplanes. Every night, the lights blink in unison, on and off, on and off, making the monument look like an alarm clock in need of resetting.
An aesthetically sound structure could handle a cheesy addition or two. But the real problem with the Washington Monument stems from the subtractions, from what’s missing. In an article published in summer 2001, Forgey wrote that the “monument’s size and simple geometric form defy ornamentation.” But for more than a century, the opposite has held true: The Washington Monument hasn’t defied ornamentation; it has been denied ornamentation.
In 1836, the Washington National Monument Society, a private group of prominent Washington residents, sponsored a design competition for the monument. Robert Mills, an architect from South Carolina, won the challenge. His design featured an outsized obelisk rising above an ornate colonnade of statues.
Traditionally, Egyptian obelisks stood in pairs, marking either side of a temple’s entrance. Engravings covered the stone shafts and conveyed a narrative. When Mills designed the Washington Monument, he wanted to use the obelisk to tell a story about George Washington and the Revolutionary War. Each of the obelisk’s four sides was to depict a defining event in Washington’s military career. Mills also reserved some prime real estate at the top of the monument for a single star, “emblematic of the glory which the name of Washington has attained.”
The symbolic star never reached the sky. Currently, a constellation of 13 stars, one for each state in the original Union, decorates the circular layer of asphalt at the foot of the monument. Every day, visitors crane their necks, stare up at the monument, and walk over the stars.
When asked to justify the monument, thoughtful Washingtonians invariably laud its minimalism. “It’s very abstract and pure,” says Judy Scott Feldman, president of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. “Seen against a pure blue sky or during sunset, it gives me an emotional high.”
Feldman, who teaches art history and architectural history at American University, has heard the usual gripes about the monument from her students. “They says it’s this great big phallic monstrosity,” says Feldman. “If you start thinking about its symbolism, then you can get in trouble. You have to appreciate its abstract geometry. It’s anything you want it to be.”
Mills wanted the monument to be a powerful eulogy to George Washington. But the memory of the man disappeared along with Mills’ architectural flourishes. It’s an obelisk with no engravings, a tablet with no text, a monument with no message.
“Lots of people who visit the monument don’t know that it’s a tribute to George Washington,” one Park Service ranger concedes. “They think it’s a symbol of the entire city.”
Who can blame them for being confused? It’s the monument’s overwhelming ambiguitymore than the threat of car bombsthat spurs the Park Service’s current plans for construction. The Park Service has been proposing an underground visitors’ center since as far back as 1973. Back then, the prospect of a subsurface complex tantalized rangers for essentially two reasons: The underground facilities would protect visitors from the elements while they waited for their timed entry. Also, the layout would provide additional space for interpreting George Washington’s life without interfering with the view of the monument.
Over the years, the Park Service pitched the same idea again and again. In 1993, it finally won approval for an underground complex from both the Commission of Fine Arts and the NCPC. But it never secured the funding for the project’s costs, which were considered exorbitant. Now, under the guise of national security, it may finally succeed in overcompensating for the monument’s shortcomings.
But no matter what the Park Service officials add to the monument and no matter where they add itunderground, on the ground, aboveground, or in the elevator shaftit won’t solve the underlying problem.
The monument is just too damn big.
In 1852, Mills wrote that Washington was “the noblest character that has ever shone in our world, save the great founder of Christianity.” Accordingly, Mills pursued the deification of Washington with missionary zeal. Blinded by his devotion, Mills ended up creating an eyesore.
During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Revolutionary War monuments were popping up across the East Coast, from Lexington, Mass., to Yorktown, Va. Erecting monuments predated baseball as America’s first competitive sport.
Mills liked to swing for the fences. In 1814, he won a competition to design a monument to George Washington in Baltimore. His winning design called for a Doric column capped with a statue. In all, it was 178 feet tall. Not too shabby, at the time. But in the following years, Revolutionary War monuments kept growing. Mills had to keep pace.
Twelve years later, in a competition to design a Revolutionary War monument for Boston’s Bunker Hill, Mills proposed a 220-foot-tall obelisk. But one of Mills’ competitors proposed a 225-foot-tall obelisk. Mills lost by 5 feet.
In 1834, when the Washington National Monument Society solicited proposals for yet another monument in Washington’s honor, Mills took no chances. He proposed the whopper of all Washington monuments, an obelisk reaching 600 feet into the sky. This time, he won. Construction began in 1848.
As the construction of the monument progressed, members of an internal design committee suggested capping the shaft at 300 feet. “As far as they can ascertain, there is no Monument in the World, which has been erected…that exceeds that height,” wrote a member of the society in 1848. “And it is believed, that a Shaft of this elevation, would be a Structure of sufficient magnitude and grandeur to excite the admiration of all who view it.”
