About the Lincoln Memorial
The Lincoln Memorial suits its surroundings so well that it seems to have always been there. The city’s master designer, Pierre L’ Enfant, could hardly have imagined a better architectural anchor to the west end of the Mall, the grassy area he visualized between the Capitol Building and the Potomac River.
Behind the memorial to the west lies Arlington National Cemetery and the stately Lee-Custis Mansion; to the east you see the Washington Monument and Capitol Hill. The massive sculpture of Lincoln faces east toward a long reflecting pool. The peaceful atmosphere belies the years of disagreement over what kind of monument to build and where.
Help from Lincoln’s Friends
In 1910 two members of Congress joined forces to create a memorial which honored Lincoln. Shelby M. Cullom and Joseph G. Cannon, who had known Lincoln in Illinois, pushed through a Lincoln Memorial bill which President Taft signed on February 11, 1911. The bill created the Lincoln Memorial Commission to oversee the project and set aside $2 million in funds. The final cost, however, was $3 million.
Before the commission completed plans to build in what was known as the Potomac Flats, it considered various locations and memorial ideas which ranged from a highway to a huge pyramid. John Hay, one of Lincoln’s White House secretaries, promoted the Potomac location, saying that the monument should stand alone, distinguished, and serene.
On Memorial Day, May 30, 1922, the building was dedicated, 57 years after Lincoln died. About 50,000 people attended the ceremonies, including hundreds of Civil War veterans and Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s only surviving son. The main speakers were President Warren Harding, former President William Howard Taft, and Dr. Robert Moton, principal of the Tuskegee Institute, who delivered the keynote address.
New York architect Henry Bacon modeled the memorial in the style of a Greek temple. The classic design features 36 Doric columns outside, symbolizing the states in the Union at Lincoln’s death. The building measures 204 feet long, 134 feet wide, and 99 feet tall, with 44-foot columns. It blends stone from various states: white Colorado marble for the exterior, Indiana limestone for the interior walls, pink Tennessee marble for the floor, and Alabama marble for the ceiling.
Daniel Chester French, the leading American sculptor of the day, created the famous statue of Lincoln which dominates the interior. The memorial plans originally specified a 12-foot bronze statue, but it proved out of scale for the huge building. The finished statue is 19 feet tall, carved of 28 blocks of white Georgia marble. French later had special lighting installed to enhance the figure. Visitors sometimes ask if the hands have special significance (such as forming the letter “A” in sign language), but there is no indication French intended it.