I took my first trip to the nation’s capital in 1975 with my parents, my sister and my maternal grandmother, Mamoo. A few days before the trip, Mamoo fell down the short, steep hill at the front of our house in Carrollton, Ga., and broke her leg. Not to be deterred by a small inconvenience, Mamoo drove with us from our home, into Atlanta, and we boarded the overnight Amtrak train to Washington.
My sister Kathy and I shared a small bedroom compartment with Mamoo. There was not a bit of wasted space. The top bed pulled down from the wall, a sink was in the corner and the passenger seats rearranged to form the lower sleeping bunk. Kathy and I slept together on the top bunk while my grandmother and her broken leg were on the bottom.
The next morning, we made our way to the dining car for breakfast. The tablecloth was white and there was a flower in a white bud vase in the middle of the table, all quite elegant to me, a middleschool girl from rural Georgia. As the train pulled out from a stand of trees and began crossing the Potomac River, the skyline of our nation’s capital came into view.
My first sight of our nation’s capital left me awestruck: the Capitol and the monuments were visible, but the building that remains etched in my mind is the Washington Monument. Shaped like an Egyptian obelisk, it reaches straight up to the sky, or so it seems. Actually, it is 555’ 5/8” high (the length of nearly two football fields), and, in clear weather, is visible up to 40 miles away. Viewed from just a few miles away, it appeared impossibly big to me.
During our trip, my family visited the Washington Monument. Visitors were allowed to climb its spiral interior staircase, which was adorned with plaques and odd-shaped windows.
Our walk up the stairwell seemed to take forever. We had to pause a few times to catch our breath before completing the 896 steps to the top of the Washington Monument, but we made it. I remember the journey up the stairs, but do not remember being at the top of the Monument. It was the journey to the top, not being on the top of the monument, which remains etched in my memory.
These days, when I visit Washington I usually fly into Reagan International Airport. Each time, as the plane descends, I scan the horizon for the Washington Monument, the signal that I am entering our nation’s capital.
The monument was built to honor the first president of our country, George Washington. In 1833, thirty-four years after his death, the Washington National Monument Society was founded to raise funds to build the monument. By 1847, the society had raised almost $30,000. Architect Robert Mills’ design was chosen, and construction began the next year. (Mills had built a similar 200-foot obelisk monument to Washington in Baltimore years earlier.)
Funding ran out in 1861, and construction was halted for 15 years until 1876, when Congress appropriated $2 million toward the completion of the monument. It was completed 8 years later, in 1884. Today you can see where the construction stopped. The monument changes color, the stone used in the newer, top part of the monument looks lighter than the older, lower, more weathered stone.
A few years ago, I was talking with a friend, who is an architect, discussing the symbols and meaning in architecture and monuments. He reminded me that the original plan by Major Charles Pierre L’Enfant, the French landscape engineer who laid out the city of Washington, called for the Washington Monument to be constructed on a north-south axis with the White House. This plan was canceled when it came time to build the monument, because the ground was too soft.
Instead, he told me, the monument was constructed southeast of a true north-south axis with the White House, although on a perfect east-west axis with the Capitol.
My friend continued his lesson, informing me that the east side of the capstone at the top of the monument bears the Latin inscription Laus Deo, which means “Praise be to God.” As the sun rises in Washington, the first building it touches is the east face of the Washington Memorial.
It somehow seems fitting that, as the sun rises over our nation’s capital, the first rays illuminate the phrase “Praise be to God.”
The actual inscription is not visible from the ground, but the National Park Service created a replica, which it displayed inside the Monument. In 2000 the display plaque read:
APEX OF THE MONUMENT
Reproduction The builders searched for an appropriate metal for the apex that would not tarnish and would act as a lightning rod. They chose one of the rarest metals of the time, aluminum. The casting was inscribed with the phrase, Laus Deo, (Praise be to God).
But recently, a colleague told me that he saw the plaque in the display, and the last sentence was missing.
In addition, the replica of the capstone, located in the monument, had been positioned so close to the wall that "Laus Deo" could not be read.
Last week, due to an email campaign and public pressure, the last sentence referring to the inscription was restored on the plaque. Those who visit the Washington Monument can once again read what is inscribed on the capstone.
As for me, each time I travel into the city, I continue to look for the Washington Monument, a beacon of hope, a sign that I have reached our capital city.
And I think, Laus Deo - Praise be to God.