February 21: Outdoing the Pharoahs

2016/02/21 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1885 the world’s tallest obelisk was dedicated.

This day had been a long time coming–surprisingly so, considering that a monument dedicated to the first US president seems like a no-brainer, and a desire for one certainly had a lengthy history.  Calls for such a monument dated to the late eighteenth century and revved up after Washington’s death in 1799.  But it took until the mid-1830s for a competition to be launched.  Robert Mills, who made a career out of big public buildings in places like Washington, was named the winner.  As a designer he mostly favored the Greek style (as you can see from this thing in Charleston) and had some experience with monuments (as you can see from this thing in Baltimore) and also had a thing for Egypt (as you will see in a moment).  Not content to reference just one historic dynasty in his recognition of the American hero, Mills’ initial design proposed an Egyptian obelisk, taller than any the Egyptians ever built, that would be surrounded by a Classical colonnade surmounted by a quadriga, with Washington taking the reins in this Roman equestrian type.  But the late 1830s were not a good time to build fancy monuments, what with the giant Panic and Depression and everything.  In 1848 the cornerstone was fiiiiinally laid, but then there were all sorts of political troubles getting in the way of architecture projects.  Construction was suspended in 1854 after the monument reached a height of  150 feet.  In addition to war breaking out, there were more financial problems and political shenanigans and the project just pooped out until well after the Civil War.  For over two decades visitors to the capital city saw not a monument but a big, uninspiring stump.  Mills died in 1855 not knowing if it would ever be finished.  In 1876 construction finally got going in earnest again, and thankfully avoided the quick-finish options suggested by this guy Hoxie that would have been a creepy precursor to Stalinist architecture of the 1930s.  Instead, Mills’ Roman colonnade was dropped, the top of the obelisk made more pointy, and the monument finished with the topping-out at the ultimate height of just over 555 feet happening in December, 1884 as illustrated above (from Harper’s).  It was dedicated on February 21, 1885, and people were finally admitted inside in October, 1888.

Although it takes a super-ancient form (even Clio thinks the Egyptians are pretty oldey-timey), it was intended to be modern, so as to illustrate Washington’s foundation of a great nation, and was undeniably so, at least for a moment.  It was the tallest structure in the universe until the opening of the Eiffel Tower (no contest, mes amis: it’s 508 feet taller) in the following year.  Its aluminum tip was cast of what was, at the time, a very expensive and even luxurious, super-modern material.  However, that changed too, with the plummeting price of aluminum that has now made the material appropriate for use in lunch boxes.  The 100 oz. capstone, if rolled out really thin, would net as much aluminum foil in about seventeen rolls of Reynolds Wrap or, in other (more Washington-relevant) words, enough aluminum to wrap approximately 517 cherry pies.

Read more than you can imagine there is to know about the aluminum tip in this blog by the Minerals, Metals & Materials Society


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