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Washington Monument: Shall the Unfinished Obelisk Stand a Monument of National Disgrace and National Dishonor?

Washington, D. C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1874

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.

This speech, given by District of Columbia Congressman Norton Chipman in the House of Representatives in June 1874, dates from the period following the end of the Civil War during which the Monument stood less than half-finished. The speech’s subtitle, “Shall the Unfinished Obelisk stand a Monument of National Disgrace and National Dishonor,” gives some of the tenor of the feelings regarding the incomplete monument; two years later, during the American centennial, President Ulysses S. Grant approved the funds for its completion. Modern observers of the Monument can still see the evidence of this long period of neglect: the plainly visible change in brick color about a fourth of the way up the finished Monument marks the point at which, after over twenty years, construction on the obelisk was finally renewed.

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