WASHINGTON — Despite a billionaire history buff's pledge of $7.5 million to speed up repairs on the Washington Monument, officials say the complex work could last until August 2013 — two years after the landmark was damaged by an earthquake.
Businessman David Rubenstein said he was inspired to help fund the repairs to the 555-foot obelisk when it became clear how severely damaged it was by a 5.8-magnitude earthquake Aug. 23. The National Park Service and nonprofit Trust for the National Mall announced Rubenstein's gift Thursday morning. It is the largest gift to the nonprofit group that's working to restore the mall.
The repair job will be no easy task, though. A design process is under way to determine how to do the work, and federal officials hope to award a contract by August to begin construction. From there it will take about a year, according to the best estimates.
The repairs may involve building huge scaffolding around the monument, as was the case during a restoration project from 1999 to 2001. Officials said they don't yet know whether scaffolding will be necessary.
Bob Vogel, superintendent of the National Mall, said the park service is working to get the monument reopened as quickly as possible. But such an undertaking has never been done before, so the exact timeline is uncertain.
"This is a complex job," Vogel said. "This is a one-of-a-kind structure that poses challenges for repair that other buildings don't."
Rubenstein, a co-founder of the large private equity firm The Carlyle Group, has quickly become Washington's foremost philanthropist. He is among the nation's wealthiest people, joining Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in pledging to give away at least half of their wealth to charity.
In the past five years, Rubenstein has spent more than $83 million to support the capital city's cultural scene through cash donations or pledges and purchases of historic documents — including copies of the Magna Carta and Emancipation Proclamation — to be shown in national institutions. Just last month, he gave $4.5 million to save the National Zoo's giant panda program.
The Washington Monument caught his attention as soon as he learned how severely it was damaged. Chunks of stone were shaken loose and fell to the ground, and deep cracks formed at the top.
Rubenstein said he wanted to help make certain the monument can be reopened as quickly as possible.
"Really, this is something that was built by the American people because of their admiration and love of George Washington," he said, noting $1 donations were collected to build the structure for a little more than $1 million. With his own many donations in Washington, Rubenstein said, "I kind of want to repay a debt I have to the country."
Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis said the monument will reopen sooner, thanks to Rubenstein. The Park Service wasn't given enough money this year to fund the complete restoration on its own, he said.
"I would suggest it hadn't even stopped shaking before David Rubenstein came to me and asked if he could help," Jarvis said.
Congress allocated $7.5 million in December on the condition that private donations match that amount. The combined $15 million in public and private funds is expected to cover the cost of repairing damage directly caused by the quake. Repairing water damage from when rain leaked through will cost more, as would a seismic study or reinforcements to strengthen the structure against future earthquakes.
The August quake was centered some 40 miles west of Richmond, Va., and was felt from Canada to Georgia. It damaged the Washington National Cathedral, where pieces of mortar rained down from its vaulted ceiling.
At the Washington Monument, panicked visitors fled down flights of stairs, but there were no deaths or serious injuries in the region. Daylight could later be seen through some of the cracks, the largest of which was reported to be at least 4 feet long and about an inch wide.
Last fall, daring engineers rappelled from the top to conduct a visual inspection of the exterior. They documented the damage but noted the monument is structurally sound. Their report in December recommended extensive repairs and reinforcements to preserve the structure. It said some marble panels were cracked all the way through near the top portion of the monument.
Rubenstein's gift will be delivered to the nonprofit Trust for the National Mall, which aims to raise $350 million privately to restore the grounds and facilities at the heart of the nation's capital. Many areas have become run down from over-use and inadequate funding for maintenance.
Caroline Cunningham, president of the group, said Rubenstein's gift "demonstrates how much people care about this space."
A design competition is under way to develop ways to improve the mall, including the Washington Monument grounds. Finalists will be chosen in May, and the group will seek funding for each project.
Construction on the monument began in 1848, but funds ran out during the Civil War, leaving just an embarrassing stump for years. It was finally completed in 1884 and was the world's tallest man-made structure until it was eclipsed by the Eiffel Tower. It remains the tallest structure in Washington.
Rubenstein recently toured the monument and saw its damage inside. Plaques from various states and groups line the walls, paying tribute to the nation's first president.
"Because of what he did, we have a terrific republic, and I think Americans and people all over the world want to come here and see this monument," he said.
Rubenstein, a Baltimore native and the son of a postal worker, has made major gifts in recent years to the Smithsonian Institution, the National Archives, the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center, where he serves as chairman.
"I come from very modest circumstances, and I'm very fortunate to have achieved wealth beyond what I ever expected," he said. "I don't think that I want to be buried with my wealth. ... I'd like to have the pleasure of giving it away to things I think are good while I'm alive."
Trust for the National Mall: http://www.nationalmall.org