Washington’s Monumental Secret


A team of engineers, harnessed to ropes, inspect the exterior of the Washington Monument on Wednesday, September 28, 2011(AP Photo/Evan Vucci).

A team of engineers, harnessed to ropes, inspect the exterior of the Washington Monument on Wednesday, September 28, 2011(AP Photo/Evan Vucci).

High-flying inspectors have been closely investigating cracks in the masonry exterior of the Washington Monument, caused by the 5.8 earthquake in August. One thing for sure, however: there are no cracks at the very top of the monument. For the tip of the Washington Monument was made of aluminum, and it was made in Philadelphia.

The movement for a monument to George Washington began in Philadelphia. On February 22, 1833, a cornerstone for a monument was laid in the center of Washington Square, but the endeavor was not continued. Work began a few years later on the present obelisk in the Nation’s Capitol.

The story of the tip (or pyramidion) begins with William Frishmuth (1830-1893), who was born in Germany and eventually settled in Philadelphia in 1855. His first years in his new city were devoted to chemistry and the production of rare and alkaline metals. But there was much more to this man than this.

For example, during the 1860 presidential campaign, Frishmuth supported Abraham Lincoln, who took a liking to him and invited him to Washington, D.C. for the presidential inaugural. When the Civil War began, Frishmuth was appointed as a special secret agent in the War Department and was reportedly awarded $200 in gold from Lincoln’s private purse for capturing three spies.

Frishmuth again became involved with chemistry after the Civil War, particularly in electroplating of metals and improving methods to produce aluminum more cheaply. The Frishmuth Foundry in Philadelphia was the site of the first commercial aluminum (chemical) reduction facility in the United States, as well as the only aluminum producer in the nation for years. Frishmuth received twelve U.S. patents in these various endeavors and also pursued and received patents in other countries.

Since Frishmuth had previously done plating work for the Washington Monument, the Army Corps of Engineers asked him to construct a small metal form for the very top. The 9-inch-tall pyramid was to be both artistic (engraved with inscriptions) and function as the terminus of a lightning rod. Frishmuth suggested aluminum, as its color would blend well with the granite, would not stain, and would polish well.

P.H. McLaughlin setting the aluminum tip (from the Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division).

P.H. McLaughlin setting the aluminum tip (from the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division).

On November 12, 1884, Frishmuth’s Kensington foundry cast the aluminum tip of the Washington Monument. Considered a major technological achievement in its day, this 100-ounce pyramid was made of South Carolina Corundum and was the world’s first large aluminum casting. The silvery metal was so rare in the late 19th Century that the pyramid was displayed at Tiffany’s jewelry store in New York City before being installed.

The Washington Monument’s capping ceremony in late 1884 received front-page publicity. The aluminum point was well described, so thousands of people who had never even heard the word “aluminum” now knew what it was. Years later, the chief metallurgist of ALCOA declared that “the crown jewel of the aluminum industry is the cap of the Washington Monument.”

Upon its completion in 1885, the Washington Monument was the largest freestanding structure in the world, with the aluminum cap topping it off at 550 feet. Ironically, when begun in 1871, Philadelphia’s City Hall was intended to be the tallest building in the world upon completion, with a height of about 547 feet. But by the time City Hall tower was finished, the Washington Monument and the Eiffel Tower were already done, both surpassing it handily. Still, we can say the highest point in Washington, D.C. originated in Philadelphia.

The Frishmuth foundry building in 1983 (from www.tms.org/pubs/journals/jom/9511/binczewski-9511.html).

To celebrate the casting of the original aluminum pyramid for the Washington Monument, a commemorative centennial event was held in the same Frishmuth building in Philadelphia that was still operating as a foundry 100 years later. A replica of the pyramid, exact in size, weight, and composition, was cast on November 12, 1984, and was again displayed by Tiffany’s in New York.

The 1984 replica of the tip of the Washington Monument, made for Tiffany’s (from www.tms.org/pubs/journals /jom/9511/binczewski-9511.html).

By the early 1890s, Frishmuth’s method for making aluminum was surpassed by the new low-cost Hall/Heroult electrolytic process, which is still the basis for all aluminum production today. Frishmuth’s business declined and he encountered legal difficulties. On August 1, 1893, he was found in his Philadelphia home, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

About the author

Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.

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