STARRED REVIEW
February 2016

Remembering George Washington

By John Steele Gordon
Review by
Of all the weird twists in the 40-year drama of building the Washington Monument, perhaps the oddest was in 1855, when a band of rebels staged a coup and seized the project, largely because the board overseeing the construction had accepted a commemorative stone from Pope Pius IX. The Know-Nothing Party faction didn’t give back the monument until 1858.
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Of all the weird twists in the 40-year drama of building the Washington Monument, perhaps the oddest was in 1855, when a band of rebels staged a coup and seized the project, largely because the board overseeing the construction had accepted a commemorative stone from Pope Pius IX. The Know-Nothing Party faction didn’t give back the monument until 1858.

Of course, the “monument” was then a 153-foot stump, decades from completion. As John Steele Gordon shows in his enjoyable Washington’s Monument, a history of the memorial specifically and obelisks more generally, dysfunction is not a modern phenomenon. Officials dithered over a suitable honor for George Washington from 1783, when Congress first passed a resolution, to 1888, when the obelisk-shaped tower, by then its full 555 feet, officially opened. The pattern: initial community enthusiasm, declining interest, failed fundraising, government bailout.

Gordon calls it “obelisk-shaped” because a real obelisk is by definition a monolith, carved from a single piece of stone. Obelisks were first erected—probably—by the ancient Egyptians, to stand in pairs outside temple entrances. There are still plenty of them around, and Gordon interweaves their stories with that of our monument.  

The heroes of Gordon’s book are the engineers who figured out how to move the ancient obelisks and build the Washington Monument. Each project presented a huge logistical challenge, overcome by technical innovation. These were astounding feats, forever capturing the public imagination: Some 600,000 people visit the Washington Monument annually.

 

This article was originally published in the February 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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Washington’s Monument

Washington’s Monument

By John Steele Gordon
Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781620406502

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