Pyramids in the United States

The Washington monument is the American Pyramid

May 9. 2002 - Washington Times

The Washington Monument is "The American Pyramid." It towers over the District, memorializing George Washington, the first president of the United States of America.

Although the structure does not compare with classic pyramids, such as the Great Pyramid on the plateau of Giza near Cairo, it does reflect the architecture of the Egyptian region, says Gary Scott, chief historian for the National Capital Region for the National Park Service. In ancient Egypt, kings, known as pharaohs, were believed to be gods and were entombed in pyramids.

"The Washington Monument was intended to be a tombstone for Washington even though he wasn't buried there," Mr. Scott says. "Since he is buried at Mount Vernon at the request of his wife, it's a commemorative tomb with no body, which is called a 'cenotaph.'"

The Washington Monument alludes to Egyptian architecture on many levels. In addition to commemorating Washington in a godlike fashion, the structure is a based on an Egyptian obelisk, a tall, four-sided shaft of stone, usually tapered and rising to a pointed pyramidal top.

When Washington died in 1799, the U.S. Congress considered constructing a traditional pyramid in his honor, but the government lacked the money to do so. In 1833, the Washington National Monument Society began raising funds to create a memorial to the first president. In 1836, the society sponsored a competition for the design of the structure. Robert Mills, a Washington architect, won with a design that included a 100-foot-high pantheon and a 500-foot obelisk shaft.

"The monument shows the devotion of 19th-century America to George Washington," Mr. Scott says. "His name should always be in our memory since he is the father of this country."

Like its shape, the placement of the monument also was to honor Washington, Mr. Scott says. It was intended to be placed at the geographic axis between the branches of government of the Capitol and the White House. At that time, the U.S. Supreme Court was housed in the Capitol building. Because of poor soil, the site of the monument had to be moved to better ground at its current position, where the weight of the structure could be sustained.

The monument society laid the marble cornerstone in 1848. By the time it reached 150 feet, the money for the project was exhausted. About 1854, the Know-Nothing political party added about 26 feet to the structure. Then work on the obelisk halted because of the Civil War, from 1861 to 1865.

In 1876, Congress gathered the funds to finish the memorial, Mr. Scott says. As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began working on it in 1878, Mills' original design was replaced with plans for an unadorned 555-foot shaft. Lt. Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey, who was named chief engineer of the project, wanted to build a classic Egyptian obelisk.

He sought the advice of George Perkins Marsh, the U.S. ambassador to Italy and a classical scholar, who told Casey about the proper proportions for the height and width of an obelisk, which are 10:1, Mr. Scott says. In Egypt, the structures usually sit outside temples and catch the rays of the sun, which ancient Egyptians believed to be a god. The shafts are engraved with the name of a king, reflecting his devotion to the god of the temple.

While making sure the Washington Monument followed Egyptian form, Casey also added about 35 feet of additional concrete on every side of the underground foundation to steady the structure, which eventually would weigh about 81,000 tons. In 1884, he crowned the monument with a cap made of aluminum, which was stolen because it was a rare metal at the time.

The existing aluminum cap is engraved with Mr. Casey's name on its south face and "Laus Deo," Latin for "Praise be to God," on its east face. The American obelisk, with a total cost of $1.8 million, was dedicated and opened to the public in 1885. It totaled 555 feet, 5⅛ inches in height and about 55 feet, 1* inches in width. It was the tallest building in the world until the Eiffel Tower was finished in 1889 with a height of 984 feet. Today, the CN Tower in Toronto is the world's tallest structure at 1,815 feet, according to the book "The Washington Monument, It Stands for All," by Thomas B. Allen.

Don Hawkins, architect and historian at the National Building Museum in Northwest, says the top of the Washington Monument is a pyramidion, which is the standard shape used to form the apex of an Egyptian obelisk. It was made from about 300 tons of white marble. The height of the pyramidion equals the width of the shaft's base at an angle of 73

"Using a pyramid was the most elegant way to finish off the tall shaft," Mr. Hawkins says.      

Despite various similarities between the Washington Monument and Egyptian obelisks, the American symbol was built in a different manner from its Middle Eastern counterparts, Mr. Hawkins says. The Washington Monument was cemented together "stone by stone" with a hollow inside. The entire monument consists of about 36,000 blocks of marble and granite, mostly from Maryland quarries.

About 150 feet up the structure, one can see the slight change in stone color attributable to the break in construction from 1854 to 1878, Mr. Hawkins says.

During construction of the monument, a steam engine turned wheels that pulled ropes to move the marble blocks by crane. The crane would swing the stone to the proper place and lower it onto the wall. The monument is the tallest masonry construction in the world.

In Egypt, obelisks were constructed by cutting the entire piece of stone from the ground and raising it all at once, Mr. Hawkins says. The biggest solid Egyptian obelisk in existence, 105 feet tall, sits in front of the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome. It was created for Thutmose III and placed outside the Temple of the Sun in Heliopolis, Egypt.

Because Egyptian obelisks were significantly smaller than the Washington Monument, they were easier to raise all at once, Mr. Hawkins says. Egyptian slaves elevated the stones by supporting their entire structures with dirt and ropes until they were at a vertical position. The slaves used this technique to ensure that the force would not crack the stones when they were being raised. If the stones had been lifted by pulling from the top of the structure, they would have broken in the middle.

"Some people complained because the Washington Monument wasn't a single shaft of marble, but finding a piece of marble that big is virtually impossible because the geologic systems aren't likely to create one so big," Mr. Hawkins says. "Even today, if you could get a piece of stone as big as the Washington Monument, the forces would be such that you couldn't get it raised."

The monument underwent about a $10 million restoration from July 1998 to February of this year.

Mr. Hawkins believes the iron framework that runs throughout the monument, which encases an elevator, helps stabilize the structure against the wind. The wind creates a force of about 1 pound per square foot per mile an hour of wind. The structure moves as much as about 5 inches at the top during a strong wind, but Mr. Hawkins says he doubts the wind would ever cause it to fall.

"It's the most significant modern obelisk because of its size and centrality," Mr. Hawkins says. "Egypt has represented a foundational civilization. So it is a basic thing to use an obelisk or pyramid to symbolize the beginning of Western civilization."

John Nolan, assistant director of the Giza Plateau Mapping Project in Giza, Egypt, says early obelisks were created from about 2465 B.C. to 2325 B.C. The structure was first seen in "sun temples," which were built instead of full pyramids and looked like short obelisks. The form progressed over time to the traditional obelisk that became most popular around 1850 B.C. This is the shape that is known throughout the world.

For instance, Rome has many obelisks, such as the 83-foot obelisk in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, which weighs about 331 tons. It is believed to have originated from Heliopolis, Egypt. In A.D. 37, the Roman Emperor Caligula brought it to Rome and placed it in Nero's Circus, where games, races and the martyrdoms of many Christians occurred.

Central Park in New York City is the home of Cleopatra's Needle, an obelisk created for Thutmose III, who reigned in Egypt from about 1504 to 1450 B.C. In the late 19th century, Khedive Ismail, the ruler of Egypt, gave it as a gift to show appreciation for the help the United States had given in the construction of the Suez Canal.

"There is a real fascination about Egypt in general," Mr. Nolan says. "The world has adopted a lot of Egyptian symbols."

Martin Gordon, chief historian of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency in Bethesda, says erecting a monument in the style of an Egyptian obelisk is a natural choice to represent the United States' first leader.

"It is one of the outstanding examples of Egyptian architecture and how we looked to the ancient world to commemorate our heroes," Mr. Gordon says.

Ancient, half buried Pyramid found in Southwest U.S. - August 2001