Washington Monument Opens
Symbol and Ceremony on The Mall

1138 Opening ceremonies for the restored Washington Monument. CLUI photo

THE GRAND REOPENING OF THE Washington Monument on George Washington’s 270th birthday (February 22, 2002), became an important symbolic act, in this new era of urgency, attended by officials, and hundreds of media representatives. Like so much in Washington, DC, the event was a performance on the city’s stage, a presentation enacted by members of government, for a national audience viewing through the portals of the media. The usual backdrops, in this city of display, are monumental neoclassical porticos. In this case it was the “tallest masonry structure in the world,” and, perhaps, the most recognized landmark in America.

The 555 foot tall pylon was built by the Army Corps of Engineers, finally finished in 1884, after 30 years of halted construction, stalled by events that included the theft of a symbolic stone by the anti-Catholic “Know Nothing Party,” protesting the fact that the stone had been donated by Pope Pius IX (the Know Nothings are said to have tossed the marble block into the Potomac). When it was completed, it was the tallest structure in the world. Federal law still prevents any structure in the capitol from surpassing it in height, though some see its stature as a challenge. When the state of Texas erected a similar soaring obelisk to honor Sam Houston’s victory over the Mexicans, they designed it so that the star on top of the Battle of San Jacinto monument made the structure 15 feet higher than the Washington Monument.

The monument has been undergoing four years of renovations, and has been closed to visitors for the past 14 months. The exterior masonry was repaired a couple of years ago, when the monument was encased in a grid of lighted scaffolding, designed by the postmodern architect Michael Graves. More recently, interior repairs and improvements have been made, largely funded by the Target retail store chain, including electronically-charged glass in the walls in the elevator that change from opaque to transparent as the elevator rises, so passengers can see the commemorative stones that were once viewable only to stair-climbers. New security features have also been added, and all visitors pass through scanners, submit their bags to hand inspection, and pass them through x-ray machines.

At the grand reopening ceremony on Washington’s birthday, the 50 flags that surround the Washington Monument flapped in a strong wind. “The doors of the Nation’s Capitol are open again,” the Mayor of Washington DC declared, and a ribbon was cut by a Park Service official. The camera crews then dispersed, lugging their gear through the parallel rows of concrete Jersey barricade that ring the monument.