The towering symbol that honors the nation's first president reopened to the public Monday, nearly three years after an earthquake cracked and chipped the 130-year-old stone obelisk.
After fences were dismantled and construction equipment removed, the Washington Monument drew a cross-section of Americans who wanted to be among to first visit the newly reopened historic site.
A Mormon missionary, a new graduate from Howard University, two health care workers from Georgia and others were among those gathered Monday. For many of them, it was their first chance to see the 555-foot-tall monument's interior and the nation's capital from its highest point.
"I've seen pictures of it, but I've never been here to see it,'' said Brandon Hillock, 22, from near Salt Lake City, visiting after a two-year Mormon mission in Virginia. "It's really cool to come here and experience what this is all about and the history behind it.''
Engineers have spent nearly 1,000 days conducting an extensive analysis and restoration of what was once the tallest structure in the world. A 5.8-magnitude quake in August 2011 caused widespread damage. It shook some stones loose and caused more than 150 cracks. From massive scaffolding built around the monument after the quake, engineers and stone masons made repairs stone by stone.
Now, new exhibits have been installed at the top, and visitors can once again ride an elevator to look out over the National Mall. The National Park Service is offering extended hours through the summer for daytime and evening visits. Tickets can be reserved online, but they're already booked into June.
Some of the first visitors said they came to experience the monument's historic symbolism, which dates back to its early construction before the Civil War and was later finished in 1884.
Kourtney Butler of Miami just graduated from Howard University, but the monument has been closed and under construction for most of her four years living in Washington.
"I wanted to get a chance to see it,'' she said. "I really like the monuments and the national mall. I think I've been to all the Smithsonian museums and art exhibits. So it was the last one I hadn't seen.''
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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 that 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.
During the monument's restoration, the AP had a look at some of the worst damage from the 500-foot level. Stones were chipped and cracked all the way through with deep gashes in some places. Others had hairline cracks that had to be sealed.
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.''