Nonsense. Washington’s reputationand let’s face it, Mills’ legacy as an architectdemanded more than a diminutive 300 feet. However, it took the society a long time to get near the original 600-foot goal.
For roughly two decades, in part because of a lack of funds and in part because of the Civil War, the monument languished 152 feet above ground. Finally, in 1876, the federal government raised the money to complete the project, which would eventually peter out at its current 555-foot crest. In the process, Lt. Colonel Thomas L. Casey of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers scrapped all other aspects of the original design, including the colonnade.
Mills’ colonnade would have incorporated a series of figures celebrating other heroes of the Revolutionary War. In 1848, George Watterston, secretary of the Washington National Monument Society, explained the importance of preserving the pantheon so that “every venerated name of the Revolution may be represented and recorded, and the foul stain of ingratitude be forever blotted out.”
As erected, the monument managed to blot out everything except the foul stain of ingratitude. Nothing at the site today evokes the memory of the soldiers who fought and died under Washington’s command.
Unlike the monument in his name, George Washington wouldn’t snub his fellow soldiers. Washington accepted his celebrity, but he remained a modest man, the kind of guy who, when appointed commander of the colonial forces, declared, “I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.” After he succeeded in routing the world’s most respected army, Washington’s boosters tried to make him king. Humility prevailed, and he rejected their courtship.
Yet somehow, to this modest man we have erected the world’s most immodest monument. It ultimately says more about the ego of the man who designed itMills liked to brag that he was the first architect fully trained in Americathan about the person we’re supposedly remembering.
Jim Rees, the executive director of Mount Vernon, thinks the Washington Monument has accidentally captured certain aspects of Washington’s character. “Sometimes I think it would be great to have more of a feeling of Washington at the monument, like the statues of Lincoln and Jefferson at their memorials,” says Rees. But he adds: “I do think Washington was a bit formal and distant, so the fact that the monument isn’t very personable kind of makes sense.”
James Symington, the acting head of the Washington National Monument Society, says the obelisk even captures the anatomical essence of the general. “If you think of Washington the man, he was columnar, that is, like a column or a pillar,” says Symington. “The monument to my mind reflects in its simplicity the majesty of this incredible man.”
Whether the monument reflects Washington’s spine, character, or hair, it certainly fails to respect the man’s wishes. In his will, Washington requested that his body remain at Mount Vernon. Before passing away, he designed a modest tomb to replace his family’s old vault.
In 1845, Watterston of the Washington National Monument Society explained the need for the Washington Monument by disparaging the tomb that Washington had designed. “The pilgrim to Mount Vernon, the spot consecrated by Washington’s hallowed remains, is often shocked when he looks upon the humble sepulcher which contains his dust, and laments that no monument has yet reared its lofty head to mark a nation’s gratitude.”
When the monument eventually did rear its ugly head, it looked like something else: a giant misunderstanding.
Despite growing up within a bus ride of the monument, I managed to dodge it for 25 years. I grew up in a family that cultivated District sightseeing of a certain sort. My dad, a D.C. historian, led countless walking tours of the city. Periodically, I tagged along. Over the years, I learned to savor such landmarks as the giant chair in Anacostia. But, much to my satisfaction, we never went within spitting distance of the Washington Monument.
Over the years, not visiting the Washington Monument has helped define my identity as a local. Admittedly, that’s a dubious distinction defined by a backward set of achievements. Never voting for a senator. Never owning a car stereo. Never trusting a union official in fur.
From early on, I enjoyed shunning the Washington Monument. Whenever friends or relatives came to town and suggested that we visit the top, I scared them away with tall tales of long lines, insufferable tourists, and dehydration. Then I hyped other destinations: the stunning inspiration of the National Gallery of Art, the ingenious pulchritude of Hains Point’s Awakening statue, the sublime exquisiteness of the National Cathedral’s Bishop’s Garden.
On a Saturday afternoon in January, with my deadline for this story looming, I decided that after avoiding the monument for two-and-a-half decades, I could put it off for one more weekend. Visiting the Baltimore Washington Monument seemed like a valid excuse.
After strolling through the entrance of the Baltimore Washington Monument, located in Charm City’s historic Mount Vernon district, I was greeted by a sign suggesting I make a $1 donation. Nobody was watching the door. The only guard on duty sat in front of a space heater, playing a basketball video game on a Sony PlayStation. When I walked by, he didn’t look up. His casual disregard made me feel right at home, as if I were visiting D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
There’s no elevator at the Baltimore Washington Monument. The stairs wrap around the central column at a steep angle, and as I worked my way up the monument I enjoyed the fun-house illusion that I was walking in place.
Eventually, I reached the summit, where I looked around for a few minutes’ reading the carvings scratched on the walls: “Only nice graffiti is written high up.” The place felt like a tomb.
