District of Columbia: Lincoln Memorial Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This memorial honors Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), the president during the Civil War (1861-1865) who fought to preserve the nation. His leadership contributed to the victory of the Union and the abolition of slavery. The memorial’s construction took ten years, and it is considered an architectural masterpiece. The memorial has become a symbol for freedom, unification, and equality.

Site Office

National Capital Parks-Central

The National Mall

900 Ohio Drive SW

Washington, DC 20242

ph.: (202) 426-6841

Web site: www.nps.gov/linc/

Standing as a tribute to President Abraham Lincoln, the Lincoln Memorial was built as a permanent memory to the man who saved the Union and abolished slavery. As early as 1867, discussions began about a permanent memorial in memory of Lincoln to be located in the nation’s capital. After years of debate as to the design of the memorial and its exact location, Henry Bacon was chosen as architect, and construction began in 1914. The memorial, located at the west end of the Mall in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in 1922 and is modeled after the Greek Parthenon.

Construction

Beginning in 1867, citizens and congressmen alike urged the construction of a shrine to honor the martyred president, Abraham Lincoln. Many ideas circulated about the appearance of the memorial and the best location for such a structure. Although some funds were raised for the construction, agreement on the style and location could not be reached. There was always agreement that some type of memorial should be constructed, but the ideas varied greatly.

Finally, on February 12, 1911, Lincoln’s birthday, President William Howard Taft signed the bill that created a commission to choose a site and begin construction of a memorial to Lincoln. The Lincoln Memorial Commission decided that somewhere along the National Mall, a spacious expanse of grass and trees stretching from Capitol Hill to the Potomac River, would be appropriate. They decided that the ideal spot would be at the west end of the Mall, across from the Washington Monument. The commission selected Henry Bacon as architect of the monument. Bacon imagined a shining Greek temple of white marble containing a statue of Lincoln. Inside, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, along with his second inaugural address, would be carved on opposite walls. The commission agreed with Bacon’s ideas and on February 12, 1914, ground was broken for the Lincoln Memorial.

The building was to rest on what once was swampland. The land had earlier been drained and filled, but caution had to be taken when constructing such a massive structure. Therefore, a foundation had to be built. The foundation was completed in the spring of 1915, and work began on the main structure. With the United States’ entry into World War I in April of 1917, construction on the memorial slowed due to shortages of material and labor. Work also began on the area surrounding the memorial, including landscape that consisted of roadways, walks, shrubs, and trees. Terraces surrounding the monument were built. The Reflecting Pool, which stretches between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, was also constructed at this time.

The main structure was built in the form of a Greek temple, with openings in the sides and thirty-six fluted Doric columns around the perimeter. As a tribute to the Union that Lincoln helped preserve, the columns represent the thirty-six states that made up the nation at the time of Lincoln’s death. The names of those states are listed on the frieze above the columns. Above those are listed the forty-eight states that made up the nation at the time the memorial was completed. Alaska and Hawaii, added to the union later, are represented by a plaque on the front steps.

The interior of the building is divided into three sections by fifty-foot-high columns. The center section contains the statue of Lincoln, and the two side sections contain murals created by Jules Guerin. On the left wall of the left section is the engraving of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and on the right wall of the right section is engraved his second inaugural address, just as Bacon originally envisioned. The two murals by Guerin were created to represent Lincoln’s causes of unification and emancipation. The mural titled Unification hangs over the Inaugural Address, and Emancipation hangs over the Gettysburg Address.

The Statue

The Lincoln Memorial Commission selected Daniel Chester French in December of 1914 to design the statue of Lincoln for the memorial. French, who was chair of the Commission of Fine Arts at the time, resigned his position when he was appointed to create the statue. The Commission of Fine Arts would later have to approve French’s design for the statue of Lincoln. French felt that a seated figure would be most appropriate, and he studied many photographs of Lincoln to find the exact features. He also studied the Volk Mask, a plaster impression that was made of Lincoln’s face, hands, and torso by sculptor Leonard Volk in 1860. From these molds, French was able to learn many details of Lincoln’s appearance that were not found in photographs.

French decided to depict Lincoln as he looked during his presidency. He felt that this would best capture the spirit of Lincoln during the Civil War. French and Bacon also decided that the statue should be ten feet tall. In June of 1915, French completed his first basic drawings of the statue. More detailed drawings to create Lincoln’s exact positions were done in the following months. In 1916 the Commission of Fine Arts approved French’s design.

French and Bacon later realized that the statue would be lost in the massive memorial and decided that a larger one would be needed. French designed a new statue to be nineteen feet high, nearly double the size of the original. Although the foundation of the memorial was completed by this time, it would now be necessary to reinforce the floor to accommodate the added weight of the larger statue. Steel struts were added beneath the floor to support the weight.

