The Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., is probably the most famous and iconic example of Egyptian Revival architecture in American history. Designed by South Carolina architect Robert Mills in 1836 but not completed until 1884, the Monument is modeled after a classic ancient Egyptian obelisk, but is stripped of any external markings and expanded in size, standing a bit over 555 feet in the middle of the National Mall, between the Lincoln Memorial at one end and the Capitol Building at the other. The Monument was the result of a Congressional call to memorialize George Washington immediately following Washington’s death in 1799 – making a total of 85 years from initial proposal to ultimate completion – and Mills’ design was one of many submitted in a competition to decide on the final form of the Monument.
The Washington Monument was one of many examples of the Egyptian Revival in existence in the middle of the nineteenth century, an architectural style which was popular on both sides of the Atlantic and which produced museums, libraries, homes, and prisons, but which is best known for its role in cemetery design and funereal iconography. The Egyptian style was part of a wide range of ancient styles being utilized by modern architects in the 1800s, most of which are today usually categorized as “neoclassical” and which were usually modeled after ancient Greek and ancient Roman styles, but the Egyptian Revival was unusual in that it was also frequently seen as exotic, mysterious, and as a product of the strange and magical “Orient.”
The long delay in the construction of the Monument was due in part by the interruption caused by the Civil War, but interruptions first began in 1854, when construction was forcibly halted by members of the anti-slavery, anti-immigrant Republican splinter group the Know Nothings. The Know Nothings objected to Catholic participation in the building of the Monument, both in terms of the immigrant Irish labor which was being used to construct it as well as enthusiasm for it from Catholic leaders across the world, and so seized a symbolic “pope stone” sent from the Vatican as a symbol of international support for Mills’ obelisk and threw it in the Potomac River. This, combined with the Know Nothings’ subsequent ousting of the board in charge of the project, effectively scuttled construction of the Monument until its funding was diverted for the war.
Though Mills’ design of 1836 was the design ultimately chosen as the model for the Monument, Mills' design was selected through a national competition, and thus was not the only design submitted for selection. Nor was it the only design to feature a monument in the style of the Egyptian Revival. This monograph by Rochester, N.Y. architect Henry Robinson Searle contains Searle’s design for his version of the Washington Monument. It is also in the Egyptian style, though the reasons for this are a bit unclear: though the Library of Congress record shows the publication date of this monograph as 1847, Searle would have initially drafted and submitted it in 1836 along with Mills and the other candidates, and, to make matters more unclear, Searle himself writes in this pamphlet that “to make use of that portion of the Monument already built it necessitated a design which would have something of the obelisk appearance,” which indicates that this design was a revised one dating from the twenty-year period the Monument stood unfinished, between 1854 and 1876, and that he was constrained by Mills’ original plan. Nevertheless, Searle makes a point to differentiate himself from Mills, and implies that Mills’ design was too derivative and even un-American; his design is substantially busier and more ornamented, and provides a fascinating glimpse into an alternative version of what might have been.
AS DESIGNED BY
HENRY R. SEARLE,
WASHINGTON, P. C.
GIBSON BROTHERS, PRINTERS.