- Dan Enos
The Washington Monument’s starkly simple design and imposing presence on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., both belies the complex machinations that led to its construction and embodies the singularity of George Washington, in whose honor it was erected. John Steele Gordon, in his 2016 book, Washington’s Monument and the Fascinating History of the Obelisk, covers the history of the monument from its inception, when it was originally proposed as a statue of Washington on horseback, through the 2011 earthquake that caused significant structural damage, closing the monument for emergency repairs.
Included in Gordon’s narrative are the myriad evolutions that the monument’s design underwent, the political and economic struggles the project endured, and the engineering innovations that the construction of the obelisk required. That story is interspersed with chapters that describe the history of the obelisk, highlighting the Westernization of the form, which was originally conceived by ancient Egyptians to honor pharaohs. Not mentioned in Gordon’s account is Fredericksburg’s own obelisk, constructed in honor of Mary Ball Washington, mother of George, the story of which contains some notable parallels to that of the more famous D.C. monument.
By positioning the story of the Washington Monument in the context of a world history of obelisks, Gordon succeeds in placing George Washington among the elite of humanity’s recorded past. However, the book is at its most enjoyable when it focuses on the uniquely American account of the tribulations faced by the project’s financiers, engineers, and even tourists during and after the nearly century-long process of design and construction. From the very start, funding was difficult to generate, and it became even more challenging after political concerns began to overtake the unfettered reverence that the earliest generation of Americans had felt toward their first president.
The democratic process itself often inhibited the course of the monument’s progress, most notably during the middle of the 19th century when the American people began to fracture into ever smaller ethnically and regionally segregated groups, which culminated in the North/South conflict that precipitated the Civil War. During the war, the already glacial pace of construction, still dependent on private donations, all but halted with the monument a mere stone stump, its ungainly, unfinished appearance a reflection of the turmoil the United States was experiencing. In fact, the monument would languish for years until Congress took over control and funding of the project in 1876. In 1884, the monument became the tallest stone structure in the world when it reached its final height of 520 feet. It officially opened to the public in 1888.
Two years later, the Mary Washington Monument Association of Fredericksburg bought the plot of land that contained an incomplete and crumbling monument to Mary, which was described by Susan Rivière Hetzel in her 1903 book, The Building of a Monument, as standing “in a field of stunted briars; a melancholy spectacle, wholly without protection.” The cornerstone for this first attempt at a monument to Mary Washington had been laid in 1833 by President Andrew Jackson. However, after the project began, money ran out, and the monument was never completed. During the Civil War, as the unfinished Washington Monument in D.C. served as a symbol of a nation fissured by conflict, the incomplete Mary Washington Monument in Fredericksburg was damaged in the crossfire of one of the war’s bloodiest and most intense battles.1
After the war, it continued to deteriorate for several more decades as Reconstruction efforts were focused on more practical concerns. According to an essay published by the Daughters of the American Revolution, it was not until “an ad in an early 1889 edition of the Washington Post announced, ‘The grave of Mary the mother of General George Washington to be sold at public auction, March, 1889’” that the effort to erect a meaningful memorial to Mary Washington was renewed.2 After the Mary Washington Monument Association acquired the property, a new cornerstone was laid in 1893 for a memorial that would echo the obelisk form of the George Washington Monument. The following year, the completed monument was dedicated during a ceremony that was attended by scores of citizens and dozens of dignitaries, including President Grover Cleveland.
Gordon’s book is a worthy descendant of Hetzel’s firsthand account of the Mary Washington Monument, even if his broadly focused approach results in a story that is far more wide-reaching. Hetzel’s quaint chronicle places a spotlight on the local point-of-view and provides the reader with a distinct feeling of what it was like to be there during the process of building and dedicating the Mary Washington Monument. Gordon takes his readers everywhere obelisks were and are to be found, including all over the ancient world, into the Napoleonic era in the Mediterranean world, and on a tour of the United States during the 19th century and beyond.
1Gardner, James, b. 1832, photographer. "Fredericksburg, Virginia. Tomb of Washington's Mother. May 19, 1864." Accessed 9 November 2016.
2Daughters of the American Revolution. "Mary Washington Monument: Historical Significance." Accessed 17 September 2016.