It's surprising to know some of the most celebrated structures of the National Mall were once considered boondoggles—contentious public works that ignited squabbles in Congress and tested the patience of the public. Take the Lincoln Memorial, for instance. Congress first proposed it in 1867, but the plans were dormant until the turn of the century. When Congress took up the subject in 1901, Republican House Speaker Joe Cannon kept opposing legislation that would move the project forward. (He thought it was an ostentatious waste of money, preferring a more humble design to be built by Union Station.) His efforts ultimately failed in the early 1910s, but he was able to delay the project for another whole decade.
But this saga is nothing compared to the Washington Monument, which was, perhaps, the slowest moving public work in all of American history. In 1783, Congress passed a resolution authorizing a monument to the founding father. A century later, it was completed. It took 65 years alone to settle on a design (examples of much more baroque proposals for the monument can be found here and here). To be fair, the Civil War did cause a chunk of the overall delay.
"The completion of the Washington Monument has at least the advantage of taking that structure off our minds," a New York Times editorial unceremoniously declared upon completion. The Times' author wasn't too keen on its aesthetics either, saying: "As a work of art the monument is entitled to neither more nor less consideration of a factory chimney, the ugliness of which is pardoned only for the useful purpose which it subserves." (Slow work seems to be the tradition of the monument, as scaffolding to repair the damage caused by the 2011 earthquake has only recently been set up.)
While the completion wasn't a victory for American efficiency, it was a public-relations victory for the American aluminum industry that created the pure aluminum capstone. "The crown jewel of the aluminum industry is the cap of the Washington Monument," said Edgar H. Dix, an executive for the Aluminum Company of America (now ALCOA). The picture at the top of the page isn't of the original setting of the capstone. That picture is most likely of a 1934 refurbishing effort of the monument, in which aluminum executives were invited up to the apex to inspect.
Below, find more pictures of D.C.'s landmarks under construction.
The stub of the Washington Monument appears near the Potomac River, as seen from the top of the Smithsonian Castle. Circa 1860. (Via DC Public Library Commons)
The trusses of the Arlington Memorial Bridge extend over the Potomac River. The bridge was built in 1932. (Library of Congress)
The top deck of Arlington Memorial Bridge, as seen from the Virginia side. (Library of Congress)
The Jefferson Memorial was a much more efficient affair, compared with the Washington and Lincoln tributes. It only took five years to build (1938-1943). (Library of Congress).
In 1861, the columns of the Treasury Department are lifted into place. (National Archives)
The West Front of the U.S. Capitol, with the cast-iron supports of the dome exposed in November 1860. (Library of Congress)
(Library of Congress)
In 1920, the statue of Lincoln is assembled piece by piece. (National Archives)
The Lincoln Memorial in 1915. (Library of Congress)