WASHINGTON -- It is the most recognizable structure in Washington, a 555-foot high obelisk almost devoid of decoration.
The Washington Monument is about to become even more easily distinguished: Beginning sometime this winter, it will become a 555-foot high obelisk surrounded by scaffolding.
Winter is when the National Park Service is scheduled to begin a three-year, $5 million repair effort that will be the most comprehensive overhaul of the monument since it opened to the public in 1888.
And think of it not as the Washington Monument, but the Washington Monument-sponsored-by-Target, the department store chain. Target is contributing $1 million, and it has helped raise the other $4 million. This makes Target the "corporate partner" of the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation -- which are determined to avoid the term "sponsorship." Target raised the money so quickly that the company was ready to announce the project before the Park Service was ready to award contracts for the work.
It's an intimidating task, the repairing of a monument, an object meant to symbolize memory and endurance. It seems reasonable that the pyramids of Egypt might need maintenance, or the Pantheon in Rome. But Americans are always being told that their country, and thus its monuments, are young.
For the first three to four months of renovation, the obelisk will be closed to visitors, to allow workers to replace the elevator that travels through the shaft.
But the largest problems are posed by aesthetics. Since the monument dominates Washington's skyline, the skyline will be significantly changed by the scaffolding.
"It is a central focus for everyone in the region. If you go downtown in any direction, you see it first," says Jane Freundel Levey, editor of the Magazine of the Historical Society of Washington??????. When the scaffolding goes up, "It is going to be a bit of a shock."
To minimize the visual impact, the Park Service and Target have hired architect Michael Graves, the designer of Cincinnati's Riverbend Music Center and Denver's new Central Library and the winner of many awards. He has the task of making the scaffolding somehow interesting. And of making sure that people can still glimpse the monument through the construction maze.
"Most scaffolding we've done in the past has been strictly functional," says Stephen Lorenzetti, the Park Service's regional resources manager. "The thinking at Target has been that since the monument was going to be covered up, they wanted it to be a little interesting, a little more than a cultural icon hidden from view."
Americans began debating whether to build a monument to honor George Washington -- and what form it should take -- even before Washington's death. Congress considered the issue for 40 years without reaching a decision. In 1833, prominent citizens of the capital finally took charge by organizing the "Washington National Monument Society" and soliciting money.
Fifteen years later, the society had raised $87,000. President James K. Polk attended the ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone on July 4, 1848, and construction continued until the money ran out, in 1853.
And there it stood for nearly 25 years -- an unfinished shaft, the marble (quarried in Baltimore County) slowly weathering, the site perhaps reverting back to wild grasses. In 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant ended the embarrassment agreeing to have the government to take over the work. The Army Corps of Engineers completed construction at the end of 1884. Opened in 1888?
Total cost? $1.2 million.
Repairs began even before the obelisk was finished. Fearful that strong winds or an earthquake might topple the structure, engineers decided to reinforce the base. Workers installed bars over the window and the elevator shaft after a series of suicides in the early 1900s, repointed the mortar in the 1930s and cleaned and polished the stone in the 1960s.
This time, the stone work will begin after work on the elevator and the air conditioning system is done. Park Service officials hope to complete the project by 2000.
"These rehabilitations are larger than any one repair to go in and fix a short circuit," says Earle Kittleman, a Park Service spokesman. "It is a recognition that structures age and deteriorate with time, and we at the Park Service are the stewards of these shrines of American democracy."
Pub Date: 8/31/97