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Our Long 3-Year Wait Is Over: The Washington Monument Reopens

The Washington Monument has undergone more than $10.7 million in repairs and renovations. The monument reopens on Sept. 19.
Mhari Shaw NPR
The Washington Monument has undergone more than $10.7 million in repairs and renovations. The monument reopens on Sept. 19.

America's best-known obelisk reopens to the public on Thursday after more than three years of construction on a new security facility and renovations to its elevator system.

The Washington Monument will again welcome visitors up to its observation deck, where, from more than 500 feet in the air, visitors can see national landmarks including the U.S. Capitol, Washington National Cathedral, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial.

But first, you have to go through security.


Operating a post-Sept. 11 monument

The Washington Monument closed in 2016, in part so the National Park Service could build an enhanced security screening facility. The new blast-proof building made of glass and steel replaces a temporary security structure that was built in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Visitors and their belongings will first pass through X-ray machines and a magnetometer, similar to an airport security experience. Then they'll go through a thick metal door and into an "interlock room," where they'll wait until another heavy-duty door opens and they're allowed into the elevator boarding room.

The interlock room feels a bit like being held inside a bank vault for a few minutes, but it has a very specific purpose.

"There's no way that a coordinated effort could be made by a group of terrorists to come into the monument," said Sean Kennealy, chief of the professional services division for the Park Service's National Mall and Memorial Parks. "Through those [observation deck] windows, you have a huge vantage point to do harm."


Kennealy expects the new screening process to take longer than it did before. The Park Service will offer only same-day tickets for the first month of operation to gauge how many visitors it can realistically serve each day. After that, tickets will be offered online.

A private donor chips in

While the $7.785 million security facility was funded through the Park Service's annual budget, the $3 million for the new elevator came from billionaire financier and philanthropist David Rubenstein of Bethesda, Md., just outside Washington, D.C.

D.C. lifers will remember the old elevator system's chronic issues, which led to frequent service interruptions and visitor evacuations down the monument's 897 steps.

Rubenstein is a co-founder of the Carlyle Group, a private equity investment company, and is known as the pioneer of what he calls "patriotic philanthropy." His first major contribution to a monument on the National Mall was in 2011, after a rare earthquake cracked the Washington Monument. He donated $7.5 million to cover more than five years of repairs.

During a private tour of the monument on Tuesday, Rubenstein looked out its windows and pointed out other Washington institutions that have benefited from his largesse in recent years: the Smithsonian castle, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the National Gallery of Art's East Building, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Iwo Jima memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Kennedy Center, the National Zoo's panda program — the list went on and on.

"I get a lot of pleasure out of doing these things," he said. "And if I didn't do them and I died with more money, would I be a happier person? I don't think so."

A long history of privately funded construction

The Washington Monument's long history of funding and construction woes is visible to the naked eye.

Construction started on the obelisk in 1848. It was funded through private donations collected by the Washington National Monument Society. But by 1854, the society had run out of money and construction stopped, even though only a third of the monument was complete.

Building started back up again in 1876 when Congress took over funding and construction. There was only one problem: The Maryland quarry that had supplied the stone didn't have any left. So the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers brought in stone from Massachusetts instead and then switched back to stone from a third quarry near Baltimore. The different colors are still easily visible today.

But in terms of funding, the Washington Monument isn't an anomaly: Most national monuments in D.C. are funded privately and then maintained by the National Park Service.

"Nearly every monument and memorial on the National Mall has been built by private philanthropy," said Catherine Townsend, president and CEO of the Trust for the National Mall, a public-private partnership working to preserve the Mall. "People don't really realize that. They think the government has paid for everything."

Rubenstein said he has struggled to persuade other philanthropists to give to projects like the Washington Monument for that very reason. But he says donating still brings him great satisfaction, even if the monument isn't going to be renamed in his honor anytime soon.

"The thanks of a country and your fellow citizens is probably enough," he said. "You don't need to have your name on something. It's OK."

How to visit

For now, the key is to get up early and expect a wait.

Visitors who want to go before Oct. 19 can get same-day tickets from the Washington Monument Lodge, directly in front of the monument on 15th Street NW. Park Service rangers expect lines to start forming around 6 a.m., based on their previous experience. Tickets are first come, first serve.

Starting Oct. 10, visitors can order free tickets online for tours beginning Oct. 19. The monument will typically operate from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. It will be open every day of the year except Dec. 25.

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