WASHINGTON D.C. (WHTM) — On February 21, 1885, hundreds of people gathered to dedicate the tallest building in the world, the Washington Monument. It took a lot of years, a lot of work, and a lot of grim times before getting to that point and there were times when it looked like that point would never be reached.

When the “Federal City” was being laid out in the late 1700s, erecting a monument to George Washington was a forgone conclusion. But where would it be, and what would it look like? That debate dragged on for a while-over 30 years, in fact.

Finally, things started to move in the 1830s, with the 100th anniversary of Washington’s birth in 1732. In 1833 came the founding of the Washington National Monument Society. This private organization planned to raise money for the monument by soliciting donations. The board included some heavy hitters, such as former President James Madison and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall.

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Within a few years, they raised over $28,000, or about $760,971 in today’s currency. In 1836, the Society opened a competition for designs. Architect Robert Mills’ winning design called for a 600-foot high, flat-topped obelisk, and a circular building described variously as a colonnade, a rotunda, or Pantheon.

But the projected price tag of over $1 million (about $27,177,555 today) forced the Society, which had only $87,000 in donations, to work on the project in stages. They would start work on the obelisk, in the hopes they’d get more donations for the rotunda when people actually saw something being built.

1848 saw the cornerstone laid on the Fourth of July, in a ceremony conducted by the Freemasons. (Washington had been a member.) A number of dignitaries attended, including Washington’s step-grandson George Washington Parke Custis, President James Polk, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Dolly Madison, Alexander Hamilton’s widow, Betsey Hamilton, and some one-term congressman from Illinois named Lincoln.

The start of construction did not bring the additional funding the Society hoped for. In 1854, money ran out, and construction ground to a halt. Then, just when things looked like they couldn’t possibly get worse, the Know-Nothings moved in.

The Native American Party, or just American Party, better known as the “Know-Nothings” from members’ practice of replying “I know nothing” when asked about their policies, was a virulently anti-Roman Catholic, anti-Irish, anti-immigrant-in-general organization, prone to conspiracy theories and general xenophobia. The Monument Society drew their ire as a result of asking people to contribute stones for the building. When Pope Pius IX sent a block of marble to the project, the Know-Nothings stole the Pope’s stone and destroyed it. (they may have thrown it into the Potomac River.)

The Know-Nothings then engineered a takeover of the entire Society in a fraudulent election. Congress, which had appropriated $200,000 for the monument, immediately canceled its contribution. During their time in charge of the Society, the Know-Nothings added 13 courses of masonry to the Monument, which turned out to be so badly done it had to be removed so the project could continue.

Eventually, the Know-Nothings were forced out, but before the Society could regroup, the Civil War erupted. For the duration of the conflict, the area around the unfinished monument was a stockyard and slaughterhouse.

The monument sat untouched for 22 years. But interest in finishing the job grew. During the nation’s Centennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1876, Congress coughed up another $200,000 to restart the project and turned the job of finishing the structure over to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Things really started to move. On December 6, 1884, the capstone was set in place. Just a couple of months later, on February 21, 1885, President Chester Arthur officially dedicated the building.

At 555 feet high, the Washington Monument was the tallest building in the world. Many other buildings have since surpassed it in height, but it remains the tallest free-standing stone structure in the world.

In the six months after it opened, the Washington Monument saw 10,041 visitors. They had to get to the top the hard way, climbing 893 steps. Then the elevator used to carry building materials was modified for passengers, and the number of visitors increased-a lot. Today the Washington Monument has more than 800,000 visitors each year. Of course, you have to be patient, even with pre-purchased tickets, lines are long.

The monument has seen some modifications and repairs. It underwent major restoration in the 1990s, reopening in 2001. On August 23, 2011, an earthquake about 85 miles from Washington damaged the monument. The repair and restoration closed the building until May 2014. In 2016 it closed yet again, to add an enhanced security screening facility and improve the elevators. It reopened in 2019 and remains open today.