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5 Things You Didn't Know about the Washington Monument

On October 9, 1888, the Washington Monument opened to the public. After decades of construction starts and stops, war, budget problems, and changing tastes, the obelisk that honors George Washington was finally complete. Here are five things you didn't know about the Washington Monument...

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One Stone Nearly Ended the Monument's Existence # Photo credit: By Alvesgaspar - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56582162. If awards were given out for petty moves in political architecture, the Know-Nothing party of the mid-1800s would have won easily. This was an anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic political party that was competing for political control. Members became so angry that the Pope had donated one stone in the monument that they stole that stone—it came from the Roman Temple of Concord, so it wasn't just another rock—dumped it in the Potomac, and took over control of the building project, which had already been halted due to financial problems. Their "control" led to basically no work being done.

The Monument Sat Unfinished for Over 20 Years # The monument's original design was a lot fancier. Image credit: Robert Mills [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. After halting initially for financial reasons, the monument sat unfinished with little work done on it for over 20 years. At first, it was just the money and the political spat over the stone that kept the monument from being finished, but the Civil War, of course, also played a huge role. Nothing was done until 1876, when the government finally decided to do something about the half-constructed building that had been looking over the landscape for decades.

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The Layout of the Monument Changed Halfway Through Construction Though the monument's iconic and simple shape is easily recognizable now, the original plans called for a grandiose Pantheon-like structure toward the base, complete with fancy columns and festooned with statues. When construction resumed in the 1870s, the base structure was eliminated mainly because architectural taste at that point was not nearly as fancy as it had been back in the 1840s, when the original design was approved. Financial considerations also contributed to the simplification of the design.

The Monument Was Briefly the World's Tallest Manmade Structure It was a brief but glorious reign of five years when the 555-foot height of the monument made it the world's tallest humanmade structure. For four of those years—1884-1888—the monument was closed to the public; it was only between 1888 and 1889 that tourists could visit Washington D.C. and say they'd been to the tallest building in the world. (The Eiffel Tower took over that title in 1889.) The four-year gap between the end of construction and the opening of the monument was due to the installation of a steam elevator. Now, of course, the building wouldn't even crack the top 25 tallest buildings; the 25th tallest as of July 2018 was the 23 Marina building in Dubai, sitting at 1,287 feet. As of February 2018, the tallest building under construction was the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia, which is supposed to reach 3,281 feet upon completion.

The Monument Has Been Closed Twice Due to an Earthquake Imagine being over 550 feet in the air in a region not necessarily known for having strict earthquake building codes. That's what happened to a group of tourists on August 23, 2011, when a 5.8-magnitude earthquake hit 90 miles away from the monument in Virginia. Because of the efficient transmission of shaking through the softer mid-Atlantic-region soil, and the lack of strong seismic building codes, the quake created cracks throughout the monument resulting in its closure for three years for repairs. The monument reopened in 2014, but in 2016, WTOP reported that ongoing problems with the elevator in the monument were likely due to lingering quake damage, and that the initial $15-million repair job focused on repairing the stone but didn't focus on the elevators. Between 2014 and 2016, the elevator broke down repeatedly, and the monument closed down again in 2016. It is scheduled to reopen in 2019.