WASHINGTON — The hordes of visitors who traditionally invade the nation's capital during spring break will be in for a surprise this year if they hope to view the city from the perch high within the Washington Monument.
The 555-foot-tall tower, opened 110 years ago, is closed while crews clean its interior masonry and repair its aged elevator. It is not scheduled to reopen until late April or early May.
"That's kind of a bummer because the view is amazing," said Andrea Naud, a history teacher at Northridge Middle School who is trying to organize a trip during the spring semester for 15 San Fernando Valley students. "But just seeing it from the outside is pretty impressive, too."
The outward appearance of the stark pale pillar also will change, once the inside of the monument is spruced up and reopened to the public.
Special decorative scaffolding will surround the entire monument as crews renovate the stone exterior through the end of 1999, the second part of a $9.5-million, three-phase restoration effort. The aim of the shroud is to help hide cumbersome, unattractive construction equipment, planners said.
"We don't want the monument to be an eyesore," said Earle Kittleman, a National Parks Service spokesman. "It is the most visible landmark in Washington, D.C."
The parks service is reviewing bids on the exterior renovation job from contractors and has mandated that designs for the decorative scaffold concept be included, said Vikki Keys, a parks service deputy superintendent who is overseeing the renovations. More than 120 companies nationwide have requested information about the project.
Renovation of the monument's interior, being done by a Maryland firm, includes cleaning the walls, replacing heating and air-conditioning systems and repairing the elevator, which was installed in the 1950s.
The elevator is used to transport tourists to a 490-foot-high observation area. Guides then often lead groups down 898 monument stairs that descend past commemorative stones in need of upkeep. The stones name states and private-sector donors who originally helped fund the project.
The exterior restorations will involve sealing cracks, fixing 64,000 linear feet of joints and repairing 1,000 square feet of chipped and patched surface.
The third phase will target the monument's observation area, a job scheduled to be completed by mid-2000, Keys said.
When that last phase starts, tourists will once again be temporarily denied the panoramic view of the other memorials and federal office buildings that dot Washington's downtown.
Planners hope to have the project's final phase finished in time to open the entire monument to the large numbers of tourists expected to flock to Washington for the first Independence Day celebration of the next millennium, Keys added.
Historians trace the origins of the Washington Monument to 1832, when a contest was held to design a memorial to the nation's first president. The winner was Robert Mills, a Washington-area architect whose initial plan called for a 700-foot tower that would feature Egyptian and Greek temple-style decorations. Solicitation of the project's estimated $1.5-million construction cost proceeded slowly. But in 1848, Congress designated the monument's spot on the National Mall and construction began.
The work was halted as the Civil War approached. At that point, the monument consisted of a mere square stub, only 150 feet high. The project continued to languish even after the war ended. In 1876, Congress intervened and George P. Marsh, a U.S. diplomat, stripped Mills' design of its ornate decorations and redesigned the monument into a simpler, shorter obelisk. It remains the tallest standing all-masonry structure in the world, self-supported by 81,120 tons of Maryland marble.
The parks service estimates that an average of 3,000 people visit the monument daily.