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Washington Monument to reopen for tours after nearly 3 years of repairs since earthquake

In this Friday, May 9, 2014 photo, visitors sit on the grass in front of the Washington Monument after the fencing which closed it off to the public during renovations was removed, in Washington. The monument, which sustained damage from an earthquake in August 2011, will re-open to the public on Monday, May 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

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In this Friday, May 9, 2014 photo, visitors sit on the grass in front of the Washington Monument after the fencing which closed it off to the public during renovations was removed, in Washington. The monument, which sustained damage from an earthquake in August 2011, will re-open to the public on Monday, May 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

WASHINGTON - More than 150 cracks have been repaired, rainwater leaks have been sealed, and the 130-year-old Washington Monument is set to reopen Monday for the first time in nearly three years since an earthquake caused widespread damage.

The memorial honouring George Washington has been closed for about 33 months for engineers to conduct an extensive analysis and restoration of the 555-foot stone obelisk that was once the tallest structure in the world.

The monument's white marble and mortar were cracked and shaken loose during an unusual 5.8-magnitude earthquake in August 2011 that sent some of the worst vibrations to the top. Debris fell inside and outside the monument, and visitors scrambled to evacuate. Later, engineers evaluated the damage by rappelling from the top, dangling from ropes.

Now new exhibits have been installed, and visitors can once again ride an elevator to look out from the highest point in the nation's capital. 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's been surprised how much the monument means to people from across the country who have written him letters and emails. 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 to the stairs in a suit and tie. Memorial plaques inside the monument from each state seemed to be clean and intact, and the view from the top "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.

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 seasonal 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 non-profit 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."

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Follow Brett Zongker at https://twitter.com/DCArtBeat

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