Feb. 21, 1885: Washington Monument dedicated, 37 years after construction began


(Photo: U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Andy Dunaway [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

American officials had long wanted to build a monument to the nation’s first president. Before the United States had ratified its Constitution or elected George Washington, the Continental Congress decreed in 1783 that a statue honoring him should be placed in the nation’s capital.

By 1832, the 100th anniversary of Washington’s birth, some Americans were thinking on a grander scale. They formed the Washington National Monument Society to raise money for a giant monument. The design review committee chose a design by Robert Mills, the Architect of Public Buildings for Washington, D.C. Inspired by those earlier monuments, he went with an obelisk, or column, design that harked back to those Greece and Egypt built at the height of their power.

Construction started in 1848, but the monument would take 37 years to complete, with a break before and during the Civil War due to lack of funding. By 1885, interest in President Washington — a much-needed symbol of national unity in postwar times — ran high, and more than 800 people turned up on dedication day to hear speeches by dignitaries including President Chester Arthur.

At 555 feet, the Washington Monument was the tallest building in the world at the time. It was immediately popular with tourists, who came by the thousands to climb the stairs to the top. Sadly, the monument was closed to visitors after an earthquake in 2011. It is expected to reopen sometime this spring.

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