The stonecutting firm of Piccirilli Brothers was selected to carve the statue. The cost of the statue, made solely of Georgia white marble, would be $46,000, and the pedestal would cost another $15,000. The cutting of the marble began in the fall of 1918. Twenty-eight identical blocks would be needed to complete the statue. The carving was finished in November, 1919, and work immediately began on assembling the blocks. By May of 1920, the statue was complete. For several more years, French worked on the exact lighting for the statue, which was accomplished by placing lights in the ceiling.

The statue depicts Lincoln seated in a thronelike chair that sits on top of a pedestal. He appears to be at rest, in a pensive pose. His coat is unbuttoned and his hands are resting on the arms of the chair. His facial expression is one of contemplation. He is calm, but his body is erect and his head held high. There is sorrow in his eyes, as if he is reflecting on the terrible tragedies of war. On the wall behind Lincoln, the following inscription appears: “In this Temple, as in the hearts of the people, for whom he saved the union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”

Dedication

The dedication of the Lincoln Memorial took place on Memorial Day, May 30, 1922, and it was a grand affair. Some 50,000 people attended the dedication, of whom 3,500 were invited guests. Robert Todd Lincoln, the only surviving child of Abraham Lincoln, was the guest of honor. Chief Justice William Howard Taft, who as president created the Lincoln Memorial Commission, was a notable guest. President Warren G. Harding was on hand formally to accept the memorial on behalf of the American people, and he delivered a speech praising the importance of the memorial not only for the people of the present but for future generations as well. A public address system was installed so that the large crowd could hear the proceedings. The ceremony was also broadcast nationally over radio, which was quite exciting because at that time radio was still in its infancy. Dr. Robert Russa Moton, president of Tuskegee Institute, presented the main address and spoke of the gratitude his fellow African Americans felt toward Lincoln, and of the responsibility that comes with freedom. Wallace Radcliffe, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church–the church attended by Lincoln when he was president–delivered the invocation. Following the ceremonies the crowd flocked inside to marvel at the beautiful structure.

Materials and Size

The exterior of the building is made of Colorado Yule marble, while the interior walls and columns are Indiana limestone. The ceiling is Alabama marble, and the floor is Tennessee Pink marble. Tennessee marble was used for the pedestal and platform for the statue, and the statue itself is carved from white Georgia marble. The building is 188 feet high, 118 feet wide, and 99 feet tall. The height of the columns in the colonnade is forty-four feet, and their diameter is seven feet, five inches at the base. Each interior column is fifty feet high and five feet, six inches in diameter. The murals are each sixty feet long by twelve feet high. The total cost of constructing the Lincoln Memorial was $2.9 million.

After seventy-five years of exposure of the two murals by Guerin to the elements, work was begun in 1995 to restore their original vibrancy by slowly removing the buildup of dirt and by stabilizing cracked and flaking layers in the paintings. The National Park Service, which assumed jurisdiction over the memorial in 1933, sponsored the project. Because of fluctuations in temperature and moisture, the paintings, which were done in oil paint on canvas, began to show cracks. The cost of the restoration project was $407,000.

A Symbol for Freedom and Equality

Large numbers of people visit the Lincoln Memorial annually to reflect on the spirit of Lincoln and the ideals for which he stood. The memorial became a symbol for freedom and equality, especially for African Americans wishing to use Lincoln’s memory in their pursuit of equality and civil rights. On Easter Sunday, 1939, Marian Anderson, a vocalist, used the Lincoln Memorial for a concert when she was denied use of Constitution Hall because she was black. It has been used more than one hundred times for various civil rights rallies, most notably in 1963 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the monument.

For Further Information
  • Alexander, C. F. “Memorials Pose Preservation Challenges (The Restoration of the Lincoln Memorial).” Architecture 83, no. 11 (November, 1994): 151. Discusses preservation needs of the Lincoln Monument.
  • Bodnar, John. Remaking America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992. Social history that explores public memory, commemoration, and patriotism in the twentieth century.
  • Goode, James M. The Outdoor Sculpture of Washington, D.C. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1974. A comprehensive historical guide to the architecture and sculpture of Washington, D.C.
  • Redway, Maurine Whorton, and Dorothy Kendall Bracken. Marks of Lincoln on Our Land. New York: Hastings House, 1957. Describes the many monuments and shrines of Lincoln that have been erected across the United States.
  • Sandage, Scott A. “A Marble House Divided: The Lincoln Memorial, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Politics of Memory, 1939-1963.” Journal of American History 80, no. 1 (June, 1993): 135-167.
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