WASHINGTON — More than 150 cracks have been repaired, rainwater leaks have been sealed, and the 130-year-old Washington Monument will reopen today for the first time in nearly three years since an earthquake caused widespread damage.
The memorial honoring George Washington has been closed for about 33 months for engineers to conduct an extensive analysis and restoration of the 555-foot stone obelisk that was once the tallest structure in the world.
The monument's white marble and mortar were cracked and shaken loose during an unusual 5.8-magnitude earthquake in August 2011 that sent some of the worst vibrations to the top. Debris fell inside and outside the monument, and visitors scrambled to evacuate. Later, engineers evaluated the damage by rappelling from the top, dangling from ropes.
New exhibits have been installed, and visitors can once again ride an elevator to look out from the highest point in the nation's capital. The full restoration cost $15 million. Businessman and philanthropist David Rubenstein contributed $7.5 million to pay half the cost and expedite the repairs.
Rubenstein told the Associated Press on Sunday that he was surprised how much the monument means to people who have written him letters and email. He said he's pleased the job was done on time and on budget.
"It became clear to me that the Washington Monument symbolizes many things for our country — the freedoms, patriotism, George Washington, leadership," he said. "So it's been moving to see how many people are affected by it."
During an early look at the restored monument, Rubenstein hiked to the top, taking the stairs in a suit and tie. Memorial plaques inside the monument from each state seemed to be clean and intact, and the view "is really spectacular," he said.
The billionaire co-CEO of the Carlyle Group has been urging other philanthropists to engage in what he calls "patriotic philanthropy." In time, he predicts more philanthropists will make similar gifts. Rubenstein is co-chair of a campaign to raise funds to help restore the National Mall, serves as a regent of the Smithsonian Institution and is chairman of the Kennedy Center. He has also made major gifts to the National Archives and Library of Congress.
During the monument's restoration, the AP had a look at some of the worst damage from the 500-foot level. Stones were chipped and cracked all the way through with deep gashes in some places. Others had hairline cracks that had to be sealed.
Some damaged marble was replaced with salvaged material or stone from the same Maryland quarry as the monument's original marble. The replacement stone had been saved from the steps of old Baltimore row houses.
The monument was built in two phases between 1848 and 1884. When it was completed, it was the world's tallest structure for five years until it was eclipsed by the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The monument remains the world's tallest freestanding stone structure.
It normally draws about 700,000 visitors a year. The National Park Service will offer extended hours to visit the monument beginning Tuesday and through the summer from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day. Tickets can be reserved online at Recreation.gov.
Visiting the top has been a highlight for millions of people over the decades during tours of the nation's capital, said Caroline Cunningham, president of the nonprofit Trust for the National Mall, which is working to raise private funds to support the national park. The monument is expected to draw big crowds this year.
"The American people really gravitate to the Washington Monument," Cunningham said. "George Washington being our leader, it connects them to their country in a very personal way."