Most of the time, the heart of our national’s capital is a monument to monumentalism, the neoclassical ostentatiously trying to pass itself off as the eternal. But for a few years at the end of the 20th century, the architectural stasis was interrupted by something weird and charming: the Washington Monument became a light-up cartoon version of itself.
From 1998 to 2000, the austere obelisk underwent a major renovation, which meant it had to be surrounded by scaffolding. So the architect Michael Graves—then at the peak of his Target-distributed consumer pop-design celebrity—came up with decorative drapery that looked like oversized blockwork. At night, the rig glowed from within, to emphasize the lines of the pretend masonry.
It was fun to look at, in a tacky way, and that electrified tackiness served as a pleasant reminder that erecting a giant pseudo-Egyptian monolith was pretty tacky to begin with. Before it was an icon, Washington Monument was a colossal folly, the result of a botched and contingent process of design and construction. The site is misaligned because the ground was unstable; the top doesn’t even match the bottom. We barely pulled it together.
But then the renovation was over, and the scaffolding came down, and the monument was all skinny and serious again. The silly version was apparently gone forever, a passing fancy.
History had other ideas, though. The 2011 earthquake did enough damage that the monument has gone back under scaffolding for repairs. And to go with the scaffolding, the Park Service revived Graves’ drapery design and lighting scheme. This week, the lights came back on.