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An exclusive look inside the newly restored Washington Monument

Washington Monument set to reopen Thursday
A special look inside the newly restored Washington Monument, set to reopen Thursday 04:20

In our series "American Wonders," we're exploring places that make America wonderful, from majestic natural landscapes to spectacular man-made creations. This morning, we're in the heart of the nation's capital, where the Washington Monument is set to reopen to the public Thursday.

It's a symbol of America, instantly recognizable — 100,000 tons of pure marble, anchored into bedrock right below "the swamp." Once the tallest structure in the world, with sweeping views of centers of power like the Capitol and Pentagon, the Washington Monument brought a bird's-eye view of some of America's biggest moments .

The monument was closed for most of the last 10 years because of earthquake damage and then elevator repairs -- but it reopens Thursday. "CBS This Morning" cameras were allowed up for a special first look Wednesday, the first time a network has ever broadcast live from the top.

"It's an icon of this country," said Jeff Reinbold, National Mall superintendent. "And it's central to so many people's visit to D.C."

Washington's centerpiece sat shuttered after a rare East Coast earthquake rattled the region in 2011, raining rocks on the dozens of visitors who survived more than two terrifying minutes at the observation deck, 500 feet up. Everyone got out alive, but the more-than-century-old monument didn't escape unscathed

Engineers repelled off the top, providing a heart-pounding look down, and what they found scared the Park Service enough to close the attraction to tourists and trigger a $15 million restoration project. 

Construction along the edge of the Washington Monument CBS News

It was a monumental task to fix the massive marble obelisk with 36,000 separate stones, some cracked so badly the sun shone right in. 

Three years later, the monument was back open, but it didn't last. In 2016, a cable snapped in the monument's aging elevator and for three more years, no tourists could reach the top. Now, with some updates to the elevator, and a new security screening facility at the base, Washington's best view is again ready for visitors. And Reinbold doesn't expect the doors to close again anytime soon.

"They will stay open, and we look forward to probably 500,000 people or so a year," Reinbold said.

But reopening the monument took one thing the park service didn't have: money. So billionaire philanthropist David Rubenstein stepped in. He poured more than $10 million into shoring up the soaring stone structure — and Rubenstein invited us along the ceremonial first ride up the refurbished elevator.

The view from the top of the Washington Monument CBS News

"If you could build condominiums this high, you could pay for the entire U.S. debt," Rubenstein said.

Rubenstein led us even higher, another 19 feet up a ladder to the elevator's engine room.

"And as part of this project that Mr. Rubenstein paid for was the refurbishment of this equipment," Reinbold said.

For Rubenstein, preserving this monument was essential for all of us.

The sun shines on the Washington Monument CBS News

"I came from very modest circumstances, and I got very lucky in this country," Rubenstein said. "So I don't really regard it as a great gift by myself but really as a thank you to America."

Restoring an American wonder — and confidence that Washington can again reach its heights.

The public can go up again starting Thursday, but you'll need tickets. The National Park Service only lets up a little over 100 people an hour, although once you're up here, you're free to stay for the rest of the day.

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