DC Mythbusting: The Washington Monument

Photo courtesy of
‘Washington Monument, Washington, DC’
courtesy of ‘NeonGods’

George Washington was born 279 years ago today, and for the past 126 years our city’s skyline has been dominated by a tribute to him.  The Washington Monument is an iconic piece of architecture, but there are so many myths and legends about it that it could be one of the most misunderstood monuments in the city.  Here’s a collection of our five favorite myths about the Washington Monument.

Photo courtesy of
‘The Moon over Washington’
courtesy of ‘James Turitto’

1. There’s a law in Washington DC that states that nothing can be taller than the Washington Monument. There is absolutely no truth to this. The 1910 height limit is related to the width of the street that a building fronts on and has nothing to do with the Washington Monument (though back in 1899 the height limit was based on the height of the Capitol building). But the Washington Monument never factored into the height limit. That being said, at 555 feet, it is still the tallest structure in Washington– but not the highest point. That title goes to the National Cathedral, which is 676 feet above sea level (even though it’s only 301 feet tall) because it sits on a hill.

2. The Washington Monument lies directly on axis with the Capitol and White House.  This one is also not true.  Because of some issues with ground stability underneath the extremely heavy Washington Monument, it had to be moved, and it sits about 300 feet off axis from the White House. And even though I know the reasoning, this still bothers me when I look at aerial images of the city.  I wonder if it bothers the Obama family when they look out the window?

3. As made famous in The Lost Symbol, there’s a bible buried beneath the Washington Monument. We looked into this one last year and found that it was true. But the bible is just one of dozens of items buried beneath the monument– it was effectively a time capsule, featuring several atlases and reference books, multiple guides to Washington DC and the Capitol, Census records from 1790 to 1848, various poetry, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence.

Photo courtesy of
‘Sun Rise Over The Nation’s Capitol’
courtesy of ‘Paul Frederiksen’

4. Why does it look like it’s two different colors? It’s not because of some great flood, it’s because the Civil War caused some project delays. There was an eighteen year gap in construction, and by the time the project got back on track, the stone from the original quarry was no longer available.

5. It’s still the tallest all-stone structure in the world. This one’s true. It also remains the tallest obelisk in the world. In fact, for five years it held the record as the world’s tallest structure, but it was surpassed by the Eiffel Tower in 1889.

Shannon grew up in the greater DC area/Maryland suburbs, went to Virginia for college and grad school (go Hoos!), and settled in DC in 2006. She’s an urban planner who loves transit (why yes, that is her dressed as a Metro pylon for Halloween), cities, and all things DC. Email her at Shannon (at) WeLoveDC.com!

7 thoughts on “DC Mythbusting: The Washington Monument

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention DC Mythbusting: The Washington Monument » We Love DC -- Topsy.com

  2. I’m surprised you didn’t address the myth that “The Washington Monument is sinking.” I was told when I was a kid that it was sinking at a very slow rate, something like an eighth or quarter of an inch a year and I must admit- though it sounds crazy I’ve always wondered…

  3. …and how about a feature on the Masonic Temple in Old Town….I’ve heard so many rumors about that one!

  4. Rest easy on the Washington Monument’s (lack of) alignment with the White House. If you stand at the base of Jefferson’s statue inside his Memorial, you have a clean view through the columns of the White House.

    Washington is just letting Jefferson keep an eye on the place.

  5. Tom– Actually, the San Jacinto Monument is made of reinforced concrete, with a facade of limestone. So the Washington Monument remains the tallest all-stone structure in the world. I’ve updated the post to clarify.