10.17/Washington Monument

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Featured for October: The most famous obelisk

The Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., is one of the most recognizable monuments or memorials in the United States. It’s just a simple obelisk. Just about every city — and every cemetery — has at least one obelisk used as a memorial. But even people who don’t know the word “obelisk” recognize that those other structures look like the Washington Monument.

Considering that, I guess I can safely say that the Washington Monument is the most famous obelisk.

Construction of the monument began in 1848, almost 50 years after the death of George Washington, but came to a halt in 1854 because of lack of funds, the start of the Civil War and other issues. At that time, marble blocks had been stacked about 150 feet tall — a little over one-fourth of the projected height — and stayed that way for more than 20 years. Construction began again in 1877 and the structure was completed in 1884.

When construction resumed in 1877, marble was sourced from a different location and had a slightly different color from marble used for the base. If you look closely at the Washington Monument (or at my pictures of the monument) you can see how much was built before the Civil War and how much was completed after. 

When the 555-foot-tall obelisk was completed it became the world’s tallest structure, a designation it retained until 1889 when the 1,063-foot Eiffel Tower was completed in Paris.

While monuments — and buildings in general — have surpassed the height of the Washington Monument since its completion, it still retains the designation as tallest structure in Washington, D.C. A seemingly arbitrary decision by Congress gets the credit (or the blame) for that.

Toward the end of the 19th century, advancements in construction technology and materials made it possible to design and build much taller buildings. That created concern that the new steel-framed structures could suffer fatal defects and collapse. There were also concerns that firefighting equipment could not reach blazes on upper floors of tall buildings.

So Congress passed the Height of Buildings Act of 1899 that restricted the height of any building in Washington, D.C. to 110 feet or less. The law did not apply to any other city in the nation. In 1910, Congress amended the act, revising the height limit to 130 feet or the width of the right-of-way of the road in front of the building, whichever is shorter. Again, the act applied only to Washington. The act has undergone a few minor modifications over the last century, but the height limits are still in place. 

It’s a common belief that laws require that no building in Washington, D.C. can be taller than the U.S. Capitol dome, which is 288 feet tall. That isn’t specified in the Height of Buildings Act and, according to reports of Congressional debates leading to the act, it was never discussed.

A positive of the height restriction is that the lower profile of buildings in D.C. makes it possible to see the Washington Monument and the Capitol dome from a variety of locations. A major negative is that the height limit restricts the amount of office or apartment/condo space that can be built in the city, which significantly increases the cost of office leases and residential rents within the city.

For instance, New York has more than 100 buildings that are taller than the Washington Monument. Chicago has 70, Houston has 20, Miami 19, Los Angeles 18. And most other major cities have at least one building taller than the Washington Monument. This has led to increased pressure from the D.C. city government to lift the height restrictions so skyscrapers can be built in D.C.

I understand the reasoning, but as a frequent visitor to D.C. I admit I like the the open feel created by smaller buildings.

After all, the low and sprawling Washington skyline aligns with Thomas Jefferson’s desire to make the nation’s capital an “American Paris” with “low and convenient” buildings on “light and airy” streets.

Plus one very tall monument to his friend George Washington, which started construction 22 years after Jefferson’s death.

I add a new featured gallery the first of each month. The numbers in the gallery title represent the month and year it was featured. Last month’s featured gallery, with photos of the professional tennis tournament in Cincinnati, has been moved to my featured gallery archives.

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