Aside from the lack of appropriate concessionsby which I mean crab cakesI liked the monument. On the way out, I stopped in the monument’s base and read an educational installation explaining the history of the original design competition. Mills’ sketches beat out four other designs, including a proposal for a jumbo obelisk. Apparently, the overplayed obelisk routine that eventually landed in D.C. wasn’t good enough for the discerning folks of Baltimore.
A week later, I reluctantly set out on my maiden voyage to the top of the Washington Washington Monument. From the get-go, the Ticketmaster surcharges, keepsake ticket stubs, and overpriced hot dogs (the ghost of Mills has succeeded at supersizing everything at the monument, it seems, except for the “jumbo” franks) make the whole event feel like another dreaded childhood experiencea trip to the Ice Capades.
First stop is the elevator. Originally, Mills outfitted the monument with a steam-operated elevator that was slow (12 minutes on a good day) and rumored to be dangerous. For a long time, there was a price to pay for reaching the pinnacle: the anxiety of the elevator or the fatigue of the stairs. These days, the summit is easily won, and the payoff feels commensurate with the effort.
After departing the elevator, I was knocked aside by a stampede of aggressive sightseers who crowded in front of the eight rectangular windows, leaving me with an unobstructed view of the backs of their heads. Eventually, I got my chance to stoop down and crane my neck to gaze through the smudged plexiglass.
A mediocre landscape spread out before me.The Potomac River splayed out into a lazy puddle. A pit of tangled roads snaked along the river’s banks.
D.C. is a short town. It’s not hard to find a spot overlooking the city. Reaching the top of the Washington Monument is a lot like climbing the fire escape onto the roof of my former apartment building in Mount Pleasant. The view is about the sameonly it’s more crowded and there’s nowhere to sit.
Before long, I was herded back into the elevator and funneled outside. In less than half an hour, I’d spoiled my Cal Ripken Jr.-esque streak of having not visited the monument for more than 9,000 consecutive days. But I wasn’t bitter. The visit was as painless as it was forgettable.
I decided to give it another shot. Perhaps, I thought, the monument would be more rewarding if I walked down the stairsa treat that, until recently, Park Service rangers allowed twice a day.
Big mistake. The interior of the monument is dark, dingy, and full of musty air. Every so often, my intrepid fellow travelers and I passed a sign threatening a $50 fine for “writing on or chipping walls or tablets, or committing a nuisance on the landing.”
Luckily for my tour guide, there appears to be no monetary penalty for wanton prolixity. At every opportunity he paused, read silently through a section in a book, and then reread entire passages verbatim. Riveting stuff.
Meanwhile, we were expected to gape at the crown jewels of the monument, the seemingly endless display of stones that adorn the walls. In the early stages of the monument’s construction, members of the Washington National Monument Society invited states and citizens to create memorial stones for the monument. By soliciting self-important clubs to contribute pseudo-artwork, they hoped to simultaneously corral a new wave of donations.
The results look like a fundraising scheme run amok. Masonic symbolsWashington was a masonlitter the stairwell. And rivaling the Masonic icons in ubiquity are stones bearing the symbol of another secret society on the wane, the Oddfellows. Their symbol, consisting of three interconnected rings, joins the myriad pyramids, floating eyes, and obelisks adorning the monument’s interior. (Note to conspiracy theorists: The Park Service’s landscaping plans, specifically the three interconnected granite walls, bear an uncanny similarity to the Oddfellows’ emblem).
All told, the tour took about an hour. Afterward, I was left with a newfound appreciation of the swift mercy of the monument’s modern elevators.
In early February, with national security warnings ratcheted up to Level Orange, the Park Service closed off access to the stairs altogether. The move upset Francine Oschin, a political adviser in town from Los Angeles on business. On a recent Wednesday, Oschin stared out the monument’s windows and bemoaned the elevator-intensive experience. “I came here for the first time when I was 10 years old,” she said. “And I walked up. There’s no way you can appreciate the monument as an engineering feat when you ride up the elevator and it takes 70 seconds. You can’t get any sense of the place.”
Why do people come from across the world for so little payoff? “Everyone talks about it,” said Partha Chakraborty, a native of India, who lives in New York and visited the top that day. “I came here because it’s one of those monuments that everyone visits.”
Yeah, I noticed. But why? I interrupted a woman who was videotaping the view to try and find out. A few seconds later, her cell phone rang. “Guess what?” she said into the phone. “I’m in the Washington Monument….Yeah, I just walked right in. The view up here is amazing.”
And so, as it turns out, is the cell-phone service.
Subsurface viewing galleries typically show off zoos and aquariums, not monuments. Underground windows are good for spying on otters and hammerhead sharks, not bedrock and foundations. But in the case of the Washington Monument, Park Service officials are thinking outside the underground box.
