The Lincoln Memorial, designed by architect Henry Bacon in 1913, is sited at the south edge of the National Mall along the bank of the Potomac River. It is visually aligned on an east/west axis with the Washington Monument, the World War II Memorial and the United States Capitol. There are unforgettable vistas both to the east and west from the Memorial. The Lincoln Memorial has become legendary – in fact it appears in well over 300 movies including Forest Gump, National Treasure, Philomena, The Wedding Crasher, The Firm and many, many more.
The siting of the Memorial was controversial. Originally this area was mired in muddy water – though plans were underway to solve the problem. Before the reclamation / infill work was completed, the Lincoln Memorial sat alone and somewhat inaccessible in a large mucky field for years. Citizens were horrified at the sight.
However, The Reflecting pool located between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial is the result of this successful reclamation / infill project that eventually created Lower Potomac Park. Since those early days many more memorials have been added near the Lincoln Memorial including The Korea War Memorial and The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Arlington National Cemetery is just one-half mile away, across Memorial Bridge to the west.
The Monument is dedicated to our 16th President who was assassinated in 1865. It is 99 feet tall and there are 36 Doric columns around the perimeter representing each of the states in Union when Lincoln died. The names of these states appear above the columns. More state names were added on the topmost level. When the Memorial was dedicated in 1922 all 48 states were represented. In 1959 Alaska and Hawaii joined the Union and their names were added in the plaza in front of the memorial.
The Memorial, open to the elements, is comprised of Tennessee, Alabama and Colorado marble. Lighting is achieved by floodlights concealed behind thin sheets of marble and metal slats in the ceiling panels. There are 58 steps up to the Lincoln Memorial, 2 for his terms as President plus 56 for the age when he died. On the most prominent landing leading to the interior chamber is an inscription dedicated to Martin Luther King, jr. who delivered his I Have A Dream speech from that landing in 1963.
The interior of the Memorial is dominated by a 19-foot-tall-seated statue of Lincoln in a contemplation, created by Daniel Chester French. At this scale, if the statue was standing it would be 28 feet tall. There is an urban legend that the hands of the statue are posed in American Sign Language for the letters A and L, Lincoln’s initials. Though we have no proof, and the Park Service is skeptical, this may be true – French communicated with his child using ASL.
The statue is located in the central chamber. To the left and right are additional chambers where two of Lincoln’s most famous speeches are inscribed: The Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Above the speeches are murals – barely visible today due to mold and acid rain. A project to renovate these murals had been planned for the Memorial’s 100th Anniversary in 2022 however that timeline is uncertain due to the pandemic.
Very limited parking is nearby – on Henry Bacon Drive; there is also an elevator and restroom, as well as displays on the lower level describing how the Memorial was built.