DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right. The Washington Monument is reopening to the public today after more than three years of construction on a new security facility and visitor elevator. Mikaela LeFrak from member station WAMU paid a visit.
MIKAELA LEFRAK, BYLINE: The Washington Monument is one of the country's most recognizable landmarks. But indulge me while I describe it anyway. It's a 555-foot-tall gray stone obelisk that towers over every other building in the nation's capital. The view from the top is breathtaking. But before you can see it, you've got to go through security.
SEAN KENNEALY: You guys can start - you guys can come in. Guys, you just kind of step over here. Stay clear of these doors.
LEFRAK: I'm ushered in, along with a small group of journalists, by Sean Kennealy. He oversaw construction on the new security screening facility for the National Park Service.
UNIDENTIFIED PARK RANGER: Bags right on the right on the (unintelligible).
LEFRAK: After we passed through an X-ray machine, a U.S. Park Police officer unlocks a thick metal door and waves us into a holding room that feels like a bank vault.
KENNEALY: So this is what's called the interlock. So now this is the truly safe area.
LEFRAK: Kennealy says the new facility replaces a temporary one they built after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Past another set of heavy doors is the elevator up to the observation deck. It's a beautiful view, Kennealy says. But...
KENNEALY: Through those windows, you have a huge vantage point to do harm. So that's why we have those series of doors so there's no way that a coordinated effort could be made by a group of terrorists.
LEFRAK: After a few minutes, we're freed from the interlock room and board the elevator. After the 500-foot ride, we get off at the observation deck. National Park Service spokesman Mike Litterst is there, peering out one of the windows. It's a bit cloudy, but you can still see pretty much every national landmark in the city.
MIKE LITTERST: You are looking directly down the line at the Capitol, the White House, the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial. I mean, you could not have laid this out any better.
LEFRAK: Billionaire philanthropist David Rubenstein is looking out another window. He donated $3 million to the Washington Monument for the elevator modernization. He's a household name in the District. He earned his fortune as the co-founder of The Carlyle Group, a private equity investment company. He's given to institutions all over the city, many of which he can see from the observation deck.
DAVID RUBENSTEIN: I'm the chairman of the Smithsonian. We're now trying to redo the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, and then the Air and Space Museum is being redone.
LEFRAK: The National Park Service has an $11 billion maintenance backlog, so it often turns to private donors for help. Rubenstein says not many people are aware that most national monuments in Washington were built with private funds.
RUBENSTEIN: I've been surprised at how hard I've had a time in convincing other philanthropists to give to these kind of projects as opposed to education, medical research.
LEFRAK: We head back down in the elevator, and the park ranger from the video bids us goodbye.
UNIDENTIFIED PARK RANGER: Thank you for visiting the Washington Monument. Enjoy the rest of your stay in Washington, D.C. Goodbye. Adios. Au revoir. Auf Wiedersehen. Sayonara.
LEFRAK: For NPR News, I'm Mikaela Lefrak in Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARKUS RUTZ'S "THE MUSICIANER")
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