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Pity the poor Washington Monument. America’s most famous obelisk has been a lightning rod from the start, its supporters subdued and its enemies legion. Back in the 1850s, the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party saw evil in the monument and sabotaged its construction; the squat block sat unfinished for 20 years. In 1982, a man named Norman Mayer threatened to blow it up; he was gunned down while fleeing in a van that turned out to carry no explosives. More recently, Louis Farrakhan has denounced the monument as a sinister totem for a Masonic conspiracy that still goes on today.
Chad Allen doesn’t like the monument, either, but his disdain is based purely on aesthetic grounds. Allen regards it not as a symbol of tyranny or oppression, but as the world’s tallest free-standing masonry eyesore. Plain. Boring. Even worse, Allen also thinks the monument is irrelevant: Obelisks may have been fine for the ancient Egyptians or the Founding Fathers, but as an architectural concept, they just don’t move him. “It’s an outdated symbol,” he says. “It doesn’t have anything to say to us; it doesn’t have to do with who we are as contemporary Americans.”
When the monument’s renovation work began last fall, Allen watched the scaffolding go up and noticed an instant improvement: The new look wasn’t quite Blade Runner’s future world, but it still lent the old granite-and-marble monolith a modern metallic flourish for the next century. As time went by, the structure designed by architect Michael Graves slowly engulfed the obelisk, the sun glinting off the blue aluminum surface. But when Allen saw the monument at nightburning bright in its metal-and-nylon-netting cage as if lit from withinhe became a full convert: “It has this luminescent quality,” he says. “It really stands out now. Whereas before it was kind of muted, now it grabs your attention, out there glowing in the dark. [The scaffold] really updates it.”
Friends agreed that it was a vast improvement. On a lunch break near his office at Dupont CircleAllen works as a managing editor at a Web-based travel servicehe overheard people talking about how they liked the new monument. Inspired by what he saw as a sort of underground movement, he has launched the Monument Project, a nonprofit organization whose motto is “Keep your monument covered.” The slogan is mostly a way to attract attention to the cause, which Allen insists is no prank: “The monument is obviously a phallic symbol, and so when you cover it that sort of adds a whole new set of jokes to go with it.”
Allen says that keeping the monument covered is all about paying attention to the urban environment. In fact, the defender of Washington’s newest building innovation lines up with the fussiest defenders of local architectural arcana. “It’s like any other beautiful building that preservationists are interested in having around,” he says. “The preservation movement is usually associated with old things, but it can also be associated with anything that’s about to disappear. And there’s no reason why this should disappear if people like it.”
And some of those preservationists do like iteven if they don’t know about Allen’s efforts. “I’m absolutely obsessed with how wonderful it looks right now,” says Sally Berk, a local preservation consultant and past president of the D.C. Preservation League. “It’s never been so beautiful. I would have to say, though, that [Allen had] better cherish every moment, because [the monument’s] historical significance comes from the way it was originally built.”
The National Park Service, which operates the monument, is likely to agree that its new incarnation will be temporary. So, for that matter, are other watchdogs of local tradition. “If this proposal ever reaches here for some reason only known to God, I can guarantee it will not be approved,” says Jeff Carver, assistant secretary at the D.C. Commission on Fine Arts, which approved the permit for Graves’ scaffold as a temporary structure.
Allen says he hasn’t yet examined the legalities of the issue, and he is interested in helping to preserve the scaffold at another sitewhich, Graves has told NPR, is a possibility.
Most of all, though, Allen wants to gauge public opinion, to find out if there are others who also see the monument differently now or if he’s alone in feeling a frisson that wasn’t there before. “It’s part of my broader interest in getting people to think about the buildings and architecture and the use of public space, because it really does affect your psychological well-being,” he says.
So far, about a dozen people have signed the petition at the project’s Web site, but Allen has got plenty of time to build momentum: The scaffolding isn’t due to come off for a while; the unveiling of the restored monumentat a cost of several million dollarsis scheduled for July 4, 2000. Until then, Allen is content to monument-gaze from the rooftop of his apartment in Adams Morgan. “It really does look wicked at night,” he says. CP