Lincoln Memorial (and Statue of Lincoln)

This monument to one of America's most significant presidents is also an iconic DC landmark.

The Lincoln Memorial, designed after the temples of ancient Greece, is America's foremost memorial to its 16th president. In addition to being a prominent work of neoclassical architecture, the monument also serves as the formal terminus to the extended Mall in accordance with the McMillan Commission's plan for Washington's monumental core.

The Memorial, constructed with a Colorado-Yule marble exterior and an Indiana limestone interior, appears as a majestic peripteral Greek temple. 36 fluted Doric columns represent the 36 states in the Union at the time of Lincoln's death, with two additional columns at the entrance behind the colonnade for 38 overall. 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, which would have resulted in a far less restrained memorial. Subscriptions for the project were insufficient, however, and the plan 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, 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 as either too swampy or too inaccessible. Other sites, such as Union Station, were suggested, but the Commission stood firm in its recommendation. As such, the memorial today stands as an icon on the axis of the Washington Monument and the Capitol, overlooking the Potomac River.

DC Inventory: November 8, 1964
National Register: October 15, 1966 (documented March 24, 1981)

Images

Map

The Lincoln Memorial stands at the foot of 23rd Street, N.W., in West Potomac Park near the east bank of the Potomac River and in line with the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument. It is bordered by Constitution and Independence Avenues on the north and south and by the Reflecting Pool on the east.