The idea of a tribute to George Washington was first broached 16 years before his death, by the Continental Congress of 1783. But the new nation had more pressing problems and funds were not readily available. It wasn’t until the early 1830s, with the 100th anniversary of Washington’s birth approaching, that any action was taken. 

First there were several fiascos. A mausoleum under the Capitol Rotunda was provided for Washington’s remains, but a grandnephew, citing Washington’s will, refused to allow the body to be moved from Mount Vernon. In 1830, Horatio Greenough was commissioned to create a memorial statue for the Rotunda. He came up with a bare-chested Washington, draped in classical Greek garb. A shocked public claimed he looked as if he were “entering or leaving a bath,” and so the statue was relegated to the Smithsonian. Finally, in 1833, prominent citizens organized the Washington National Monument Society. Treasury Building architect Robert Mills’ design was accepted.

The cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1848, and construction continued for 6 years, until declining contributions and the Civil War brought work to a halt at an awkward 153 feet (you can still see a change in the color of the stone about one-third of the way up). It took until 1876 for sufficient funds to become available, thanks to President Grant’s authorization for use of federal monies to complete the project, and another 4 years after that for work to resume on the unsightly stump. The monument's dedication ceremony took place in 1885, and it finally opened to the public in 1888. 

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Visiting the Washington Monument: First off, even though admission is free, you’ll need a ticket; see below for ticket details. Travel light and definitely don’t bring large backpacks, strollers, or open containers of food or drink, none of which are allowed inside the Monument. When you have your ticket, stand in line to pass through the glassed-in screening facility, and from there into the Monument’s large elevator, which whisks you upward for 70 seconds.

You won’t arrive at the pinnacle of the 555-foot, 5 1/8-inch-tall obelisk, but close to it: the 500-foot level of the world’s tallest freestanding work of masonry. At this height, it’s clear to see that the Washington Monument lies at the very heart of Washington, D.C. landmarks. Its 360-degree views are spectacular. Due east are the Capitol and Smithsonian buildings; due north is the White House; due west are the World War II and Lincoln memorials (with Arlington National Cemetery beyond); due south are the Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jefferson memorials, overlooking the Tidal Basin and the Potomac River. On a clear day, you can see 20 miles in any direction, according to a National Park Service ranger I spoke to.  

Once you’ve gotten your fill of the views, head down the steps to the small museum (at level 490 ft.), where you can peer at bent lightning rods removed from the top of the Monument after it had been struck; discover that Pierre L’Enfant had hoped to honor George Washington with an equestrian statue; and read the prophetic quote by Sen. Robert Winthrop, at the 1885 dedication of the Washington Monument: “The lightening of Heaven may scar and blacken it. An earthquake may shake its foundations…But the character which it commemorates and illustrates is secure.”  

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Ticket Information: Admission to the Washington Monument is free, but you will need a ticket to get in. The ticket booth is located in the Monument Lodge, at the bottom of the hill from the monument, on 15th Street NW between Madison and Jefferson drives; it opens daily at 8:30am. Tickets are often gone by 9am, so plan to get there by 7:30 or 8am, especially in peak season. If you want to get tickets in advance, call the National Park Reservation Service (tel. 877/444-6777) or go to www.recreation.gov and type “Washington Monument DC” into the search box. You’ll pay a minimal service fee per ticket if you order in advance, plus a little more for shipping and handling if you order 10 or more days in advance and want the tickets mailed to you; otherwise, you can pick up the tickets at the “will call” window at the ticket kiosk. To make sure you get tickets for your desired date, reserve your tickets at least 2 weeks in advance. You can order up to six tickets.