Washington Monument Marble Stripe in Washington, D.C.

Construction on the Washington Monument began in 1848 with funding coming entirely from private donations. But within six years the eponymous Washington Monument Society had burned through its budget, and work on the obelisk ground to a halt. The 152-foot tall marble stub was capped with a wooden roof and the project sat dormant for years as a source of national embarrassment.

At the time, the federal government had more pressing business to attend to than memorial building—namely...

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