The Washington Monument

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 11850

What is the tallest building in the world? What was the tallest building in the world in 1884? You can still visit it and climb up in it today and think about the first president of the United States!


United States

learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5), Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


What president has a monument that doesn't look anything like him? But it makes a good point about our first president!

Many of the memorials and monuments in Washington, D.C., clearly honor a specific person.

The Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, and Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial all have large statues and imagery, making it clear who the memorial is honoring, but the largest memorial of all does not make it clear who it is commemorating (Related Lessons).

Did you even know that giant pencil-shaped building in Washington, D.C., was built to commemorate a person? In this lesson, you will learn about the history of the Washington Monument and climb to the top of its 898 steps!

Being named Washington City after the first president, Washington, D.C., is kind of one giant memorial in honor of George Washington. When Pierre L'Enfant, whom you will remember was the original architect of America's capital city, began designing Washington, D.C., he intentionally reserved a specific spot for a monument to be built in honor of George Washington. The spot was located in a slightly elevated position and was in the center of the city.

The location L'Enfant selected remained bare for about 40 years, at which time the Washington National Monument Society began raising funds and asking for design suggestions to be used for a monument in honor of George Washington. In 1845, the society decided on a design created by an architect named Robert Mills. Mills suggested a 600-foot tall Egyptian obelisk, or stone pillar, with a square-shaped body and a pyramid-shaped top. Mills' design also proposed that the obelisk be surrounded by 30 columns that would each be 100 feet high. According to Mills, the obelisk shape made people think about the timelessness of ancient civilizations. How do you think this idea relates to George Washington? Explain your response to your teacher or parent.

Even though a design had been selected, it would take years for the Washington Monument to be completed. Mills' design was not only very costly, it would also be a challenge to build. Construction began in 1848, and more than 20,000 people were in attendance when the cornerstone was first laid, including five presidents: James Madison, James K. Polk, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Abraham Lincoln. Construction continued on-and-off for 30 years as funding was available. Mills died in 1855, unable to see his completed vision. After his passing, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was put in charge of overseeing the project, and Lt. Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey was selected to be the lead architect.

When Casey took over the project, he made some changes. Although Mills had proposed the Washington Monument be exactly 600 feet tall, Casey suggested the monument should be exactly ten times the width of its base, and decided the ideal height would be 555 feet. Casey also decided to forgo Mills' 30 columns to cut down on costs. In December, 1884, Casey finally completed the massive monument. The monument truly was worthy of the legacy of George Washington because, at the time, it became the tallest building in the entire world! The law in Washington, D.C., states that no other building in Washington can be taller than the Washington Monument, and it is positioned in such a way that no shadows ever cover the monument.

Work your way through the interactive timeline below:

Before moving on, discuss the following questions with your teacher or parent:

  • How does the Washington Monument reflect the life and legacy of George Washington?
  • What challenges did builders face when constructing the Washington Monument?

Each year, thousands of tourists visit the Washington Monument, climbing the 898 steps to the viewing platform at the top. Are you ready to make that 555-foot journey? If so, move on to the Got It? section to see views of Washington, D.C., from the top of the monument.

Consider exploring the Elephango lessons in the right-hand sidebar under Additional Resources to learn more about the presidents mentioned in this lesson.

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We help prepare learners for a future that cannot yet be defined. They must be ready for change, willing to learn and able to think critically. Elephango is designed to create lifelong learners who are ready for that rapidly changing future.