Their favored plan for the monument grounds, dubbed Alternative A, includes a 60-foot-long skylight that would allow visitors in the underground facilities to ogle the monument from a new angle. Someday, it might be the only place to view the obeliskthat is, if nature cooperates.
For years, the monument has been sinking. In the mid-’80s, surveyors from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded that over the past hundred years, the monument had sunk about an inch. At that rate, the monument won’t disappear for more than 600,000 yearstoo long a time frame to offer much hope to monument-haters. However, some optimists believe that the Park Service’s current plans might significantly reduce the half-life of the monument.
Charles I. Cassell of the American Institute of Architects says he is outraged that the Park Service hasn’t conducted an environmental-impact statement for the proposed project. Cassell suggests that digging so close to the monument could be dangerous. “If you’re going to go down to bedrock, you could disturb the underpinnings,” says Cassell. “It could sink more. It could tilt. It could become the Leaning Tower of Washington, D.C.”
Or it could fall over.
Historically, the monument’s stewards have shied away from on-site excavations. In 1901, the McMillan Commission, a group of renowned designers charged with reviving the L’Enfant plan, proposed a series of terraces and fountains to decorate the barren grounds surrounding the monument. The improvements would have required a major reshuffling of soil around its base. Ultimately, engineers postponed the plans before anyone could yell, “Timber!” In 1933, the monument’s director of public buildings and public parks announced that the McMillan plans were unsafe, concluding that they would threaten the stability of the monument.
The report suggested two options: either “underpin the Monument to bedrock” or “dismantle the entire Monument, construct a new foundation to bedrock and rebuild the Monument thereon.” Fast-forward 70 years and the second alternative sounds prescient, especially if you overlook the wrongheaded impulse to rebuild.
Critics have lashed out at the Washington Monument from both sides of the political spectrum. On the left, Louis Farrakhan has punched up the monument’s dimensions in his mental calculator and solved the basic equation underlying America’s racism. “In the middle of this Mall is the Washington Monument, 555 feet high,” proclaimed Farrakhan at the Million Man March in 1995. “But if we put a 1 in front of that 555 feet we get 1555, the year that our first fathers landed on the shores of Jamestown, Va., as slaves.” Do the math.
On the right, the Council of Conservative Citizens has hacked away at the monument’s upstanding reputation. “To queers, the towering stone obelisk represents an erect phallus, and therefore serves as a giant sex fetish,” read a news item on the group’s Web site in 2001. Getting rid of some of the Mall’s detritus, such as the Washington Monument, would clear some room for more must-have items, such as a Reagan monument.
Furthermore, getting rid of the Washington Monument would appeal to preservationists, who for years have been protesting the clutter on the National Mall. “Neglect of the L’Enfant Plan in the 19th century resulted in a hodgepodge growth of buildings, trees, gardens, and railroad tracks crossing this historic axis,” notes the 2002 State of the Mall Report from the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. “Memorial ‘Sprawl on the Mall’ is a real and growing problem.”
In 1783, the Congress of the Confederation was the first to dream up a tribute to Washington. Its members envisioned a simple statue of a man on his horse. This seemed an appropriate gesture. After all, George Washington was a skilled equestrian. “Jefferson called him the best horseman of his age,” says Mount Vernon’s Rees. “He was brought up with horses, he raised horses, and when he was out riding on the Western frontier as a surveyor, oftentimes a horse was his best friend.”
When L’Enfant designed D.C.’s layout in 1791, he reserved a spot on the Mall for the statue. In 1853, with the construction of the Washington Monument near a standstill, members of Congress commissioned sculptor Clark Mills to build the tardy tribute. But the resulting memorial never made it to the Mall. To this day, the man and his horse sit in obscurity at Washington Circle.
It’s time to call in the cavalry. We should scrap the Park Service’s extravagant plans. Chop down the Washington Monument. And restore the founding fathers’ vision by moving the statue to its preordained pasture.
Along the way, we would save taxpayers a windfalla move that the thrifty Washington no doubt would appreciate. “Washington grew up without much money,” says Rees. “So in adulthood, he was one of these people who was wealthy but frugal.” The Park Service’s preferred $31,000,000 plan seems like spending a lot of cash on a scenario that offers only a slight possibility of tipping over the monument.
Knocking down the monument intentionally would be much cheaper, and we could even sell the stones as souvenirs. Rick Wilson, of Bulldog Construction & Demolition in Manassas, Va., says that “shooting from the hip,” he estimates he could do the job for about 10 percent of the cost. “Give me 3 million dollars and I’ll take it down myself, brick by brick,” says Wilson. “I can be down there in about 30 minutes.” CP