Renovated landmark has new task

Reopened Washington Monument called symbol for recovery

February 23, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The view atop the Washington Monument is striking: It offers a sweeping panorama of the capital, it moves visitors with a sense of history, it frames the city's gleaming symbols of democracy.

Oh, and from up here, politicians look as puny as ants.

The monument's vistas went back on display yesterday upon the completion of the most exhaustive renovation in its 117-year history. The obelisk, closed to visitors intermittently over the past four years in a $10.5 million facelift, reopened to mark George Washington's 270th birthday.

"It was almost like seeing the whole country!" exclaimed Kyle Williams, a 7-year-old from Anthony Bowen Elementary School in Washington, one of the first to tour the monument yesterday.

The renovations had closed the monument to visitors completely since December 2000. Cutting a red, white and blue ribbon to commemorate the reopening, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton called the event another step in America's return to normal life after Sept. 11. Mayor Anthony A. Williams used the moment to encourage visitors to come back to the city amid a tourism slump.

But for many, the day carried more personal significance.

Teachers at Anthony Bowen Elementary who had visited the monument when they were children wanted their charges to view it with the same sense of awe. They urged their students to gaze clear up the 555 feet to the top, prompting a dozen bundled-up heads to turn skyward.

Some of the students insisted that the obelisk - not the clouds behind it - was moving. Inside, they peered from windows at what Rikya McLean called "little teeny stuff" below.

The renovation began in 1998, after the monument had begun to leak. Water could be seen pooling in the structure's crevices. The marble, mined more than a century ago from a quarry outside Baltimore, was stained. The caulking between the stones was eroding. Sometimes, the damp interior smelled bad.

The facelift, funded with taxpayer dollars and corporate donations, began with a cleaning and restoration of the exterior. Workers repaired chipped stones, fixed ruined joint work and sealed cracks in the marble.

Then renovations turned to the interior, with workers installing larger viewing windows and refurbished observation areas. The final touch was a high-tech elevator, whose lights dim in the downward trip so visitors can see through clear doors to 193 commemorative stones set inside the monument - including one dated 1853 honoring New York firefighters.

Before it closed, the monument attracted up to a million visitors a year. But the aftermath of the terrorist strikes threatens to diminish that figure. At the ceremony, Williams noted that limited public tours of the White House and Congress had resumed, and he urged visitors to return to the city.

"The doors to our nation's capital are opening once again," he said. "We've seen what happened on Sept. 11. And we're rising to the challenge."

Norton called the day "a step for bringing back America's economy."

Yet in a stark reminder of how Sept. 11 still overshadows many of Washington's public spaces, National Park Service rangers told the assembled families and school children not to bring nail clippers, penknives and other sharp objects inside. A sign showing knives and guns with bars across them stood by the visitors' line.

Security is tighter than ever. Instead of hand searches, X-ray machines scan handbags and backpacks. Visitors always had to pass through metal detectors, but now authorities are considering replacing the security area with a more sophisticated visitor center to be built underground nearby.

Even before the recent terrorist attacks, authorities worried that the monument could become a target. In 1998, after the bombings of two American embassies in East Africa, officials seeking to guard against truck bombers strung together an ungainly row of concrete barriers that remain there.

The monument had been the site of a deadly standoff in 1982, when a man drove up to its base in a truck he claimed was full of dynamite. Police shot and killed the man but found no explosives.

The monument, portrayed yesterday as a symbol of the nation's resolve to fight terrorism, almost never got built. In 1783, the Continental Congress suggested erecting a statue of George Washington astride a horse. But Washington said the country had no money for it.

In the 1830s the monument idea resurfaced. This time, the plan was to build an obelisk, and the cornerstone was laid in 1848. But the money for the project soon ran dry. In the 1860s, people voting for Abraham Lincoln were asked to throw a dollar into a Washington Monument collection box as they cast their ballots.

The partially completed monument - at the time a hollowed-out stump about 150 feet high - served as a holding pen for Civil War prisoners, one of whom carved a still-visible image of Washington into the marble.

Cattle that would be slaughtered to feed Union troops grazed outside.

After that period of neglect, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took control of the project in 1878. Six years later, it was completed, and the first visitors arrived in 1888 - traveling to the top aboard an elevator that The Washington Star then called a "place where women faint and strong men tremble."

The 90,000-ton monument - about what an aircraft carrier weighs - still exercises a powerful pull over those who visit it.

Bill Van Loon, a 39-year-old technician who installs garage doors in Salem, Mass., was the very first to arrive in line yesterday, picking up his tickets in the early morning with his two young sons.

He said he hoped to see the monument to make some sense of his family's sacrifice: His wife, who is in the Air Force Reserve, was called up shortly after Sept. 11 and has been living on an air base in Massachusetts ever since.

"We're lost without her," he said, his sons huddled beside him in FBI sweatshirts. "So we're here to put everything in perspective."

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