Washington Monument graphic

Classic Projects: Washington Monument

DATE: 1848, 1854-77, completed 1884DESIGNER: Robert MillsCOST: $1,187,710 ($28.4m now)

The way the Americans thought was that a great man needed a great monument, and when the Washington Monument was officially declared open to the public on 9 October 1888 that's exactly what the first President of the United States of America got.

Proudly standing at 555ft 5.125in (169m), it was the world's tallest building, dwarfing even the Great Pyramid at Giza. It was, and still is, the world's tallest stone obelisk and, even in the age of skyscrapers, it remains the tallest building in Washington. But glory was short-lived: in 1889 the Eiffel Tower stole the monument's neo-Egyptian crown and, at almost double the height (324m, 1,063ft), led the world for 41 years.

Washington, the man, had ushered in a new wave of political thought under which everyone was entitled to equal treatment under the law. In gratitude, in 1832 – the centenary of George Washington's birth – the Washington National Monument Society began collecting funds to erect a memorial that was to be based on a design by the architect Robert Mills, who had already made his name as the man behind the Department of the Treasury and the US Patent Office.

Mills, who had in fact won a design competition held by the Society, set his sights on a far more grandiose scheme than merely an obelisk in Washington's honour. He had planned a colonnade with statues of patriot heroes. However, this was soon seen to be too ambitious when compared with the funds raised.

Despite changes in the rules that lifted the restriction on American citizens donating no more than one dollar, construction didn't get under way until 1848, when the initial phase of activity resulted in the first 152ft (46.33m) of the monument and the exhaustion of the $88,000 fund available. Not helped by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the project remained dormant for two decades. What was supposed to be the pride of the United States of America was nothing short of a national embarrassment.

When Matthew Brady photographed the abandoned project in 1860, it was an ungainly stump that, without its proposed colonnade, led its designer to compare it to 'a stalk of asparagus'.

In 1876 (the centennial of Independence), President Ulysses S Grant signed a bill that released government funds to allow completion of the monument. The United States Army Corps of Engineers took over the project and completed construction of the monument in 1884, with the aluminium apex and lightning rod assembly put in place in the same year. Weighing in at 2.85kg, this was the single largest casting in aluminium that had ever been undertaken and was seen as a fitting summit to the monument.

At the time, aluminium commanded the same price as silver, but only two years later, with the invention of a new aluminium production technique (the Hall-H'roult process), the price plummeted, and what had once been a precious metal, became a distinctly commonplace element.

A further four years were required to finish the interior and in 1888 America finally had its monument.

Nothing, it seems, is what it should be with the Washington Monument. Despite being one of the most televised memorials (think 'West Wing', 'NCIS', 'Bones' etc.) it is far from perfect. Eagle-eyed viewers will note that it changes colour about a third of the way up. This is simply because over the course of its construction the marble came from different quarries.

In 2011, the Washington Monument was almost destroyed by an earthquake.

Next month: Sinclair C5

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