Restoration of Washington icon is an attraction in itself

The Washington Monument will be cloaked in scaffolding for 18 months to make repairs. But designers want the project to look 'cool.'

It will look like a 55-story Christmas tree orna-ment. Or perhaps a mammoth roll of holiday wrapping paper.

What it will not look like, to the surprise of many first-time visitors, is the well-known Washington Monument.

Because of cracks the length of a Greyhound bus, a massive renovation effort is under way on one of America's most recognized symbols.

But knowing how long restoration specialists will spend patching and playing This Old Monument - an estimated 18 months - the National Park Service commissioned a one-of-a-kind slipcover.

"They thought the structure should be its own monument," says Michael Graves, the Princeton, N.J., architect who designed the temporary cover. "They asked me if I could make a scheme that would have a life of its own ... essentially another monument."

While the cover will mask unsightly construction, according to planners, its main purpose is to ensure tourists coming for their own Kodak moment in front of the obelisk don't go home disappointed.

So instead of traveling to the nation's capital and seeing the blemish of a construction site, "You will be there at a special time in history," says Vikki Keys, deputy superintendent for the Park Service's National Capital Region.

Otherworldly iridescence

Silvery aluminum scaffolding is already climbing more than two-thirds the way up the monument's four sheer walls. Soon it will extend all the way to the tiptop - more than 555 feet up. Then a far-out blue-and-gray fabric will be stretched over the tubular framework.

Powerful lights inside the scaffolding will illuminate the shell, giving it an otherworldly iridescence by night. Horizontal and vertical patterns on the cloth will suggest the structure's stonework by day.

Commissioned by the Park Service in conjunction with Target stores and other private contributors, the inventive cover is greatly anticipated. The neatly wrapped package should be completed by mid-December and will stay on nearly 18 months while repairs are made.

"By the time they put the membrane on and illuminate it, it's going to be quite exciting," says Patrick Plunkett, a stonecutter and restoration specialist who spent years repairing the aging walls of the White House.

Taking a weatherbeating

"I think it already looks cool," says tourist Scott Mensen, squinting at three workmen hundreds of feet up, manually constructing the scaffolding one piece at a time.

Over the years, Washington's intense weather cycles have eroded parts of the stonework. Consequently, the world's tallest freestanding masonry structure has developed a series of alarming cracks, allowing water in, exacerbating the damage.

"You can stand on the ground, look up with binoculars and see the cracks from the ground," says Mr. Plunkett.

The restoration effort represents the most extensive overhaul of the structure since its construction in 1884. Preservation of the interior began in January. The heating and cooling systems were replaced and elevators upgraded.

The 192 interior commemorative stones found on the inside walls will be polished, including the so-called Alaska stone installed in 1982. Carved from pure jade and worth millions, it is the most expensive stone in the structure.

Originally authorized by Congress in 1833, the monument was constructed to memorialize the nation's first president and Founding Father began in 1848, but came to a halt in 1854. Progress was delayed for almost a quarter century by politics, then the Civil War.

Once work resumed, construction was completed in 1884. The monument opened to the public four years later. Final cost: $1,187,710.

Few have ever seen it, but the structure is topped by an aluminum triangle, a metal considered so rare at the time it could be found at Tiffany's. It is inscribed "Laus Deo," Latin for "Praise Be to God."

Through the years, the monument has undergone cleaning and less thorough restorations than the current effort.

A cleanup was the focus of a Works Projects Administration effort in the 1930s. Most recently, it was spiffed up in the 1960s and '70s.

This time the massive effort will include restoring the mortar between the more than 35,000 blocks, as well as replacing deteriorated stone. Estimated cost: $6.8 million.

Designing the 'exoskeleton'

But it will be the highly visible "exoskeleton" around the national monument that will get the most attention for the next year and a half.

Mr. Graves originally designed the scaffolding from wood, reminiscent of the 16th-century platforms created for the construction of St. Peter's Church in Rome. He abandoned those plans when cost estimates proved prohibitive.

Graves is quick to point out the difference between his vision and that of the artist Christo, who is known for his fabric wrapping of islands and famous buildings, including Germany's Reichstag, with 1 million square feet of silvery fabric.

"We wanted to get light through it and get light on it," Graves says. "Christo's work is much more opaque."

Initially there were suggestions that the monument's temporary exterior take on a different shape altogether, like a tower of some kind.

Graves resisted that idea, saying, "I didn't want to be kitschy in any sense or upstage one of the finest buildings in America."

REFURBISHING THE NEOCLASSICAL LANDMARK WILL INCLUDE:

* Sealing 500 feet of exterior and interior stone cracks.

* Refilling and finishing 64,000 linear feet of exterior joints.

* Cleaning 59,000 square feet of interior wall surface.

* Sealing eight observation windows and eight aircraft warning lights.

* Repairing 1,000 square feet of chipped and patched stone.

* Refilling and finishing 3,900 linear feet of interior joints.

* Preserving and restoring 192 interior commemorative stones.

Source: National Park Service

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