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

Sep 19, 2019
Originally published on September 20, 2019 2:44 pm

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.

National Park Service rangers stand outside the newly constructed screening facility.
Mhari Shaw / NPR

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.

The newly designed elevator was paid for by a donation from philanthropist David Rubenstein.
Mhari Shaw / NPR

"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.

Rubenstein received a private tour ahead of the Washington Monument's reopening. The philanthropist donated $3 million to renovate the elevator.
Mhari Shaw / NPR

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.

The Washington Monument is under construction in 1899 in Washington, D.C.
National Archives / Getty Images

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 view from the south lookout window inside the newly renovated Washington Monument.
Mhari Shaw / NPR

"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.

Copyright 2019 WAMU 88.5. To see more, visit WAMU 88.5.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. The Washington Monument is reopening to the public today after more than three years of construction on a new security facility and visitor elevator. Mikaela LeFrak from member station WAMU paid a visit.

MIKAELA LEFRAK, BYLINE: The Washington Monument is one of the country's most recognizable landmarks. But indulge me while I describe it anyway. It's a 555-foot-tall gray stone obelisk that towers over every other building in the nation's capital. The view from the top is breathtaking. But before you can see it, you've got to go through security.

SEAN KENNEALY: You guys can start - you guys can come in. Guys, you just kind of step over here. Stay clear of these doors.

LEFRAK: I'm ushered in, along with a small group of journalists, by Sean Kennealy. He oversaw construction on the new security screening facility for the National Park Service.

UNIDENTIFIED PARK RANGER: Bags right on the right on the (unintelligible).

LEFRAK: After we passed through an X-ray machine, a U.S. Park Police officer unlocks a thick metal door and waves us into a holding room that feels like a bank vault.

KENNEALY: So this is what's called the interlock. So now this is the truly safe area.

LEFRAK: Kennealy says the new facility replaces a temporary one they built after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Past another set of heavy doors is the elevator up to the observation deck. It's a beautiful view, Kennealy says. But...

KENNEALY: Through those windows, you have a huge vantage point to do harm. So that's why we have those series of doors so there's no way that a coordinated effort could be made by a group of terrorists.

LEFRAK: After a few minutes, we're freed from the interlock room and board the elevator. After the 500-foot ride, we get off at the observation deck. National Park Service spokesman Mike Litterst is there, peering out one of the windows. It's a bit cloudy, but you can still see pretty much every national landmark in the city.

MIKE LITTERST: You are looking directly down the line at the Capitol, the White House, the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial. I mean, you could not have laid this out any better.

LEFRAK: Billionaire philanthropist David Rubenstein is looking out another window. He donated $3 million to the Washington Monument for the elevator modernization. He's a household name in the District. He earned his fortune as the co-founder of The Carlyle Group, a private equity investment company. He's given to institutions all over the city, many of which he can see from the observation deck.

DAVID RUBENSTEIN: I'm the chairman of the Smithsonian. We're now trying to redo the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, and then the Air and Space Museum is being redone.

LEFRAK: The National Park Service has an $11 billion maintenance backlog, so it often turns to private donors for help. Rubenstein says not many people are aware that most national monuments in Washington were built with private funds.

RUBENSTEIN: I've been surprised at how hard I've had a time in convincing other philanthropists to give to these kind of projects as opposed to education, medical research.

LEFRAK: We head back down in the elevator, and the park ranger from the video bids us goodbye.

UNIDENTIFIED PARK RANGER: Thank you for visiting the Washington Monument. Enjoy the rest of your stay in Washington, D.C. Goodbye. Adios. Au revoir. Auf Wiedersehen. Sayonara.

LEFRAK: For NPR News, I'm Mikaela Lefrak in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARKUS RUTZ'S "THE MUSICIANER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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