Lighting Design for the Washginton Monument

The Washington Monument is the tallest stone structure in Washington, DC (learn more about the Washington Monument). At a height of 555 feet, the Monument's tall, slender design makes it difficult to uniformly light, and the pyramidion capstone top creates a natural shadow when lit from below. Architects and lighting designers have faced the challenges of lighting architecture with a variety of solutions.

Traditional, Uneven Lighting

Traditional, uneven Washington Monument lighting © Medioimages/Photodisc, Getty Images

Medioimages/Photodisc Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

The challenge of illuminating the Washington Monument is to create a smooth, even wash of light onto the stone surface, much like the sun would do during the day. Traditional approaches before 2005 included using these light sources:

  • Twenty 400-watt fixtures mounted in surface-mounted vaults to illuminate the lowest level of the Monument
  • Twenty-seven 1,000-watt fixtures located in vaults around the edge of the plaza
  • Eight 400-watt lights on poles

Traditional lighting of the Monument involved aiming each light source directly onto the sides and positioned to shine up to the pyramidion. This method, however, created uneven illumination, especially at the pyramid level (see larger image). Also, because of the illumination angle, only 20% of the light actually reached the surface of the Monument—the rest fell into the night sky.

Nontraditional Lighting Design

The Washington Monument illuminated at night, reflected in the Reflecting Pool

Martin Child, Getty Images

Lighting difficult architecture requires breaking with traditional thinking. In 2005, Musco Lighting designed a system that uses less energy (more than 80 percent of the light shines directly onto the surface) with fixtures that focus the light with mirrors. The result is a more uniform, three-dimensional appearance.

Focus on the Corners

Three fixtures are placed at each of the four corners of the structure, and not directly in front of the Monument's sides. Each fixture has a mirrored interior to create an adjustable ribbon of light onto two sides of the Monument—two fixtures are aimed to light one side and one fixture lights the adjacent side. Only twelve 2,000-wat fixtures (operating at an energy-saving 1,500-watts) are needed to illuminate the entire Monument.

Light From the Top Down

Instead of trying to light a tall structure from the ground up, Musco Lighting uses mirror optics to direct light 500 feet from the top down. The lower levels are illuminated with 66 150-watt fixtures at the base of the Monument. The twelve mirrored corner fixtures are located on four 20-foot high poles, 600 feet from the Monument. Eliminating nearby lighting vaults at ground level has increased security (traditional vaults were large enough to hide a person) and diminished the problem of nighttime insects near the tourist attraction.

Inspecting the Materials

Inspectors hanging from ropes inspecting the exterior stone of the Washington Monument

Alex Wong/Getty Images

When the Washington Monument was built, stone masonry construction was considered regal and enduring. Since the day it opened in 1888, the Monument has not faltered and grandeur has been preserved. The first major restoration in 1934 was a Depression Era public works project, and a smaller restoration took place 30 years later, in 1964. Between 1998 and 2000, the Monument was surrounded by scaffolding for a major multi-million dollar restoration, cleaning, repairing, and preserving the marble blocks and mortar.

Then, on Tuesday, August 23, 2011, a 5.8 magnitude earthquake occurred 84 miles southwest of Washington, DC, shaking, but not toppling, the Washington Monument.

Inspectors rappelled down ropes to examine the structure and assess earthquake damage. Everyone quickly realized that scaffolding from the last restoration project would be necessary to repair the extensive damage to the stone structure.

The Beauty of Necessary Scaffolding

The Washington Monument is covered in scaffolding to repair earthquake damage

nathan blaney, Getty Images

The late architect Michael Graves, a well-known figure in the Washington, DC area, understood scaffolding. He knew that scaffolding is necessary, a common occurrence, and that it does not have to be ugly. His company was asked to design the scaffolding for the 1998-2000 restoration project.

"The scaffolding, which followed the profile of the monument, was embellished with a blue semi-transparent architectural mesh fabric," said the Michael Graves and Associates website. "The pattern of the mesh reflected, at an exaggerated scale, the running bond pattern of the monument's stone facades and the mortar joints being repaired. The scaffolding installation thus told the story of the restoration."

The scaffolding design from the 2000 restoration was again used to repair the earthquake damage in 2013.

Lighting Design by Michael Graves

Worker on Washington Monument scaffolding, illumination designed by Michael Graves, July 8, 2013

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Architect and designer Michael Graves created lighting within the scaffolding to celebrate the art of rehabilitation and historic restoration. "I thought we could tell a story about restoration," Graves told PBS reporter Margaret Warner, "about monuments in general, obelisks, George Washington, that monument in the mall...And I thought it was important to highlight or amplify that question of, what is restoration? Why do we need to restore buildings? Aren't they good for all time? No, in fact they need their health care as well as we do."

Illumination Effects

Washington Monument illumination designed by Michael Graves, July 8, 2013

jetsonphoto/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The lights Graves placed to illuminate the Washington Monument during its restoration—both in 2000 and 2013—tell the story of its architecture. The lights on the stone reflect an image of the marble block construction (see larger image).

"At night, the scaffolding was lit from within by hundreds of lights so that the whole monument glowed."—Michael Graves and Associates

Variables in Lighting Design

Aerial view of the Washington Monument on the National Mall

Hisham Ibrahim, Getty Images

Throughout the years, lighting design has created a desired effect by changing these variables:

  • Strength of light source
  • Distance of light source from object
  • Position of light source onto the object

The sun's changing position is the best choice for us to see the three-dimensional geometry of the Monument but an obvious impractical choice for traditional nighttime lighting—or will this be the next technological solution?

Sources: "A Monumental Improvement," Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP), Spotlight on Design, July 2008, at; History & Culture, Washington Monument, National Park Service; Renovating Washington's Monument, Designer-style by Michael Kernan, Smithsonian magazine, June 1999; The Washington Monument Restoration, Projects, Michael Graves and Associates; A Monumental Task, PBS News Hour, March 2, 1999 at Websites accessed August 11, 2013.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Craven, Jackie. "Lighting Design for the Washginton Monument." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Craven, Jackie. (2021, February 16). Lighting Design for the Washginton Monument. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "Lighting Design for the Washginton Monument." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 27, 2023).