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The Washington Monument’s scaffolding may get a second chance to shine—but where?
A year after it was erected, the scaffold that hugs the Washington Monument has become a star in its own right. All summer long, tourists have gone gaga over the aluminum-and-nylon-mesh contraption, especially at night when it shines like a big blue pencil—or a glow-in-the-dark ribbed condom, depending on your point of view. Recently, it received the ultimate blessing as a bona fide public monument when activists turned it into a jungle gym to protest experimentation on primates.
And now there are efforts afoot to preserve the structure for posterity. That’s what Chad Allen wanted all along, but things are turning out a bit different from what he’d hoped for. Last spring, the D.C. resident started a group whose aim and slogan was “Keep your monument covered.” For Allen and a cadre of public-space aesthetes, the scaffolding was a vast improvement for a boring, obsolete obelisk. (See “Know When to Scaffold ‘Em,” 5/7).
Allen’s efforts stemmed from a real affection for the scaffold. He was smitten by this modernist updating of a taken-for-granted tourist attraction. At the time, he said that even if the scaffold couldn’t remain as the monument’s steel-skeleton twin, he’d like to see it saved from the warehouse and scrap heap where all used scaffolds must someday return.
He’s gotten his wish, sort of. Several commercial entities, including some area developers, are interested in buying the structure and showing it off as their very own Washington Monument knockoff: heavy hitters know a nifty symbol when they see one. “There have been several offers,” says Mark Tsirigos, vice president for Universal Builders Supply (UBS), the company that constructed the $2.5 million scaffolding. “It represents something good, and they want to associate themselves with it. They figure it’s a part of American history, and they want to preserve it.”
Tsirigos declined to comment on who these prospective buyers are. UBS is entertaining various bids, he says. The Mount Vernon, N.Y.-based UBS made the Guinness Book of World records for its work on the Statue of Liberty several years ago (the world’s tallest free-standing scaffolding) and has stayed busy in Washington on various high-profile projects, including the Jefferson Memorial and, more recently, the National Air and Space Museum.
Usually, UBS dismantles a scaffold and ships parts back to its headquarters to be used again; the rest is melted down into scrap. Until now, no one has ever wanted to buy any scaffolding. But this is no ordinary rig. Created by architect Michael Graves, its lightweight, see-through design echoes the monument’s tapered form and features a blue-mesh cover that makes for a singular spectacle, day or night.
According to Tsirigos, UBS is prepared to make the necessary modifications—including a new base for a completely free-standing structure—to rebuild the scaffold at a new site for the purchaser. “We would take it where they want and re-erect it for them,” he says.
Target may be the likeliest candidate, though company officials say there have been no discussions regarding the scaffold’s future. The retail chain has already chipped in the first $1 million for the $6.5 million renovation; the scaffold would make an eye-catching, 570-foot-tall traffic-stopper at its new store in Alexandria’s Potomac Yards development. Other companies might opt to put the 37 miles of aluminum tubing at the entrance to a subdivision, a monumental gateway for all those SUVs to drive through upon returning from a long commute.
These suburban-relocation, corporate-sponsored scenarios leave the scaffolding’s biggest booster disillusioned: “It’s kind of like another good thing that’s gonna leave the District,” says Allen, a Kalamazoo, Mich., transplant who lives and works in Washington. “It’d be interesting to see if we could keep it around D.C. I just don’t know where we’d put it—nobody’s going to want it to compete with the monument.”
Allen realizes that the District likely has room for only one Washington Monument. He says he’d rather see the sister structure find a cozy, down-home spot somewhere out in the heartland. After all, that’s where so many of those who flock to see the monument actually live. Why not let them have a piece of the action for once? “It could be some little town’s claim to fame,” he says. “There’s a bunch of towns named Washington in the Midwest. I think it would be kind of cool to have it compete with the Corn Palace and the World’s Biggest Ball of Yarn and all that….Now that it sounds like there’s a bunch of big players interested, that’s probably not going to happen.”
The scaffolding is slated to come down this winter. Until then, Allen plans to enjoy it while it lasts. “Right now, no one really owns it,” he says. “Technically, UBS owns it, but it still feels like a monument, a public thing, and that’s kind of nice.” CP