Sept. 19 (UPI) -- For the first time in three years, the Washington Monument -- one of the nation's most popular and recognizable landmarks -- reopened to the public Thursday after extensive renovations.
The 555-foot tall monument to George Washington, the first president of the United States, had been closed since August 2016 so crews could update its elevator system and construct a new security screening facility. The decision to close the world-famous obelisk for three years followed repeated trouble with its elevator system.
After 37 months, and for the first time during President Donald Trump's administration, the marble and granite structure reopened Thursday morning. First lady Melania Trump attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the occasion and took a ceremonial ride to the top.
The National Park Service decided in December 2016 to close the monument after computer problems affected the elevator and trapped two employees and a visitor for about 40 minutes. Another NPS employee was also trapped the next day.
As it sees more than a half-million visitors every year, the monument was closed and officials cited the elevator's "ongoing reliability issues" as its chief concern. The lift was nearly 20 years old and was still using outdated mechanical and electrical systems.
"We have not been able to determine the causes," NPS spokesman Mike Litterst said at the time. "We have made the difficult decision not to reopen the Washington Monument until we can modernize the elevator control system.
"it's a long-term closure -- one that will be measured in months."
There are 900 stairs that run to the top of the monument, but they have been closed to the public since 1976.
The most noticeable change visitors will notice is the new security post at the base of the monument -- which replaces a temporary checkpoint that was placed there after the terrorist attacks in 2001. Made of glass and steel, the security room is blast-proof and features X-ray machines and magnetometers, similar to those at U.S. airports.
Visitors must pass through an "interlock room," which resembles a bank vault, and wait for entrance into the elevator room.
"There's no way that a coordinated effort could be made by a group of terrorists to come into the monument," Sean Kennealy, chief of the professional services division for the Park Service's National Mall and Memorial Parks, said.
"Through [the observation deck] windows, you have a huge vantage point to do harm."
The new security checkpoint cost nearly $8 million and was funded by the NPS budget. The new elevator cost $3 million, which was donated by Maryland billionaire David Rubenstein.
Since it's dedication in 1885, the Washington Monument has undergone a number of renovations. Many of the most recent updates focused on the elevator.
An original steam-powered elevator was replaced in 1901 with an electric model. After the National Park Service was granted authority over the obelisk, it began a restoration in 1934 -- a process repeated in 1964 and 1998. The latter took four years to complete.
The monument has been closed for much of the decade. A three-year updating project was ordered after the structure was damaged by a 5.8-magnitude earthquake in 2011. Those repairs cost about $15 million and involved 500 tons of scaffolding.
When it opened in 1888, the Washington Monument was the tallest structure in the world -- a distinction it held for about a year before it was surpassed by the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It remains, however, the tallest building in Washington, D.C.