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Washington Monument wears its scaffolding well

The Washington Monument is obscured during renovation, but many like its sleek, mechanical scaffolding — some would even like to make it permanent.

August 27, 2013|By Alexei Koseff
  • Many admire the under-renovation look of the Washington Monument, especially at night.
Many admire the under-renovation look of the Washington Monument, especially… (Alex Brandon / Associated…)

WASHINGTON — The soaring white obelisk is a defining feature of the capital's architectural landscape, so visitors to the Washington Monument this summer may be disappointed that the view of the iconic memorial has been obscured by its renovation. Or not.

Covered by a web of scaffolding and semi-transparent blue scrim to allow repair of the damage caused by a rare East Coast earthquake two years ago, the monument has undergone a modern makeover that has inspired buzz about the 129-year-old edifice — and even some calls to make the look permanent.

The sleek, mechanical scaffolding, which was designed by New York architect Michael Graves and completed in June after four months of construction, exaggerates the pattern of the monument's stone exterior, standing out from the neo-classical memorials and museums that predominate on the National Mall.

"It's a cartoonish addition. It's irreverent," said Kriston Capps, a senior editor at Architect magazine. "We don't see that a lot in the capital city."

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Originally commissioned for a 1999-2000 renovation, the stylish scaffolding was meant to dress up the construction but keep the look of the monument, National Park Service spokeswoman Carol Johnson said. It was reused because it received a favorable response the first time and would keep costs down.

The repairs are expected to cost $15 million, half of which is being paid for by a donation from Washington businessman David Rubenstein, a founder of the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm.

The monument has been closed since August 2011, when a 5.8-magnitude temblor centered in Virginia cracked and dislodged some of the enormous marble blocks that make up the 555-foot structure.

Amid disappointment from visitors — who normally enjoy expansive views from the monument's observation deck on the highest structure in the city — the park service has heard overwhelmingly positive feedback about the scaffolding, Johnson said.

"I must admit, they've done a really good job," said Umesh Gandhi, a tourist from Toronto who had not heard about the repairs before he visited Washington. "If you didn't know, you would think it was part of the monument."

The scaffolding is an impressive engineering feat — 6,000 pieces scaling the obelisk's towering height without attaching to it anywhere. It is stabilized in places by wooden boards wedged against the monument.

At night, it is a marvelous sight, when 488 lamps on the scaffolding illuminate the monument in an ethereal glow visible from much of the city.

"It looks like it should be in Paris," said Joe Plautz, visiting from Wisconsin, who liked that the lights showed off the facade in a different way. "It's not just your typical white stone monument, like everything else."

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Thomas Hellriegel, on vacation from Germany, wondered at first whether it was scaffolding or art.

The lights are a small gesture to visitors who can't get the full experience while the Washington Monument is under repair, Johnson said. "It's kind of a promise that we're going to get this done."

The park service estimates that will be next spring. Stonemasons are using leftover marble from the last renovation to replace pieces that fell off during the earthquake and filling in cracks with epoxy. Once the repairs are complete, the scaffolding will come down and the memorial will reopen.

But some are so enamored of the redesign that they've asked the park service to keep it, Johnson said. Those include Capps, who argued the case in an opinion piece in the Washington Post last month.

In an interview, Capps called the Washington Monument "overwrought" and the most unenlightening memorial on the National Mall. The plain, impersonal edifice "doesn't tell us anything about Washington" the man, he said.

The broken monument, Capps said, is a powerful symbol of what he sees as an "unprecedented" level of political dysfunction in the federal government.

"The new look is jarring," he said. "It's a reminder of what we've lost sight of."

Capps admits that the response to his op-ed was mixed; many readers called him an idiot. But though he "might be on a ledge," he's completely serious.

"The Mall needs to update and reflect its time," Capps said. "Everything should be up for revision."

Not everyone is so enthusiastic about the idea. Jocelyn Dennis of Detroit, touring the site with her children, recalled her "profound" experience of seeing the Washington Monument for the first time on a school trip in eighth grade.

The monument is a statement of the country standing strong, she said. "Some things are not meant to be upgraded like that."

Traditionalists need not worry. The National Park Service is not planning to take Capps' advice any time soon.

"You must understand the mission of the park service," Johnson said. The Washington Monument is "a very important cultural icon, and our job is to conserve that."

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