This evening, at 7:45pm, the Washington Monument is going to put on a show. This may seem odd for a hulking stone structure that's been in the same spot for more than 150 years, but the National Park Service has a light display planned that we don't want to miss. This is all being done to beatify the iconic monument while it is wrapped in a mass of aluminum and fabric during repair efforts.

If you've been following along on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, you've seen our periodic photos of the Washington Monument over the past several months highlighting the impressive scaffold build surrounding the monument.

The Washington Monument is one of the items that truly stands out in DC. Instantly recognizable, iconically antique, and decidedly phallic, the monument represents a central component of the National Mall. Built between 1848 and 1884 (with a break from 1854-1877 due to funding issues, political disagreement, and the Civil War) to honor, arguably, the nation's most important founding father, George Washington.

The history of the Washington Monument is intriguing, to say the least. From its original and much more complex designs... the color change of the stone due to a change of rock quarry after the post civil Civil War construction restarted, there are stories, debates, and compromises that went along with the entire project.

Photo Credit: Matthew Brady

When completed in 1877, the Washington Monument, at 555' 5-1/8" stood for a time as the tallest structure in the world (the Eiffel Tower surpassed it in 1899), and is still the tallest obelisk structure made entirely from stone. There are 193 interior stones donated by various states, organizations, countries, and individuals commemorating the structure, the efforts of the masons responsible for the construction of the obelisk, and containing various inscriptions. And, as you can imagine, there are many more anecdotes, legends, and tales to go along with this very tall monument.

Though much of the history dealing with this proud monument has to do with its initial concept and construction 150 years ago, a more recent chapter was added to its story on August 23rd, 2011.

On that fateful day the DC area was shaken by a 5.8 magnitude earthquake originating in Mineral, Virginia, less than 80 miles south west of DC. The shaking was significant (especially by east coast standards), and was felt as far north as Boston and Portland, Maine. The seismic event also had quite the significant impact on many of the very old homes around Old Town Alexandria.

Geologists, meteorologists, and journalists called it a once in a lifetime event for this area, and based on some of the more serious damage, I do hope it is just that. During the shaking, tour groups were at the observation deck in the 555 foot tall Washington Monument, enjoying spectacular views of the city from its most prominent vantage point. The iconic building swayed and cracked, throwing stone and debris on the guests and leaving them dashing for the exits and the long 500 foot descent of stairs. Here's security camera footage from the interior observation center of the monument, over 500 feet above the ground, which shows just how violent the shaking became.

Since the day the monument shook, the stone and masonry structure has been closed to the public over concerns of structural issues introduced by the earthquake. Since it's a simple stone and mortar structure, there is no internal skeleton, no rebar, nor concrete columns holding everything tight. The building relies on gravity to continue standing tall, and significant swaying side to side just doesn't bode well for the monument.

An exterior view of the structure provided by helicopter analysis showed some of the damage, a major crack in one of the one ton stones near the peak of the monument.

Photo Credit: US Park Service

A short time after the earthquake in 2011 a "difficult access" engineering team was deployed to repel down the four faces of the building and perform an inspection of the structure from the exterior.

I remember the days quite well. It's not every day you walk by a 555 foot stone obelisk with people dangling from its peak. After popping out of the hatch at the top of the monument, the extreme engineers received extensive media coverage during their inspection. The good news: the structure fared well overall, nothing too serious had occurred to compromise the overall integrity of the monument. The bad news: there was some damage, and it would need to be repaired to ensure it didn't get worse and ultimately lead to something more severe.

More than anything, the inspection team led to day after day of onlookers enjoying the spectacle as it appeared ant like people had begun traversing the outside of the monument.

After the engineering team's assessment that the damage was primarily cosmetic, the Park Service performed necessary repairs. Initially the Park Service felt they had repaired the major damage, but just a month after the earthquake Hurricane Irene blew through the region. During the aftermath of the hurricane water was found in several places on the interior of the monument. This water told the engineers that additional and unseen damage existed and needed to be discovered and resolved before the monument could be re-opened to the public.

