Billionaire donates $7.5 million to repair Washington Monument

Daniel Gach and Emma Cardini from WJE rappel down the Washington Monument to assess earthquake damageDavid Rubenstein, the billionaire co-founder of private equity company The Carlyle Group and an avid history buff, has donated $7.5 million to the Trust for the National Mall to repair the Washington Monument. In December Congress allocated $7.5 million to fund the repair on the condition that the National Park Service raise matching private funds. Rubenstein’s donation thus not only grants the restoration efforts a hefty sum in itself, but also assures the Congressional funding.

The 555-foot obelisk, built in 1884 to honor the first president of the United States, was damaged by the 5.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the capital on August 23, 2011. Early assessments found a large four-foot-long, one-inch-wide crack and a number of smaller cracks in the monument, so for safety reasons the monument was immediately closed to the public. Later more detailed assessments found the damage was even worse than they first realized.

According
 to 
a
 report 
released 
by 
the 
National
 Park
 Service, 
inspectors 
found
 numerous
 cracked
 and
 chipped
 stones,
 including 
six
 large 
cracks 
that
 extend
 through 
the 
marble 
exterior 
of 
the 
Monument’s
 pyramidion,
 that
 have 
left 
the 
127
 year‐old 
structure
 extremely
 vulnerable.

 The
 Monument
 also 
suffered
 missing 
mortar,
 the
 displacement 
of
 components 
of
 the 
lightning
 protection
 system,
 and
 damage
 to 
the
 elevator 
counter
 weight 
frame.


The $15 million will go to repairing all of the direct earthquake damage. It’s not enough, however, to cover some of the other issues plaguing the monument, like extensive water damage to the interior from the cracks in the marble and lost mortar at the peak of the obelisk. Some of the marble panels up top were cracked all the way through. The monument also needs structural reinforcement to protect the tallest obelisk in the world against future freak earthquakes, so here’s hoping there are more billionaire history buffs lying around somewhere.

The Washington Monument continues to be closed to the public and it looks like it will remain closed for the next two years. The Park Service is taking bids from contractors now with the aim of starting repair work by the end of August. They expect the repair to take 10 months to a year to complete.

The National Park Service website has an incredible photo gallery of the earthquake damage and the assessments done by civil engineers from the Difficult Access Team of contractors Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. (WJE).

The Difficult Access Team is my new obsession. The WJE team did preliminary damage assessments of the Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial and Lincoln Memorial the day after the earthquake. That work was done visually — by helicopter for the top of the obelisk — but they had to return to the Washington Monument to do an in depth investigation by rappelling off the top. These are engineers, mind you. They could spend their lives in an office drafting things, but instead they badassedly rappel down a 555-foot marble needle. Two of the four are women, so yay sisterhood! Here’s one of those women, engineer Emma Cardini, starting her descent on September 28, 2011:

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Here’s more dizzying video taken from the helmet of WJE engineer Erik Stohn:

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If you’re wondering why they had to rappel this time instead of using a helicopter or scaffolding, according to NPS Acting Chief of Resource Management Jennifer Talken-Spaulding a detailed damaged assessment requires hands-on (literally) work. You have to be able to touch the stone, tap it, listen to the sounds it makes, see the condition of the mortar and marble. They also had to remove spalls, chunks of stone that have come loose and could pose a serious hazard to people on the ground. You have to do that by hand. Scaffolding takes a long time to build, and they wanted a thorough assessment of the damage before the cold winter set in.

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This is what it looked like at the 500-foot level observatory when the earthquake hit. The shaking starts at 1:45, but watch the whole thing to see the security guard just hanging out and tourists walking around casually before things suddenly get hairy.

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For more videos of the earthquake, damage and repair work on the Washington Monument, please visit the National Park Service’s videos page. That 4-foot crack up top looks truly awful from the inside. You can see the light shining through it and it’s huge.

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8 Comments »

Comment by D. B. Cooper
2012-01-22 02:24:58

The shower of crumbling stone would have sent me flying down those stairs like I had wings. And I’ve been through several earthquakes that size.

Comment by livius drusus
2012-01-22 02:47:25

Me too. It’s one thing to be in a regular building during an earthquake. Even a skyscraper is probably going to be your basic rectangle. Being 500 feet up an obelisk when the quake hits is a whole other terrifying ball of wax.

 
 
Comment by Shaun
2012-01-22 09:20:52

i noticed something troubling:

in the video of the quake, at 2:25-7 or so, a man in a light pink shirt and a big cowboy-style hat approaches the stairs and looks down and around, and heads downstairs. after the guard leaves at 2:48, he comes right back upstairs! you see him cross from one side to the other a little later, but then he doesn’t show up again.

what happened to that guy?

Comment by livius drusus
2012-01-22 14:29:24

I’m sure he got back down after the film cuts off. There were no injuries reported, thankfully.

 
 
Comment by Mr. Murphy in VA
2012-01-23 09:19:11

It’s nice to see some really rich person donating money to something like this rather than to one of those vile superPACs.

Comment by livius drusus
2012-01-23 13:49:35

I have little love for the likes of The Carlyle Group, but Rubenstein has donated huge amounts of money to historical causes. He is a genuine history nerd and he puts his money where his nerdery is. I have often fantasized of doing the same thing if I had a billion dollars.

 
 
Comment by Heather Voight
2012-01-24 15:05:51

Despite my fondness for ancient Egyptian obelisks, this one seemed like a rather impersonal tribute to our first president compared to the Lincoln Memorial, for example. The process of repairing it is very interesting though.

Comment by livius drusus
2012-01-25 00:48:32

Mills’ original design perched the obelisk behind a statue of George Washington driving a six-horsed chariot on top of a colonnade bedecked with statues of Revolutionary Wars heroes. I think we’re pretty lucky to have ended up with just the sleek albeit impersonal obelisk, all things considered. ;)

 
 
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