-30 THIS year marks the centennial of the Washington Monument, one of the nation's most significant patriotic memorials. Although completed in December 1884, the monument was not officially opened to the public until nearly four years later. Since then some 70 million people have visited it.
The monument's history has not always been one of magnanimous records. Begun in 1848, work came to an abrupt end in 1854 when the obelisk stood at only 152 feet. What followed was the building of controversies, ranging from anti-Roman Catholic forces, who took issue with the gift of building stones from the Pope, to Civil War and Reconstruction days, when the nation's eyes were turned in other directions. Full-fledged work resumed in 1880.
In late July of 1884, a Washington Star reporter was given a long-awaited tour of the nearly completed structure. His account of the visit, led by Col. Thomas L. Casey, the main government engineer, was replete with superlatives, except for the view from the top, which left him speechless: ''The elevator stopped about 486 feet above the ground of the monument. The walls rose just four feet higher than this. The scene from the top, soon to be a familiar one to the citizens of Washington and visitors to the city, is truly magnificent.''
By November New Yorkers got a chance to marvel at the 1171/2-ounce capstone made of ''aluminum, the hitherto rare metal.'' Some even took the liberty of darting over it during the public exhibitions, thereby adding a sort of high-jump record to their personal histories.
Perhaps the most impressive - and harrowing - ceremonies involving the monument came on Dec. 6, 1884, when the capstone was laid. Below Colonel Casey and his summit entourage were several invited guests situated on a platform at the 500-foot level. Rain and a brisk wind added to the elevating experience, and ''very few guests cared to avail themselves of the privilege of climbing the nearly perpendicular ladder from the 500-foot platform to the dizzy height of 583 feet, from which three or four journalists and a half dozen adventurous climbers witnessed the setting of the capstone. . . .''
On a raw, snow-covered day commemorating Washington's birthday in 1885, the monument was officially dedicated in ceremonies that included speeches by notables, including President Chester Arthur, and a procession to Capitol Hill, where more festivities were held. Among the numerous remarks, one appears in retrospect to merit the attention of contemporary Americans:
''The monument speaks for itself,'' said Sen. John Sherman, chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on the project, ''simple in form, admirable in proportions, composed of enduring marble and granite, resting upon foundations broad and deep, it rises into the skies higher than any other work of human art. . . . All eyes turn to it, and all hearts feel the inspiration of its beauty, symmetry, and grandeur.''