Inside a Greek-style temple, a 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln looks out over Washington, D.C. Above him are the words, “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”
Some say that the grandeur of Abraham Lincoln’s memorial does not suit his style; he was a modest man – why immortalize him in a 99-foot tall Greek temple? But supporters celebrate his grand achievements. Shortly after Abraham Lincoln became US President, several states seceded from the Union. Before his presidency ended, Lincoln saw his country through civil war, preserved its union, and passed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.
The President was assassinated in 1865 just six days after the Confederate General Lee surrendered. Congress formed the Lincoln Monument Association two years later. However, they did not choose the site in West Potomac Park until 1901. It was 1911 before they appropriated funds; President Taft approved a bill for $2 million. (The memorial’s final cost was $1 million more.) In February of 1914, on Lincoln’s birthday, the first stones were set. The white marble memorial was completed in 1922. It was dedicated on Memorial Day that year, 57 years after the president’s death. Tens of thousands of people were in attendance, including many veterans from the Civil War.
The work was the collective effort of an architect and several artists. The New York architect named Henry Bacon designed the building. He chose a Doric Greek style, much like the Temple of Zeus in Olympia, Greece, complete with the traditional 36 columns. After constructing the columns, he realized that there had also been 36 states in the nation at the time of Lincoln’s death. He then had each column engraved with a state name, and added above them the names of all 48 states that existed by 1922. (Alaska and Hawaii were later mentioned on an inscription leading to the memorial.) The building is massive, with each column measuring more than 23 feet around its base.
From inside the stone building, Lincoln gazes out over the Reflecting Pool and toward the Washington Monument. His larger-than-life figure appears to be a continuous piece of marble, but it’s actually made of 28 interlocking blocks carved by the artist Daniel French. Several types of marble are used throughout the monument, perhaps to symbolize Lincoln’s force for unity; stone is used from Indiana, Colorado, Georgia and Tennessee. One marble wall features an inscription of the President’s famous Gettysburg Address. Another displays his second inaugural speech. The memorial also has murals entitled “Emancipation” and “Union” by Jules Guerin. Ernest Bairstow and Evelyn Longman also contributed to the memorial’s carvings.
The building has been used as a backdrop for events related to civil rights. In 1939, the African American singer Marian Anderson was told by the Daughters of the American Revolution that she would not sing to an integrated crowd at Washington, D.C.’s Confederate Hall. Eleanor Roosevelt, who immediately resigned her own DAR membership, suggested the Lincoln Memorial as a stage. Anderson opened her act with “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. This was also the scene of Vietnam protests and the Million Man March.
The memorial is staffed from 8 a.m. to midnight every day but Christmas. The lower level of the monument houses a bookstore, restrooms, and the Lincoln Museum, which was funded with pennies from schoolchildren. At night, spotlights illuminate the outside of the Lincoln Memorial. The lights seep inside and cast shadows across Lincoln’s face for a spectacular view.