June 11, 2013 at 8:47 AM ET
Work to repair the earthquake-damaged Washington Monument, the towering tribute to America's first president, has begun.
The 555-foot obelisk is the world’s tallest stone masonry structure and offers breathtaking views of the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol and other iconic structures on the National Mall. But the Washington Monument has been closed since a magnitude-5.8 earthquake rattled the nation’s capital on Aug. 23, 2011.
The quake violently shook the monument, loosening mortar and leaving behind cracks deep and wide enough to let in daylight. Water poured onto interior stairways. One stone actually shifted out of line.
Shortly after the earthquake, an inspection team of engineers rappelled from the top of the monument to determine the extent of the damages. "We had to go through and sort of check every rock, every stone on the building,” said National Park Service director Jon Jarvis.
The heaviest damage occurred at the top. Overall, the monument appears structurally sound.
Construction crews recently completed building scaffolding around the entire monument to allow repair work to begin. To gain access, workers take a 491-foot ride on a hoist. They then must climb a ladder to the capstone.
NBC reporter Tom Costello recently joined work crews on a climb to the top of the monument along with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. "The view is incredible up there, absolutely incredible,” Jewell said. “You can't help but feel patriotic. You can't help but marvel at the work that was done."
Construction crews will be replacing chipped and fractured stones with material from the monument’s original stone quarry in Maryland. “One of our important tasks will be to develop a good mortar mixture that allows the stone to perform and still have some flexibility, really allow the building to breathe, if you will,” said James Perry, chief of resource management at the National Park Service.
The repairs are expected to cost about $15 million. About half the tab will be picked up by David Rubenstein, a billionaire philanthropist and history buff.
"The truth is, it's really a gift to the country as a payment for all the good fortune I've had,” Rubenstein said.
About 600,000 people visit the Washington Monument every year. The National Park Service hopes to resume admitting visitors to the site next spring. Until then, it will remain under wraps. However, crews plan to decorate the scaffolding in ornamental lights in time for the upcoming July 4 holiday celebrations on the National Mall.