Here is a headline we could have written any time during the past twenty years, and probably any time in the next twenty: Washington Monument Closed Again.
Closing the landmark to pressure Congress into giving the Park Service more money is so common that it has a name in the dictionary: The Washington Monument Syndrome. Wikipedia defines it as “a political tactic used… by government agencies when faced with budget cuts… cutting the most visible or appreciated service provided by the government, from popular services such as national parks…”
The idea was originated by Park Service Director George Hartzog, who closed the Washington Monument and Grand Canyon for two days a week in 1969. Congress had to restore funding, though it also cost Hartzog his job. It has been a tried-and-proven strategy ever since.
The Washington Monument is the first thing most tourists see in their Nation’s Capitol, and it hosts over 600,000 visitors annually.
The Monument has been closed during every temporary government shutdown, at least 5 times since 1990. It is also commonly closed for regularly maintenance that used to work around public tours. The Monument was shrouded in scaffolding for major repairs in 1934, 1958, 1998, and 2011. The first two times the public was still welcome. The last two, it was closed for two and three years, respectively.
Now, the Monument’s elevator needs work, having stalled several times, requiring closures from 12 hours to 12 days. Another 24 times since then, the Monument has been closed for other maintenance projects, and it is also frequently closed for hours at a time during special tours for special people.
Officials also close the Statue of Liberty and other major parks for sometimes dubious reasons. The Statue was closed for eight years after 9/11 and then only opened for a few people a day. It was closed again two years later for a full year of renovations, and reopened in 2012 – for one day. Then after a hurricane it was closed again, for almost another year, and it has been closed repeatedly ever since. Finding such icons of national pride closed is no longer a big deal to visitors; it is routine.
Few people question the need for elevator maintenance. The Washington Monument’s current trouble-plagued elevator was installed in 1999, but took two years. That timeline is the part people have trouble understanding. This time, we are told the Monument must remain closed at least until the end of 2019 for an elevator project that will cost $2.5 million. But it doesn’t take two years to fix an elevator. The 1960s-era motor is still fine and will not be replaced, just the doors, lighting, cables, and computers. All skyscrapers have elevators that require similar maintenance, but in the business world it takes hours, not years, and it is done in the middle of the night to avoid inconveniencing customers.
The Park Service admits that the $2.5 million elevator project could be done faster. It has already been funded, by a donation from businessman and philanthropist David Rubenstein. He has given over $50 million to major park projects, including the post-earthquake 2011 Washington Monument repairs, and restorations at Arlington House, the Iwo Jima Memorial, and Lincoln Memorial.
Private funding should expedite the project, but the Park Service wants to combine it with another far more ambitious item – a new security screening building. The proposed modern steel and glass structure is highly controversial because it doesn’t fit the architecture of the Monument and its surroundings (think of the glass eyesore in front of the Louvre). So, Congress has not yet agreed to fund it. Its $9.5 million cost includes 60 new geothermal wells, 200-400 feet deep, to heat and cool the Monument. Renewable energy is desirable, but does not require closing the Monument, 200 feet away. Designers say the public won’t even see the underground system, so the only way tourists will complain to Congress is if the Monument remains closed.
This new security building has been in the works for 17 years, including a 207-page Environmental Assessment four years ago. That process required public hearings in DC, but nobody asked the 600,000 annual Monument visitors whether the elevator repair should be held hostage to the more ambitious construction plan.
Here is my own modest proposal. Tell the Park Service its grandiose new design will have to wait until taxpayers can better afford such luxury. And tell the elevator company it has 30 days to reopen the Monument, or we’ll find another contractor.
A version of this column originally appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel March 17, 2017.