Some gashes in the 555-foot-tall monument are deep with stones cracked all the way through, while others have hairline cracks or had their corners chipped off in a 2011 earthquake that closed it to the public. Mortar is missing between some pieces, shaken loose by the worst vibrations at the top. And at least one massive stone shifted a thumb's length out of line with the piece below it.
The Associated Press had a look at some of the worst damage 500 feet above the ground and the preparations underway to begin making repairs. On the same day, a group of government officials and philanthropists clipped themselves into harnesses and climbed to the tip of the towering obelisk.
Stone by stone, engineers are reviewing cracks, missing pieces and broken mortar now that huge scaffolding has been built around what was once the world's tallest structure. Once each trouble spot is identified, repairs can begin.
Businessman David Rubenstein, who gave $7.5 million to fund half the monument's repairs, climbed to the top recently and said he prayed the ground wouldn't shake. At times, he held on tight to scaffolding rails. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell joined in reviewing the damage and gave Rubenstein a high-five at the top.
Jewell, in her second month as part of President Barack Obama's cabinet after stepping down as CEO of retailer Recreational Equipment Inc., climbed the scaffolding's stairwell while others rode an elevator. After examining the structure, she said the monument has withstood the test of time.
"You can't help but think, how did they do this?" Jewell said "How did they carve these stones so precisely that many years ago that it's really just sitting on a friction fit one on top of the other all the way to the top? It's extraordinary."
When the obelisk was completed in 1884, some 35 years after construction began, it was the world's tallest structure for five years until the Eiffel Tower was built in Paris. The monument remains the world's tallest freestanding stone structure and stands to honor the nation's first president.
The marble exterior has a distinct line marking the time when builders ran out of money and halted construction for 25 years during the Civil War era, later resuming work in 1876. The monument normally draws about 700,000 visitors a year but has been closed to tourists since the earthquake.
Rubenstein helped jumpstart repairs in a unique arrangement by donating millions early last year to cover half the cost. Congress allocated $7.5 million to cover the other half of the $15 million restoration. Delaying the repairs would have caused the monument to deteriorate and cost more to restore, Rubenstein said.
Jewell said the national parks belong to all Americans and must be maintained with taxpayer support, though private philanthropy makes a difference. Rubenstein said he hopes his gift could be an example for others.
Visiting the top, Rubenstein was amazed by the view and the monument's history.
"You see how beautiful it is, and the majesty of our city is really unrivaled," he said. "The top of the Eiffel Tower is nice, but not quite this beautiful."
The climbing group spent several hours on the monument June 2, walking around and examining the stone at several levels. Engineers explained how repairs will be completed from the top down.
Some stones shaken loose by the 5.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Aug. 23, 2011, along the East Coast were removed to prevent them from falling to the ground. Other damaged pieces have been cut out with clean lines to allow for a new rectangular block of marble to be sealed into place.
The worst of the damage is from about 470 feet upward, where the monument shook most violently, said James Perry, the chief of resource management for the National Mall.
The most difficult part of the repair was gaining access to the exterior. A month after the quake, engineers rappelled from the top to get a first look at the damage. It took nearly 20 more months to plan and build scaffolding, completed May 15, to allow work to begin.
"The assessment is literally stone by stone," Perry said. "Every stone is catalogued and has a condition assessment."
There are 9,040 exterior-facing stones and 10,746 interior stones altogether, according to the National Park Service.
Engineers are looking to verify damage and develop a process for repairs that must be reviewed and approved before the stonework begins. There are essentially three types of repairs to be made: repointing damaged mortar, replacing stone pieces and sealing cracks. Metal tubing used to absorb lightning strikes also is being replaced.
To prevent water leakage, temporary weather stripping now seals some gaps between stones where mortar cracked loose. In one spot near 500 feet, engineers are testing new mortar to determine the right color to match the stone. They're also testing a process to seal a cracked stone by injecting epoxy, or glue, into the crack with plastic tubes.
Scaffolding also was built inside the monument near the top to help repair stones that cracked all the way through.
Some cracks are deeper than first thought and may require more complex repairs. Other missing pieces could have new stones cut and replaced with about a day's work in each spot.
National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, who has been tracking repair plans since the quake, got his first close look and said the damage was more extensive than he expected, especially the many corners of stone that chipped off.
"There's nothing massive that has happened to it," he said. "But it's piece by piece by piece. All the little pieces have to be put back together in a way that meets the standards of this extraordinary monument."
The Park Service aims to complete the repairs and reopen the monument by spring of 2014. While it's closed to visitors, officials realize it remains an American icon.
Ahead of the July 4th holiday, the monument will be decorated and lit as it was during a restoration project in 1999 and 2000. The scaffolding will have an architectural scrim lit from behind in a stone-like grid.
"It's an icon in this country, so you don't want it just sort of sitting here with a big scaffolding around it for a year," Jarvis said. "Whether you can get into it or not, it is still incredibly important to the city and to the country."
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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.