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The Problem of Memorials

Categories: Articles

Part 2 in a Series on Unbuilt Washington

Monuments and memorials, laden with symbolism as they are, often generate public controversy and elicit impassioned proposals from designers. The Washington Monument is a case in point, and the structure’s magnificent simplicity belies its tortured history. Pierre (Peter) L’Enfant’s original plan called for an equestrian monument to George Washington to be located on the National Mall, forming a right triangle with the “Congress House” and the President’s House. After Washington died, however, Congress instead voted to approve a proposed mausoleum for him within the U.S. Capitol. Meanwhile, architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe suggested building a freestanding mausoleum to Washington in the shape of a pyramid. None of these ideas was realized, of course, and it wasn’t until 1832, the centennial of Washington’s birth, that a serious effort to build a monument to the first president got under way. Robert Mills won a competition for the memorial with a design for a 600-foot-tall obelisk surrounded by a circular, Greek-inspired colonnade at the base.

Construction of this design began in 1848 but came to a halt in 1856, and various political squabbles, funding problems, and the Civil War prevented any further progress for fully two decades, as the unfinished obelisk became a civic embarrassment. Before construction finally resumed in 1876, a spate of aesthetic and political revisionism led to a series of alternative proposals for the monument’s completion. Montgomery Meigs, who later designed the Pension Building (now the National Building Museum), prepared a sketch showing the marble stump topped with an open colonnade and pitched roof, yielding a version of a traditional Italian campanile. Several architects proposed cloaking the unadorned shaft in elaborate Gothic Revival drag, while Vinnie Ream Hoxie, a sculptor from Virginia, suggested planting an enormous statue of George Washington on top of the stump and calling it a day. Hardly anyone favored just finishing Mills’ obelisk, but the engineer in charge of completion, Thomas Casey, persevered, though he altered the design to make it shorter and sharper and eliminated the colonnade at the base. The result is now widely admired as a noble, elegant symbol of Washington—both the man and the city.

This article was adapted from one that originally appeared in the Washington Business Journal.