In the advertisement inviting designs for the Monument from American artists, it was recommended that they should “harmoniously blend durability, simplicity and grandeur.”1
The design originally selected for the Monument was that submitted by Robert Mills, comprising, in its main features, a vast stylobate, surmounted by a tetrastyle pantheon; circular in form, and with an obelisk six hundred feet high rising from the center.2
When the cornerstone of the Washington Monument was laid on Independence Day, 1848, deposited within its recess were many items and documents of value. Among these are: a copy of the Holy Bible, presented by the American Bible Society, instituted in 1816; an American silk flag; the coat of arms of the Washington family; copies of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution; United States Presidents’ messages to date of cornerstone laying; likenesses of all Presidents and their inaugural addresses to same date; a portrait of Washington taken from Gilbert Stuart’s famous painting; and daguerreotype likenesses of General and Mrs. Washington.
The inscription on the copper plate covering the deposit recess of the cornerstone reads:
4th July, 1776. Declaration of Independence of the United States of America.
4th July, 1848. This cornerstone laid of a Monument by the people of the
United States to the Memory of George Washington.
Construction began on July 4, 1848, with President James Knox Polk presiding at the laying of the cornerstone, in accordance with the decision of the National Monument Society. The event took place in the presence of members of the legislative and judicial branches of the government, foreign ministers and officers, and a vast concourse of citizens from all sections of the Union.3
An interval of almost twenty-five years ensued before the completion of the Monument, which accounts for a slight change of color at a height of a hundred and fifty feet. Construction of the Washington Monument stopped at this height for twenty years, during which time Robert Mills died. The new committee appointed to resume its construction discarded Mills’ original design, replacing it with the present one. Stone continued to be quarried from the original site outside Baltimore, Maryland; but after a lapse of twenty years the level of stone had dropped, thus accounting for its change in hue. The monument is made up entirely of marble and granite, with no steel shafts as interior support whatever. Its unique simplicity is enhanced by fifty United States flags proudly encircling the base, each one representing one of the fifty states in the Union. The aluminum cap atop its height of 555 feet, five and one-eighth inches, bears the phrase “Laus Deo,” translated from Latin to mean, “Praise be to God!” – from the Psalms.
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De Zapp, Rudolph. The Washington Monument. (Illustrated) An Authentic History of its origin and Construction, and a complete description of the Tablets. Washington, D.C.: The Caroline Publishing Company, 1900. Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. pp. 27, 28.
Ibid., p. 28
(Ten National Memorials book)