Fast forward to March 2013. A full year and a half since the shaking commenced, the Washington Monument stands tall, but tours still have not resumed and the building is still not open to the public. A chain link fence has been constructed around the distant perimeter of the base, keeping passers by from straying too close to the monument to provide a construction work space. As someone who has been to the top of the monument on several occasions, the fact you can't tour it or walk up within its shadow is a very sad thing for people coming to town.

One day, back in early March, 2013, I noticed construction trucks beginning to stage building supplies behind the monument grounds and working within the fenced area. Intrigued, I kept my eyes peeled for what might happen next. A few days later I saw that the first few levels of scaffolding had been laid around the base of the monument.

It seemed the long awaited external repairs were getting underway, but scaffolding nearly as impressive as the monument itself would need to be constructed before repair work could begin.

My daily commute takes me directly past the Washington Monument, so I've been snapping the periodic photo while watching as the scaffolding reached for the sky.

It's been very interesting to watch this project take shape. The sheer magnitude of an undertaking of this nature is almost mind boggling. Where does one start when constructing a 555' tall scaffolding? I mean, where does one begin, beyond the basic and obvious answer of "the bottom"?

I watched as the scaffolding reached about the midway point by the time the cherry blossoms reached their peak bloom in mid April.

And I watched as the crew precariously worked their way higher and higher on the monument, slowing a bit as the work undoubtedly became more tedious and risky the higher they climbed.

The overall scaffolding project is part of a $9.6 million contract responsible for necessary repairs to the monument. And it's all part of a roughly $15 million total cost necessary to deal with the damage to the obelisk and open it to the public for tours in the future.

Personally, I was most intrigued by the transition necessary as the scaffold reached the peak of the primary part of the structure and made the sharp turn toward the tip of the pyramid atop the monument.

For several days the construction people worked to complete this phase of the project. At over 500 feet above the ground they were so small to the naked eye, working with what appeared to be toothpicks, though each piece of metal would surely be unwieldy on even the safety of terra firma.

I couldn't help but look up at these people working day in and day out and just think of the Dozers on Fraggle Rock. Hopefully no Fraggles would come along and eat these guys' hard work.

Once the scaffolding build was completed I was eager to see if it would be the conclusion of the build, or if they would repeat what was done the last time a scaffolding was erected around the monument during a two year restoration effort in 1998-2000. I actually recall that period quite vividly, as this was the time Wendy and I were visiting the area when we were thinking about moving to DC after college. I distinctly remember the scaffolding looking like it was brick, in an exaggerated way. 

For that two year restoration effort the multi million dollar scaffolding design was conceptualized by famed ergonomics designer Michael Graves. Using an architectural mesh fabric that become known as a "scrim," a faux running bond brick look was created by affixing the fabric to the exterior of the scaffolding.

I was hopeful they'd do the same this time around, but was not expecting it given the various concerns about money and budgets that now permeates nearly every conversation in DC. After all, this is ultimately a donor and tax payer funded venture, and many might find a purely aesthetic upgrade not worthwhile in today's financial climate.

On May 7th I saw the first few rows of netting being applied to the monument that confirmed to me they would, in fact, go the extra mile and add some flair to the scaffolding. I guess the Nationals Parks Service people who spec'd the work go by the idea that "Anything worth doin' is worth doin' right!"

Over the next several weeks the work on the netting continued, slowly reaching toward the peak of the scaffolding.

And finally, on June 20, 2013, the faux stone scrim to the top of the monument's scaffolding was complete.

Working atop this very tall building is surely a bit of a daunting task, but I trust the workers don't typically have issues with fear of heights. I know if I were given the opportunity to travel to the peak of the scaffolding on the exterior elevator, I'd jump at the chance. 

