Enduring View from the Top

Enduring View from the Top:

Reflections from Catherine Townsend, President & CEO

As we prepare for the reopening of the Washington Monument tomorrow, Thursday September 19th, the Trust was able to preview the monument over the last few days, to learn more about the upgrades and help test the system before tour groups and visitors from across the country and the world truly test the system. Gathering with my small group and being guided by some of the dedicated park police who protect these monuments every day, we walked through the shiny new glass entrance facility, the metal detectors that are now part of the landscape of our most important buildings, and through the new thick steel doors that provide such a rich juxtaposition to the historic stone before us. Just beyond them is the engraved entryway and then on to the elevator, with a historic George Washington statue where, if you look closely nearby, you can still see faded civil war-era graffiti, a reminder that vocal debate has always been a part of our country’s history.

Going up the elevator, new video screens continue the tour and history lessons by a young, gentle-spoken female Park Service Ranger, Ranger Lauren, who explains just a few of the interesting facts about one of the world’s most famous obelisks. For example, do you know how many pounds of mortar are used to hold the stones in place? Zero. These marble stones are stacked on top of each other and held in place by gravity. That’s right, no mortar. It’s a testament to the design and a reminder of how critical the refurbishing work has been since the earthquake in 2011.

As I think of that unique design and those marble stones, I’m remembering the story of the group of citizens who formed the Washington National Monument Society to build a fitting monument for our first president. It was the first monument on the National Mall - and not the last - to be funded in part by private philanthropy. Those citizens worked tirelessly to raise funds – even posting advertisements during the election of 1860 asking voters to give $1 to honor George Washington. They raised enough money to get it started but at 152 feet, the work paused for nearly 20 years. Today, the visible shaded difference between types of stones used is a reminder that our National Mall has always been a work in progress. Finally, Congress kicked in the remaining funds and the monument was completed in 1884. Since then, every monument and memorial, other than Lincoln and Jefferson, have been built in part – and some 100% - by private donations. As costs increased over the years, the need for private donations became greater.

Flyers posted at polling places in 1860 to encourage donations

Flyers posted at polling places in 1860 to encourage donations


That’s why, as we stood with David Rubenstein, the National Park Foundation and the National Park Service yesterday to thank him for his generous donation to fund a significant portion of the upgrades, I was humbled by his act of patriotism. David’s generosity should remind all of us that private citizens and their donations can truly leave a legacy for generations to come while also making a difference in the restoration and transformation of the National Mall. The gifts of donors like David, and thousands of small-dollar donors who contribute what they can, will continue to support future restoration and upgrades. These monuments will endure and together we can take pride and value our national treasures while keeping them accessible for generations to come.

Congress is helping, but there’s just not enough funding for all maintenance needs and modernizations. That’s why private donations are critical. This is the third major restoration in 20 years, all funded in part by private donations. We can say confidently that if it weren’t for private donations, the monument would have remained closed.

We had the pleasure of touring the monument with a few true Washingtonians – born and raised here – who to my surprise had never been to the top before. They loved the view, of course, and were also pleased to see the exhibits and were amazed to learn about the legendary stones. The stairs, which have been closed since 1976 because of safety concerns, are the only way to fully view all of the 193 donated stones that were part of the fundraising effort after the ceremonial cornerstone was laid in 1848. Stones were sent from all around the country and around the world. They tell the story, as one of our current donors on the tour noted, “….of building a nation, of building a monument”. The elevator slows down twice on the way down and the frosted glass clears briefly so you can view some of the stones that line the interior walls of the monument, starting at 450 feet up all the way down to the ground floor. It leaves you with a sense of connection to citizens who were attached to this iconic monument.

A view from the top of the Washington Monument on September 16, 2019

A view from the top of the Washington Monument on September 16, 2019

As I walked out and away from the monument and made my way down along the long path back towards 14th and Constitution, I turned and looked back up. I stood in wonder that I was at the top peeking out of those tiny windows just below the blinking red lights, held together and strengthened only by the stones around them. It’s a metaphor, perhaps, for our strength as a country - rising together and building on the foundation of those that have come before us.

To some, it’s just a monument of stone, built by the hands of men and women. But like all monuments, it’s a connection to our past that helps light the way to our future. And more than just an obelisk, it’s an iconic symbol of democracy recognized around the world.

We're grateful that it’s accessible again. And the view from the top... it’s something that everyone should see at least once in their lifetime.

The Washington Monument reopens to the public on Thursday, September 19th 2019. Same-day, free tickets for opening day will be available on a first-come, first-served basis starting at 8:30 a.m. at the Washington Monument Lodge, located on 15th Street, between Madison Drive, NW and Jefferson Drive, SW.