The Washington Monument (Washington, District of Columbia) is one of America's treasures, with almost a million visitors per year, but it didn't have a smooth birth. There was a twenty-year period during the 1800s where the 555-foot marble obelisk sat undone and untouched. On its road to completion, it went through multiple architects, owners, and even quarries. Finally finished in 1884, it now stands as a monument to America's first president.


Robert Mills was the original architect for this grand project, which began construction in 1848. However, the monument was over a decade in the works before Mills was even hired. The Washington National Monument Society, which was a private group founded specifically with this project in mind, spent years fundraising and vetting proposals before finally breaking ground with Mills at the helm.

The foundation stone was set on July 4, 1848, in front of a large crowd of onlookers, including the current president and many influential politicians and citizens. Among them was a young Abraham Lincoln, who was serving as a House Representative for the state of Illinois at the time. Little did he know then that his presidency would come and go with the monument still unfinished.

Delays and Disappointments

While the construction initially went well, dual catastrophes in 1853 and 1854 would put the future of the Washington Monument at risk. The first was the reorganization and eventual bankruptcy of the Washington National Monument Society. The second, taking place a year later in 1854, was the death of Robert Mills.

Between those two blows and the overall state of unrest the country found itself in, which culminated in the Civil War, construction of the monument was halted for two decades. Many despaired ever seeing it finished at all.


In 1876 new life was breathed into the project when Congress voted to take over. At that point, civil engineer Thomas Casey and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were tapped to bring the monument across the finish line. In addition to taking over the work, Casey also redesigned the monument to make it more structurally sound and, by necessity, about 50 feet shorter than originally designed.

Finding suitable stones to finish the job was the next major challenge. The original stones were from a Baltimore quarry, which in the intervening years had ceased to be operational. It took a fair amount of effort to find a source for stones that properly matched the already half-built monument.

A quarry in Massachusetts was briefly used, but their stones were not the pure white required. A new Baltimore quarry finally took over, but close observers can see the change in color of the stones as they travel up the obelisk, marking the transition between the stones from the three separate quarries.

Triumph and Tribulation

Despite all delays and challenges, on December 6, 1884, over 40 years after the foundation stone was so ceremoniously placed, the capstone finally found its home in the monument. It was formally dedicated on February 21, 1885, and has been on and off open to the public since 1886.

Amazingly enough, at the time it was completed, it was the tallest building in the world - today, that honor goes to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai at 2,717 feet. Though recently closed for maintenance and modernization, it will reopen to the public on September 19, 2019, and can be toured for free by visitors from all over the world.

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