The idea to make a memorial for George Washington was first suggested by Congress in 1783, before Washington was even elected as president. However, Congress took no action at the time. In fact, although Congress discussed constructing a memorial again for 1799 when Washington died, and once more in 1832, Congress never agreed on a design for the memorial and therefore, no construction was started.
Finally, in 1832, a group of citizens who realized that Congress would probably never decide on a memorial, formed the Washington National Monument Society. The leader of the society was John Marshall. Their goal was to find a design, raise money, and build a monument in honor of George Washington. The society began by campaigning to raise money for the memorial. In 1836, the society asked artists and architects to submit their ideas for a monument. Sorting through the many submissions they received, the society chose a design which blended aspects of Greek and Egyptian architecture submitted by the architect Robert Mills. The basic structure was a 500 foot obelisk on top of a 100 foot circular building. The only downside to the design was the enormous cost - it was estimated at over $1.2 million. After more long years of raising money, the society finally had enough money ($87,000) to begin construction in 1848.
Below are a few of the many different designs were suggested:
Next, the society needed to pick a location for their monument. Although they wanted to build it on the National Mall, they lacked the approval of Congress. Congress relented when the society threatened to build the monument on privately owned land. The monument was built in the center of the cross-shaped National Mall.
Work finally began on the foundation in the spring of 1848. It was built with a bluish granite-like stone called gneiss, which came from the Potomac River. The foundation was finished and a ceremony was held on July 4, 1848 to lay the cornerstone, a massive block of marble that weighed 24,500 pounds. The shaft was begun in the fall of that year and for the next six years, the monument slowly rose until in 1855 the shaft was 152 feet tall. Then the society ran out of money and construction had to come to a complete stop. So far, $230,000 had been spend to build the monument. With no more money coming in, the society asked Congress for financial help. Congress refused.
During the American Civil War, the monument continued to stand unfinished and the land was used for raising cattle to feed the Union soldiers. When the war ended, the society again tried and failed to raise money for the monument's completion. The New York Herald labeled the unfinished monument a disgrace to the American people.
Congress eventually passed a $200,000 contribution in 1876 and the construction began again. The contribution was approved on August 2, 1876 by President Grant. Now that the Washington Monument was the responsibility of the federal government, Congress appointed a Joint Commission for the construction of the monument. They chose Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Lincoln Casey to take charge. As construction continued, they discovered that the foundation was not strong enough to support the weight of the finished obelisk. Congress agreed to contribute $36,000 more to strengthen the foundation of the monument. The foundation was strengthened by deepening and widening the foundation as well as removing part of the original foundation and building concrete buttresses against all the sides of the monument.
Now that the foundation was strong enough, construction on the shaft began again. While Casey wanted to find marble that would match the first 150 feet of the shaft, he could not. The old marble came from the Baltimore quarry and the new marble would be a slightly different color. If you look at a photo of the Washington monument, you can see the change in color. Another change was from the original construction plans, while the interior walls of the monument was gneiss up to where construction stopped in 1854, Casey decided to use granite instead. Moving up the monument, the granite backing would get thinner. After the 450 foot level, the rest of the structure is made completely of marble. In August 9, 1884, the final piece of marble was placed onto the Washington monument, finishing the shaft. The only thing left to build was the pyramidion which is a small pyramid-shaped obelisk roof, that weighed 300 tons, was made of marble and is 55 feet tall. It has eight rectangular windows, two on each side.
The capstone of the monument was made of aluminium and was 8.9 inches high. At the time, aluminium was a precious metal and the capstone for the top of the monument
was the largest piece of aluminium ever cast at the time. There is an inscription on each side of the capstone.
The North face has the names of the members of the Joint Commission: Chester A. Arthur, W.W. Corcoran, Chairman, M.E. Bell, Edward Clark, and John Newton and the date the Joint Commission was started: August 2, 1876.
The West Face gave the important dates in the construction of the monument: Corner Stone Laid on Bed of Foundation: July 4, 1848, First Stone at Height of 152 feet laid: August 7, 1880, Capstone set: December 6, 1884
The South Face gave the names of the Chief Engineers: Chief Engineer and Architect, Thos. Lincoln Casey, Colonel, Corps of Engineers, Assistents: George W. Davis, Captain, 14th Infantry, Bernard R. Green, Civil Engineer, Master Mechanic: P. H. Mclaughlin
The East side of the capstone has the words, "Laus Deo", inscribed which is Latin and translates to "Praise be to God".
The aluminium capstone was placed on the top of the Washington monument and a flag was raised on the top of the pyramidion on December 6, 1884 officially finishing the monument 37 years after the first cornerstone had been laid. The dedication of the Washington Monument was on February 21, 1885, the day before George Washington’s birthday.