Scaffold returns to D.C. obelisk

John Kelly / The Washington Post /

Published Sep 16, 2013 at 05:00AM

Not for the first time, Washington’s mightiest monument is in a cage.

It took about four months to construct the steel scaffolding that encases the Washington Monument and serves as a platform to fix damage caused by the August 2011 earthquake. Shrouded by protective fabric and bathed at night in ethereal light, the 555-foot obelisk looks like a Christo installation.

Of course, the monument has needed TLC before. The first time the monument needed large-scale repair was 1934. The monument had been dedicated in 1885 and the first stones had been laid in 1848. Mortar was crumbling in places. Rain leaked in from the top. It was time for a fix-up.

The Public Works Administration put aside $100,000 for repairs. Workers began by assembling 50,000 pieces of steel tubing into a “corset,” the scaffolding that encased the monument.

At the end of the three-month renovation, the spider web of scaffolding was removed.

While the Washington Monument wouldn’t be enshrouded completely for 63 more years, in 1958, a small, rickety-looking scaffold appeared just below the obelisk’s peak. It provided a platform for William Smiley to cut eight holes — two on each face — into the marble.

The holes — 14 inches in diameter and cut through seven inches of stone — were needed to house the red lights that blink a warning to aircraft.

Red lights blink there still, crimson eyes that gaze down upon a city that would appear both strange and familiar to a Washingtonian from 1885, 1934 or 1958.