IWALKED WASHINGTON D.C.’S LINCOLN MEMORIAL
The Lincoln Memorial pays tribute to the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. It features a thirty foot tall monument of President Lincoln seated with a somber look on his face and his frock coat draped over the sides. The sculpture resides within a massive Greek temple constructed of a Colorado-Yule marble on the exterior and Indiana limestone for the columns. The front façade features thirty-six fluted Doric columns (one for each state at the time of Lincoln’s death in 1865). The name of each of these states resides above the individual columns. If you look for the state of “Wisconsin” you may notice a chip missing from its name. This chipping was a result of the lone shot fired by a soldier in Washington D.C. during World War II. The shot was actually an accidental fire by an individual situated atop the nearby Department of Interior Building.
Similar to the monument dedicated to our nation’s first president, the construction of the Lincoln Memorial was not without controversy or debate. Shortly after Lincoln’s assassination on April 15, 1865, plans were already being discussed to create an appropriate memorial to the leader who held together the United States during the Civil War. A tributary statue had already been erected in front of the District of Columbia City Hall (intersection of 4th and E Streets, NW) in 1868; however, a more expansive monument was desired. Congress formally authorized funds for development of a new memorial on December 13, 1910. Now all that remained was determining a design and site.
Multiple proposals were considered before the existing Greek Temple design was selected. Many felt the temple did not align with Lincoln’s “simple” roots and personality. Those individuals thought a log cabin similar to the one in which Lincoln was raised, would serve as a better representation. Then there were the automobile manufacturers who lobbied for a seventy-two mile highway that would stretch from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to the U.S. Capitol. Along the way there would be statues interspersed that depicted various figures of significance in U.S. history. Ultimately the Greek Temple design reigned supreme though and ground was broken on this selected site on February 12, 1914.
When architect Henry Bacon began work on his massive temple (a project that would sadly be the final one before his death in 1924) he quickly realized that the planned ten foot statue to reside within would appear insignificant to the structure he was creating. After having discussions with planned sculptor Daniel Chester French, the two agreed to double the size of the statue. Work began on the statue in 1920. Twenty-eight separate marble carved pieces would need to be subsequently assembled for completion of the monument. Each of the pieces was actually carved by the famed Piccirilli Brother family who worked under the supervisor of Daniel Chester French.
The Piccirilli Brothers were a family of renowned marble sculptors that consisted of the father Giuseppe and his six sons. Together they had worked on numerous famous sculptures throughout the United States. Their most famous individual effort was the USS Maine Monument in Central Park. Other collaborative works on which the Piccirilli Brothers contributed include the likes of the New York Stock Exchange pediment (1903), the Four Continent statues outside of the U.S. Custom House in New York City (1907), the Patience and Fortitude lions outside of the New York Public Library (1916) and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington D.C. (1931).
French held an equally impressive resume of public works prior to his involvement with the Lincoln Memorial. French received his first commission in 1875 at the age of twenty-three after having worked in the studio of famed sculptor Thomas Ball (who had designed the George Washington Equestrian statue in Boston’s Public Gardens). French’s commission was for the creation of The Minute Man statue located in Concord, Massachusetts. In the ensuing years French would continue to deliver numerous works, each of which would equally impress admirers. Just a few of his most noted works include the likes of the John Harvard Monument (Harvard Yard, Cambridge, MA, 1884), Abraham Lincoln (Nebraska State Capitol, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1912), George Robert White Memorial (Boston Public Garden, Boston, MA) and the Samuel Francis du Pont Memorial Fountain (Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C., 1921).
The resulting statue of Lincoln would tower nineteen feet high and weigh some one hundred seventy-five tons. It rests upon a pedestal of Tennessee marble that adds an additional ten feet to the sculpture. If the seated Lincoln were to rise from his perch it is said he would stand at a height of approximately twenty-eight feet tall.
Two legends or possible urban myths have long surrounded the resulting Daniel Chester French sculpture. One urban legend claims that if you look at the back of Lincoln’s head, the face of General Robert E. Lee may be seen peering out towards his former home in Arlington, Virginia. While this one is a bit difficult to ascertain, the second legend actually hold a bit more of a plausible basis. If you glance upwards towards the hands of Lincoln’s likeness, note how each of his hands is situated. It is said that Lincoln’s left hand is making the sign language symbol for the letter “A” while the right is signifying the letter “L.” Put the two together and you have Abraham Lincoln’s initials, “A.L.” While the National Park Service, who provides the official tours for this attraction dismisses this theory, it is intriguing to note that one of Daniel Chester French’s sons was deaf and thus he would have known sign language himself.
As to the unveiling of the Lincoln Memorial, it was formally dedicated on Memorial Day, May 30, 1922. The dedication was led by Supreme Court Chief Justice (and former 27th President of the United States) William Howard Taft. Ironically during the dedication of a memorial to the man who fought so hard versus racial segregation, blacks were separated from whites via a rope enclosure.
Surrounding the sculpture of you will find a series of murals and quotes from Lincoln. The two existing murals measure sixty by twelve feet each and entail a six hundred pound oil canvas that was painted by Jules Guerin. Along the south wall is the mural titled Emancipation. Here we see an angel with wings spread offering freedom to a slave by breaking its bonds or chains. Fitting with this theme, and just below the mural is a copy of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. On the opposite wall (on the north side of the memorial) is Guerin’s Unification mural. Here we see the unity of the North and South as joined by the Angel of Truth. Below this painting is Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, complete with spelling error. If you bear witness to the line, “With high hope for the future,” you may note that letter “f” in future was inadvertently carved into an “e.”
The Lincoln Monument has been site to multiple famous rallies and protests but none more famous than the “March on Washington” as led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on August 28, 1963. It was here that he delivered his famous “I Have A Dream Speech” to an estimated 200,000 listeners. King was awarded the Nobel Peace prize the following year for his efforts on the civil rights cause. Sadly he would be assassinated just a few years later in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. The site of Dr. King’s speech, however, was forever immortalized in 2003 (the 40th anniversary of the speech). The marker, is a bit inconspicuous though and easy to miss. Engraved within a landing that is eighteen steps from the top of the monument, is a marker where King supposedly stood to deliver his famous words of peace.
Address: Intersection of 23rd Street, SW and Independence Ave, SW, Washington, DC
IWalked Audio Tours To See This Site: Washington D.C’s The National Mall. (Coming Summer 2012.)