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.
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