The Memorial, constructed with a Colorado-Yule marble exterior and an Indiana limestone interior, appears as a majestic peripteral Greek temple, 189'8" long, 118'6" wide, and 99' tall. It is surrounded by a peristyle of 38 fluted Doric columns, one for each of the 36 states in the Union at the time of Lincoln's death, and two columns in-antis at the entrance behind the colonnade. These columns are 44' tall with a base diameter of 7'5". Each column is composed of 12 drums including the capitals. The columns, like the exterior walls and facades, are inclined slightly toward the building's interior. This is to compensate for perspective distortions which would otherwise make the Memorial appear asymmetrical.
Above the colonnade inscribed on the frieze are the names of the 36 states and the dates in which they entered the Union. Their names are separated by double wreath medallions in bas-relief. The cornice is composed of a carved scroll regularly interspersed with projecting lions' heads and ornamented with palmetto cresting along the upper edge. Above this on the attic frieze, are inscribed the names of the 48 states present at the time of the dedication. A bit higher is a garland joined by ribbons and palm leaves, supported by the wings of eagles. All ornamentation on the friezes and cornices was done by Ernest C. Bairstow.
Abraham Lincoln has long stood in the minds of the American people as a symbol of honesty, integrity, and humanity. Although a national monument to him was not raised until the 20th century, demands for a fitting memorial had been voiced since the time of his death. In 1867, Congress heeded these demands and passed the first of many bills incorporating a commission to erect a monument to Lincoln. An American, Clarke Mills, was chosen to design the structure. His plans reflected the bombastic nationalistic spirit of the age. His design called for a 70' structure adorned with six equestrian and 31 pedestrian statues of colossal proportions, crowned by a 12' statue of Lincoln. Fortunately, subscriptions for the project were insufficient and it collapsed.
The matter lay dormant until the turn of the century when, under the leadership of Senator Shelby M. Cullom of Illinois, six separate bills were introduced to Congress for the incorporation of a new Memorial Commission. The first five bills, proposed in the years 1901, 1902, and 1908, met with defeat; however, the final bill (Senate Bill 9449), introduced on December 13, 1910, passed. The Lincoln Memorial Commission had its first meeting the following year and President William H. Taft was chosen as president. Things progressed at a steady pace and by 1913 Congress had approved of the Commission's choice of design and location. This approval was far from unanimous, however. Many thought that architect Henry Bacon's Greek temple design was far too ostentatious for a man of Lincoln's humble character. Instead they proposed a simple log cabin shrine. The site too did not go unopposed. The recently reclaimed land in Potomac Park was seen by many to be either too swampy or too inaccessible. Other sites, such as Union Station, were put forth. The Commission stood firm in its recommendation though, feeling that the Potomac Park location, situated on the Washington Monument-U.S. Capitol axis, overlooking the Potomac River and surrounded by open land, was an ideal site. Furthermore, the Potomac Park site had already been designated in the McMillan Plan of 1901 to be the location of a future monument comparable to that of the Washington Monument.
DC listing November 8, 1964
National Register listing October 15, 1966 (documented March 24, 1981)