As the historic landmark in the heart of the US capital reopened after nearly three years of challenging earthquake repairs, sightseers returned to the summit of the Washington Monument.
The 555-foot (170-meter) marble obelisk, erected in stages during the 1800s and visible for miles around, sustained significant damage when a rare 5.8-magnitude rattled the Mid-Atlantic region in August 2011.
AdvertisementVIPs -- including a "patriotic philanthropist" who fronted half the $15 million of restoring the world's highest all-stone structure -- came together for a ribbon-cutting ceremony under bright blue skies.
"It's literally a history lesson in marble," said NBC television weather man Al Roker, emcee of the hour-long event where military bands played patriotic music and fourth-grade pupils recounted the monument's story.
Off to the side, several dozen mainly young Americans eagerly lined up to be among the first members of the public in 994 days to ride the elevator up to the observation deck and take in the sweeping views.
"My roommate and I got here at about 1:30 this morning," said George Washington University student Adam Streeter as the sun rose over the National Mall.
"We graduate this coming Sunday and we've never been at the top of the monument, so we figured this was a good time to go up there," he told AFP.
-- Full overhaul --
Erected in honor of George Washington, the American Revolutionary War commander and first US president, the monument was closed after engineers found 150 cracks following the August 23, 2011 earthquake.
For months it was sheathed with illuminated steel scaffolding, affording the National Park Service (NPS) a rare opportunity to give the world-famous spire not just a fix-up, but a full overhaul.
"There were cracks inside and outside throughout the entire length of the monument, but especially acute in the pyramidon -- that's the top 50 feet of the monument where the walls slope in," said NPS spokesman Mike Litterst.
Some 2.7 miles of sealant was injected between the stones, and 53 stainless steel anchors bolted into place at the top to secure the structure in the event of another temblor.
Ringed at its based by 50 American flags, one for each state, the Washington Monument typically attracts more than 800,000 visitors a year -- more than the city's population of 632,000.
-- 'Patriotic philanthropy' --
Half of the $15 million price tag was covered by public funds approved by Congress, and half from local venture capitalist David Rubenstein, whose wealth derives in part from federal defense and intelligence contracts.
A self-described "patriotic philanthropist," Rubenstein described his contribution a "down payment" towards repaying the debt he owed for the success that being an American had given to him.
Rubenstein has also donated a panda habitat to the National Zoo and an organ to the Kennedy arts center; he's also lent his personal copy of the Magna Carta to the National Archives.
At the opening ceremony, where VIPs put jumbo scissors to a star-spangled ribbon, the silver-haired financier read a whimsical email which he said he got over the weekend from George Washington himself, who died in December 1799.
Washington, a lifelong Freemason, opposed the use of public funding when the idea of a monument was first mooted, and indeed part of its construction -- interrupted by the Civil War -- was raised privately.
NPS director Jonathan Jarvis boasted that the technically challenging repair job was wrapped up "on time and within budget."
But Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington's long-serving non-voting member of Congress, injected a note of cautious skepticism into the otherwise upbeat proceedings.
"I have only one question," she said. "Is this thing earthquake-proof?"
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