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Friday, June 7, 2013

The Lincoln Memorial

A monument as noble as the man.
In a city full to the brim almost with famous architectural landmarks, it would be precarious to claim that one stands apart from all the others. The Lincoln Memorial does not. But if our currency is any indication, it easily ranks with the White House and the Capitol in prestige. Of course, it's difficult to say whether this is a tribute more to the man or the monument. Inasmuch as the two are matched together on both our one-cent "penny" and our much-used five-dollar bill, it may well be a moot point in any case. Though less than a hundred years old, architect, Henry Bacon's Greek Doric tribute to our 16th president has taken its rightful place near the front of the pantheonic parade of monuments and memorials gracing our national mall. It has served as a standard of excellence in design and execution to be met by more recent arrivals--the Jefferson Memorial (1943), the Vietnam War Memorial (1982), the Korean War Veterans Memorial 1995), the FDR Memorial (1997), the World War II Memorial (2004), and most recently, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial (2011). If we keep building memorials at that pace, we may have to get a longer mall.

Daniel Chester French's Lincoln--larger than life (about three times larger).
Henry Bacon, architect
The Lincoln Memorial is a tribute to three men and three speeches. First and foremost among the men is Lincoln, himself--modest, forceful, compassionate, wise--the list of adjectives is nearly as long and noble as the man and the myths surrounding him. The other two men were more intimately associated with the Memorial itself--Henry Bacon, the architect, and Daniel Chester French, the sculptor whose iconic seated statue of Lincoln has become nearly as famous as the building housing it. Of the three speeches, two were by Lincoln and are carved on the interior walls of his memorial--his Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address. The third speech associated with the site is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered before a national civil rights rally in front of the memorial in 1963.


The Lincoln Memorial, 1914. Much of the building's foundation was built above
ground on what was, at the time, little more than reclaimed swampland.
Daniel Chester French, sculptor
The first Washington, DC, tribute to Lincoln went up barely two years after his death, an equestrian statue erected before the District of Columbia City Hall in 1867. Sculptor, Clark Mills, around 1875, proposed a more fitting tribute (to Victorian tastes, at least) a 70-foot tall structure with six equestrian statues and 31 pedestrian statues of Lincoln topped with still one more twelve-foot statue of the man. The man would have been embarrassed. Even for the Great Emancipator, that was a bit over the top. Donors agreed. The plan was scrapped for lack of funds. It wasn't until 1910 that a more rational approach gathered steam in Congress under the leadership of Illinois Senator Shelby Cullom, who finally succeeded in getting his bill authorizing the memorial passed after five failed attempts. By 1913, Congress had approved both the site and Bacon's design.

Lincoln is assembled. What?
You thought it was all one piece?
Work began in 1914. There were changes as the building came together. The statue of Lincoln grew from ten feet in height to nineteen. A bronze and glass set of doors was scrapped in favor of an open portal making French's statue of Lincoln visible from a great distance. The work was dedicated in 1922 by Chief Justice William Howard Taft (a former president), President Warren G. Harding, and Lincoln's only surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln (then 79 years of age). Remarkably, the memorial was finished on time and on budget ($300,000), something that's not happened in Washington since.

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