For more than 100 years, no national memorial had been contemplated for any president except George Washington, yet talk of building one to honor the monumental legacy left by Abraham Lincoln began even as he lingered on his deathbed. There was an obvious appropriateness to the concept that Lincoln, the preserver of the Union, should join Washington, the founder of that Union, in being honored on the National Mall.
On this episode of America’s National Parks, the Lincoln Memorial, part of the National Mall and Memorial Parks in Washington D.C.
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In 1867, Congress passed the first of many bills establishing a commission to erect a monument for the sixteenth president. Sculptor Clark Mills was chosen to design the monument. His plans called for a 70-foot structure adorned with six equestrian and 31 massive pedestrian statues, crowned by a 12-foot statue of Lincoln.
The project couldn’t raise enough funds, and the plans went by the wayside until the start of the 20th century, when six separate bills were introduced in Congress for the incorporation of a new memorial commission. The first five bills were met with defeat. Remember, the country was still deeply wounded from the Civil War, and Lincoln, to many, was still derided. Nor was it American nature to diefy presidents at the time. The sixth bill, introduced on December 13, 1910, passed. The Lincoln Memorial Commission had its first meeting the following year, led by President Taft. By 1913 Congress had approved of the Commission’s choice of design and location.
Architect Henry Bacon was chosen to design the memorial. His Greek temple design was far too outrageous for some, who instead proposed a humble log cabin shrine. But Bacon prevailed. Until the late 1800s, the current site of the Lincoln Memorial did not exist and the Washington Monument marked the shoreline of the Potomac River. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deepened the river, the dredged silt deposited along its banks expanded the land to its current configuration. The reclaimed land was proposed as the site for a memorial
With Congressional approval and a $300,000 allocation, the project got underway. On February 12, 1914, a dedication ceremony was conducted and the following month the actual construction began. Work progressed steadily according to schedule. Some changes were made to the plan. The statue of Lincoln, originally designed to be 10 feet (3.0 m) tall, was enlarged to 19 feet (5.8 m) to prevent it from being overwhelmed by the huge chamber. As late as 1920, the decision was made to substitute an open portal for the bronze and glass grille which was to have guarded the entrance. Despite these changes, the Memorial was finished on schedule. Commission president William H. Taft – who was then Chief Justice of the United States – dedicated the Memorial on May 30, 1922, and presented it to United States President Warren G. Harding, who accepted it on behalf of the American people. Lincoln’s only surviving son, 78-year-old Robert Todd Lincoln, was in attendance.
The Lincoln Memorial is almost an unworldly sight. Entering its presence quite literally can make your knees weak. To talk about his first time seeing the effigy, here’s Ranger Thomas Downs.
Jason – The Memorial’s interior is divided into three chambers by two rows of four Ionic columns. The north and south chambers display carved inscriptions of Lincoln’s second inaugural address and the Gettysburg Address.
Lying between the north and south chambers is the central hall containing the 19’ tall statue of Lincoln sitting in contemplation. The statue was carved by the Piccirilli Brothers under the supervision of the sculptor Daniel Chester French. It took four years to complete. Made of Georgia white marble, it weighs 175 tons and was shipped in twenty-eight pieces.
The Memorial is full with symbolic elements. The 36 columns represent the states of the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death; the 48 stone festoons above the columns represent the 48 states in 1922. With more, here’s Ranger Robert Healy JR
When the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in 1922, the United States, although torn by the Civil War, felt unified as never before. Citizens of the North and South had fought together in a World War. They had shared the bloodshed and then the victory. As a result, the dedication ceremony celebrated, even reveled in the message of unity proclaimed by this memorial. Yet, as the ceremony exalted one thing, it largely overlooked another. Aside from the Union veterans in the soldiers’ section, those attending the 1922 dedication ceremony were segregated along racial lines. It seems that some of the people who dedicated the building failed to dedicate themselves to its full meaning. Some may have chosen to forget the meaning of equality represented here, but the memorial remained steadfast in its advocacy for equality.
The memorial would continue to echo truths about America’s racial relations through the years, and Ranger Gilbert Lyons lived through much of it.
Martin Luther King’s I HAVE A DREAM speech is the most memorable event to happen at the Lincoln Memorial – one of the most important events in American history. But years before, in 1939, singer Marian Anderson was denied the right to perform at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution because of her color. Instead, and at the urging of Eleanor Roosevelt, she was permitted to perform at the Lincoln Memorial, in front of a crowd of thousands, including President Roosevelt. Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Dr King, are all set to appear on the back the newly re-designed $5 bill, which should be printed in the coming years. Lincoln will continue to grace its front.