George Washington never liked the name of the American capital that was being built on a swamp in the 1790s. He was too modest to appreciate the name Washington City, as it was called. He saw the fanfare more befitting a monarchy than a constitutional democracy. So one can imagine his discomfort at the giant obelisk later built for him, still towering two centuries after he died in 1799.
The Washington Monument has become the physical symbol of America’s separation of powers. In Washington D.C., it sits at the center of the people’s congress, the highest court, the president’s mansion, and the memorials for two other presidents, Lincoln and Jefferson. The structure has been threatened by extreme weather, a nuclear scare, even a rare earthquake in 2011, yet it still stands, looking more bleached than on its opening day 127 years ago.
We visited the monument last week to the see how it has weathered the time—and for one of the best views in Washington. It took bricklayers 40 years of stop-and-start progress to affix the final stone atop the obelisk. It took us just 90 seconds to get to the top in a small elevator. A park ranger told the story about the mismatching white stones—in short, the Civil War—while we waited for our ears to pop. In an elevator shaft just 555 feet tall, they never did. Cold wind hit the marble with such force that it slightly swayed. Down at the base of the granite, tourists were tempted to lay back on the ground and look up.
These photos are by Spencer Millsap, Onward’s visual chief, taken in and around the world’s tallest obelisk. There was a day, back in October 1888, when the newly-opened monument was the tallest structure on Earth. The title only lasted seven months until the Eiffel Tower opened in Paris.