Washington Monument reopening after nearly 3 years

The Washington Monument as seen on May 10, 2014 Pete Marovich, Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- More than 150 cracks have been repaired, rainwater leaks have been sealed, and the 130-year-old Washington Monument will reopen Monday for the first time in nearly three years since an earthquake caused widespread damage.

The memorial honoring George Washington has been closed for about 33 months for engineers to conduct an extensive analysis and restoration of the 555-foot, 55-story stone obelisk that was once the tallest structure in the world.

The monument's white marble and mortar were cracked and shaken loose during an unusual 5.8-magnitude earthquake in August 2011 that sent some of the worst vibrations to the top. Debris fell inside and outside the monument, and visitors scrambled to evacuate. Later, engineers evaluated the damage by rappelling from the top, dangling from ropes.

Stones were chipped and cracked all the way through with deep gashes in some places. Others had hairline cracks that had to be sealed.

These days, the debris is gone, cracks are filled, and joints are reinforced.

A park ranger told CBS News, "A lot of the stone repairs are pretty subtle and the public won't be able to pick them up unless they're specifically looking for them."

The repairs were done with a sense of purpose. The monument is a powerful symbol of democracy. The monument has had a role in almost every historic event in Washington, from the struggle for civil rights to protests over Vietnam to the inauguration of Barack Obama.

And inside at the top, you can see the very structure of government. National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis told CBS News, "You can get an iconic view, whether it's Arlington Cemetery, or the White House, or the Lincoln Memorial, or the Capitol, so it's all of those views."

New exhibits have been installed, and visitors can once again ride an elevator to look out from the highest point in the nation's capital. The full restoration cost $15 million. Businessman and philanthropist David Rubenstein contributed $7.5 million to pay half the cost and expedite the repairs.

Rubenstein told The Associated Press on Sunday he was surprised how much the monument means to people who have written him letters and email. He said he's pleased the job was done on time and on budget.

"It became clear to me that the Washington Monument symbolizes many things for our country - the freedoms, patriotism, George Washington, leadership," he said. "So it's been moving to see how many people are affected by it."

During an early look at the restored monument, Rubenstein hiked to the top, taking the stairs in a suit and tie. Memorial plaques inside the monument from each state seemed to be clean and intact, and the view "is really spectacular," he said.

The billionaire co-CEO of The Carlyle Group has been urging other philanthropists to engage in what he calls "patriotic philanthropy." In time, he predicts more philanthropists will make similar gifts. Rubenstein is co-chair of a campaign to raise funds to help restore the National Mall, serves as a regent of the Smithsonian Institution and is chairman of the Kennedy Center. He has also made major gifts to the National Archives and Library of Congress.

Some damaged marble was replaced with salvaged material or stone from the same Maryland quarry as the monument's original marble. The replacement stone had been saved from the steps of old Baltimore row houses.

The monument was built in two phases between 1848 and 1884. When it was completed, it was the world's tallest structure for five years until it was eclipsed by the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The monument remains the world's tallest freestanding stone structure.

It normally draws about 700,000 visitors a year. The National Park Service will offer extended hours to visit the monument beginning Tuesday and through the summer from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day. Tickets can be reserved online at Recreation.gov.

Visiting the top has been a highlight for millions of people over the decades during tours of the nation's capital, said Caroline Cunningham, president of the nonprofit Trust for the National Mall, which is working to raise private funds to support the national park. The monument is expected to draw big crowds this year.

"The American people really gravitate to the Washington Monument," Cunningham said. "George Washington being our leader, it connects them to their country in a very personal way."

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