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A Newcomer's Guide To Washington: Monumental Myths

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Many tourists and Washingtonians alike think the flag flying on top of the White House means the President is there.
Many tourists and Washingtonians alike think the flag flying on top of the White House means the President is there.

This week, D.C. newcomer Rebecca Sheir sets out to solve mysteries, and debunk myths of monumental proportions...


I may be new in town, but Id like to think I'm not nearly as green as some.

British Tourists: Baraaaaack!!!!

Like these people, for instance. Okay, so they're actually tourists, fresh off the plane from Great Britain. But they're gathering on the Ellipse, behind the White House, in hopes of seeing:

British Tourists: Barack Obama! Whooooo!

But the President-he's a busy guy, right? Things to do, people to see. So why would these Brits assume hes actually home?

Crouch: See, they think he's home 'cuz the flag is flying.

This is Carolyn Crouch, founder of Washington Walks. And the link between the Presidents whereabouts and the flag atop the White House is something I've found many Washingtonians believe:

Sheir: Do you know what it means when the flag is flying on top of the White House?

Guy: The Presidents in!

Sheir: Is that what you heard?

Guy: Yes.

Sheir: Do you know what it means when the flag is flying on top of the White House?

Gal: That the president is in residence.

Sheir: Whered you hear that?

Gal: I think I learned that in school. Way to go, school! Teaching me things!

But in this case, says Carolyn Crouch, not entirely true things. Because the White House flag is always flying.

Crouch: Regardless of who's there. Whether it be just the family pet, or the whole family.

Sheir: So you suggest maybe, check the Twitter feed for the White House and see where Barack is.

Crouch: Yes, yes!

Great Britain, though, has its own shorthand for signaling when the head of state is in the house.

When the royal family's in residence in London at Buckingham Palace, their standard flies over that building, and when they're not there, it does'nt.

So its no wonder our British friends:

British Tourists: Under the white canopy! Someone zoom in!

...Think Obama...

British Tourists: Barack!!!!!

...Or, okay, Barack, will pop out from his house any minute.

Behind the Brits, up the hill from the Ellipse, stands a tribute to the one U.S. President who did'nt call the White House home. Heres a hint: it's shaped like an Egyptian obelisk it stands 555 feet and 5 and one-eighth inches tall.

Crouch: And just the casual passer-by, you would say it's white stone. In fact, its marble. But then if you stand and you contemplate it longer, you realize its a tri-color obelisk.

Indeed, about 150 feet up, the Washington Monument shifts from a snowier white to a darker shade. Then, a little higher, it changes again. And Carolyn says that's sparked all sorts of rumors.

My favorite is when people say its the result of a flood. And if that had been the flood, I mean, this would be Noah's Ark all over again! We would not be here today!

But we are, though the Washington Monument almost wasn't. See, back in 1848, a group called the Washington National Monument Society began using public donations to build the structure out of this bright white marble from a quarry in Cockeysville, Maryland.

At the same time, they were collecting engraved stones to place inside the Monument: from different states, countries; the Pope even sent a stone from Rome.

But in 1854, with about 150 feet of the Monument done, everything stopped thanks to an anti-immigrant, anti-Roman-Catholic political party, the Know-Nothings.

Kelly: So in the spring of 1854, there was a building on the east grounds of the Monument called The Lapidarium, in which many of the stones were being stored.

The Lapidarium is no longer on the grounds, but this guy often is; in fact, that's where I met him. His name is Michael Kelly, and he's a park ranger with the National Mall and Memorial Parks.

One evening, a group of Know-Nothing supporters broke into the Lapidarium, found the Pope's stone and stole it, and it's a mystery as to its fate.

But what isn't a mystery is what happened next. The Know-Nothings formed their own Washington National Monument Society, public donations dried up and construction didn't start again until 1876.

When work was resumed here, it was undertaken by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, who had returned to the original quarry. But the quarry no longer could supply enough stone for the final 400-plus feet.

So, they tried a quarry in Massachusetts, and started building with that marble.

There's about four or five courses of that. And that's the few lines that you'll see there with brown veining running through it.

Hence the first color change. But the Massachusetts quarry was kind of flaky filling orders on time, so the Corps of Engineers wound up finishing the Monument in 1884 with marble from a different quarry back in Cockeysville.

It's a closer match to that below, and when newer, it was the similar bright white snowy marble. But one of the things unknown to the Engineers at the time was that that stone above has a higher magnesium content. So with direct exposure to air, wind, rain, it darkened.

And there you have it: a tri-colored obelisk 36 years in the making.

Now, I say, obelisk. But technically, a true obelisk consists of just one stone. Michael Kelly says the Washington Monument contains more than 36,000.

It then becomes the very definition of E Pluribus Unum: Out Of Many, One. And it does really become a fitting monument to Washington because he was a strong proponent of unity, and of union.

Back at the Ellipse, Carolyn Crouch sees it a bit differently.

Crouch: Because democracy is messy, I appreciate the sort of non-blending aspect of it. That's appropriate for America, I think!

And for Washington, D.C., this city that draws millions of people from all around the world, to visit monuments and museums and maybe, just maybe, catch glimpses of presidents.

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