WASHINGTON - After months of being closed to the public, the United States' tribute to its first president is about to put out the welcome mat again.
The Washington Monument will reopen tomorrow, ending 1 1/2 years of restoration necessitated by aging, an old operating system, and the wear and tear imposed by thousands of visitors each day.
The monument - an obelisk 555 feet, 5 1/8 inches tall - attracts 1.2 million visitors annually.
The National Park Foundation, a nonprofit partner of the National Park Service, worked with contractors to complete the restoration.
The restoration included constructing scaffolding for the entire monument, sealing 500 feet of exterior and interior stone cracks, cleaning 59,000 square feet of interior wall surface, sealing eight observation windows and eight aircraft warning lights, repairing 1,000 square feet of chipped and patched stone, and preserving and restoring 193 interior commemorative stones.
Operating systems of the 1950s elevator and 1970s heating and air conditioning were replaced.
"The goal of the restoration is to preserve the Washington Monument to ensure its integrity and stability - to ensure it stands for all time," said Vikki Keys, deputy superintendent of the park service.
The 490- and 500-foot observation decks were refurbished as well. The 490-foot level has been enlarged slightly around the elevator to make room for an exhibit.
The exhibit showcases two artifacts: copies of the aluminum cap on top of the monument and a donation box used to raise funds to build the structure in the 1800s.
Other exhibits cover the life of the nation's first president, the monument as a symbol of freedom and democracy, and a tribute to the public and private partnerships that financed the restoration.
In December, the monument will close again for about 2 1/2 months for replacement of the old elevator with one that has windows on doors so visitors can see some of the commemorative stones on the monument's inside walls.
The stones from all around the world memorialize Washington's contributions to the United States.
A few stones are not stones at all. The Alaska stone, estimated to be worth several million dollars, is solid jade.
National retail chain Target Stores joined the National Park Service to help restore the monument. Providing $2.5 million, Target served as the lead sponsor to raise awareness of the project; an additional $4 million in donations came from other corporate partners.
Congress provided $3.5 million for the restoration.
"We think the Washington Monument is worth preserving and looking great," said Caroline Brookter, director of public relations for Target. "Millions of people see the Washington Monument every year - not just Americans.
"It stands for what Americans should stand for."
The Washington Monument has been home base for many historic events, including the 1945 Bond Rally, 1963 Civil Rights March, 1968 Poor People's Campaign, Vietnam War protests and the celebratory fireworks every July 4.
It is the oldest of the four presidential memorials on the National Mall; the other three honor Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The monument was finished in late 1884.
The elevator trip to the top takes 75 seconds. Encircling the elevator are 897 steps to the top. The stones at the base of the monument are 15 feet thick, necessary to support the rest of the walls.
The monument is the world's largest freestanding masonry structure - no internal framework of steel or iron beams. About 90,000 tons of marble and granite went into its making.