The Washington National Monument – A National Contest for a National Monument

Maybe it is my past as a field archaeologist and a museum geek, but I love a good collection!  Projectile points, pottery shards, fossils, drawings, or maps – groupings of things, especially old things catch my eye.  So, how was I to resist writing about it when I came across a collection of beautiful drawings in the holdings of the cartographic branch known collectively as the “Proposal Plans for the Washington Monument”?

This series, located within RG 42: Records of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital, 1790-1992, consists primarily of plans for a proposed memorial to George Washington in Washington, D.C. Included are plans of memorials proposed by Robert Mills, G. W. Ball, Louis Stegagnini, J. Goldsborough Bruff, C. Seymour Dutton, Montgomery C. Meigs, Lewis Kruger, and Clark Mills. The proposals, submitted during a national competition held to find a design for the memorial, are in the form of manuscript sketches, printed plans, photographs of plans, and site plans; some of the proposals include explanatory text. Also included are a few sketches of other monuments to George Washington and a chart comparing famous obelisks found around the world.

According to the National Park Service, plans to honor George Washington in some way stretched all the way back to the time before he became the nation’s first president.  As far back as 1783, the Continental Congress proposed erecting a statue of Washington in the new capital, which, interestingly enough, was before they had selected the actual site for the city.  Discussions about when and where and what type of monument carried on for a number of years, but Washington’s death in 1799 seems to have been what really sparked interest in finally getting the memorial under way[i].  A detailed article, published by the National Park Service about the construction of the monument can be found here.

In 1833, the Washington National Monument Society was formed with the express purpose of creating a memorial to George Washington that would sit somewhere on the National Mall.  This was a private society, formed by a group of citizens who planned to raise money for the memorial through private donations.  This was a very well-organized group with a president, three vice presidents, a secretary, a treasurer, and thirteen board members who were re-elected every three years [ii].  Just a short time later, in 1836, the society held a national design competition for the Washington Monument and an architect named Robert Mills won with the sketch seen below.

Record Group 42: Records of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital, 1790 – 1992. NAID: 102278638. Robert Mills winning sketch of the Washington National Monument.

Work began on the project in 1848, but the project was plagued by a lack of funding and, later, by the Civil War.  Eventually, in 1878, Congress appropriated $200,000 to finish the project, which was finally completed in 1884 and dedicated in 1885.

However, that is not the end of the story….

In addition to the winning design, the Cartographic Branch also features in its holding some of the designs that didn’t win.  And while the Washington monument that we have in place on the mall now is a striking commemoration of the first president of the United States, the runners up are possibly more interesting due to their relatively unknown status.  So, without further ado, we would like to present the designs that were not selected.  Spoiler alert – the Phoenix is my personal favorite!

Record Group 42: Records of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital, 1790 – 1992.  NAID: 102278613.  J. Goldsborough Bruff’s drawing of the “Washington National Phoenix” inscribed as being “Allegorical of Lofty Aspirations, Keen Foresight, Energy, Strength, Valor, and Immortality.”

 

 

Record Group 42: Records of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital, 1790 – 1992.  NAID: 102278625. Proposal by C. Seymour Dutton, Civil Engineer.

 

 

Record Group 42: Records of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital, 1790 – 1992.  NAID: 102278619.  Louis Stegagnini’s “Section of the Plan for Washington Monument”.

 

Record Group 42: Records of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital, 1790 – 1992.  NAID: 102278642.  Montgomery C. Meigs’ “Plan for Completing the Washington Monument”.

To see more of the plans in this series and the textual elements accompanying them, please click here.  Once on the “Proposal Plans for the Washington Monument, 1836-1885” page, simply click on the blue “Search Within this Series” Box about half way down the page to see a listing, with images, including those pictured above.

[i] https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/presidents/washington_monument.html

[ii] https://catalog.archives.gov/id/10452380

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