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D.C. monument closing for overhaul

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People queued up around the Washington Monument, the capital's centerpiece, for a last chance to go up to the tallest structure in the city before its marble blocks are wrapped in scaffolding and its doors closed for repair.

The make-over of the 110-year-old landmark begins Monday and will last until Independence Day 2000. But it will be closed to visitors only until late spring this year while a new elevator and heating, cooling and ventilation systems are installed. Visitors will not hamper other interior work or exterior repairs.Cracks in the 555-foot obelisk also will be patched and sealed, damaged stones repaired and the interior thoroughly cleaned in the $8 million project.

"I feel very lucky I'll be able to see it," said Cindy Engel, on her first visit to the monument, as she waited in line Saturday for a ticket to the top.

Like Engel, a medical technologist from Cape Canaveral, Fla., some visitors happened to be in Washington on business on the obelisk's last open weekend.

But unlike Engel, Rhode Island resident Mary Ann Slocomb, in Washington with her husband, who was attending a conference, did not know the landmark was about to close.

"I'm glad we didn't come here Monday or Tuesday," said Slocomb, a medical librarian who tried four years ago to go up the monument but gave up because it was too cold to wait for a ticket.

Erin Broadbent, site manager of the National Mall, said there has been no last-minute stampede of sightseers even though this will be the longest closure ever of the landmark. About 2,500 people have visited daily in the past few days, the monument's normal capacity.

Broadbent said the new repairs will make the monument more enjoyable for visitors because technicians will be able to regulate temperatures at the observation level, and the elevator - installed in 1959 - won't go "through its fits" so often as it does now.

"People should be much more comfortable throughout the year," Broadbent said.

The repair work, the monument's most extensive overhaul since it opened in 1888, will be done in three phases. Minneapolis-based Target discount stores has raised $5 million in a private corporate effort for the exterior work.

General Electric is developing a lighting system for nighttime illumination of scaffolding designed by architect Michael Graves. To be erected next June, the scaffolding and a transparent covering are designed to blend with the monument's exterior while allowing observers to see the memorial beneath the steel network.

The project involves sealing 500 feet of exterior and interior stone cracks, repairing 64,000 feet of exterior joints and 3,900 feet of interior joints, cleaning 59,000 square feet of interior walls, sealing the eight observation windows and eight red aircraft warning lights, repairing 1,000 square feet of chipped and patched stone and preserving and restoring 192 interior commemorative stones.

The deadline for completion: July 4, 2000.