Though, I'm relatively sure Wendy would seize the opportunity to see the whole thing from up close, I'm also positive she'd stick to inspecting the work from the ground level. I honestly don't think you could pay Wendy enough to make going to the top of this scaffolding her daily job.

Which brings us to the most recent improvement in this scaffolding project, which we were able to appreciate a preview of when we ventured down to the Mall for the absolutely wonderful 4th of July fireworks event last week! 

The Washington Monument's scaffolding has been lit from the interior and offers a rather breathtaking view down the corridor of the National Mall from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

I recently found this "time lapse" video of the scaffold build with several interesting scenes and weather events surrounding the time period. The Department of the Interior, who is responsible for the National Park Service, has a pretty great view on The Mall from their offices at 18th & E St, NW.

All told, this scaffolding project has been quite an impressive sight to behold. It's now been ongoing for the majority of four months, and though the scaffolding is complete, they still need to do the work on the structure itself. The scaffolding is scheduled to remain up until December 2013 or January 2014, but the interior is scheduled to be illuminated nightly during this period, offering a unique view of the DC skyline while the repairs are being made.

And as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this evening's lighting ceremony will take place on the corner of Constitution Avenue and 15th Street NW at 7:45pm. If you're interested in attending just head on down to The Mall, it's open to the public.

I'm looking forward to the day the monument once again opens to the public, as we'll surely be some of the people anxious to venture back up to the viewing deck and take in the breathtaking views of Washington, DC.

Have you ever travelled to the top of the monument? Do you think you would be able to work on a project that required you to build or work on the exterior of a 500 plus foot tall structure? Or are you more likely to find yourself helping from the ground, as Wendy would prefer?


Here's one more time lapse video that shows the build and the lighting from the new EarthCam that was recently installed. However, I just don't understand why they need to zoom in and stuff on time lapse videos. 

Comments 8


7/8/2013 at 1:10 PM
I've been up there - back in 1997! Great overview - I'll keep an eye on Instagram for some light show pictures.
The actual lighting was pretty funny. It was complete with a countdown, a switch was thrown to light the monument, then...nothing. Everyone kind of looked at it and then about 20 seconds later, the lights started to come on.
7/8/2013 at 3:13 PM
I'd love to see the monument lit up with the scaffolding on it. My daughter is visiting colleges this summer so we may be in the area.
Our last visit to DC was in 2007. My Uncle, who lives nearby in MD, gave us a tour; we saw every monument in ONE day and went to the observation deck of the Washington Monument. A fun but exhausting day.
It's strange how all of the monuments all seem so close together, but when you try to do all of them you realize just how spread out they are. We've done a similar marathon tourism thing. It was fun, but it sure wiped us out for a while.
7/9/2013 at 2:53 AM
Yes! I have traveled to the top of the monument during my first trip to DC in 8th grade. I loved it! I've visited twice since then but haven't gone up. I'm glad they went the extra mile with the faux-brick; looks sharp! As someone who grew up in California, I know a thing or two about earthquakes and from watching that footage it looks like that earthquake went on for a really long time! Almost a full minute? Wow!
Love this post. Thanks for sharing.
Yep, the earthquake did go on for quite a while. I was at the dentist and had enough time to look around, wonder what was going on, then run down the stairs and out of the building. I'd say that on the east coast you're probably not much safer in a doorway, so I wanted to get into the middle of the street where there were no buildings, trees, or wires around.
7/11/2013 at 5:58 PM
I flew into DCA last week and noticed the scaffolding, but didn't know why it was up. Good timing on the post!

I didn't know you could go up the tower, I will add that to our list of things to do when we come for a family vacation to the area. Very cool.

What's with the UFO in the video at about 1:10?
Haha! I think that UFO was the moon rising. I saw another video of the Super Moon rising over the monument and it looked about the same. That or a UFO landing that we've all somehow missed in this area.

Glad the post could shed some light on the scaffolding. Must have looked kind of neat from the plane. I love the approach form the north to DCA.
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