5 Surprising Facts About the Lincoln Memorial

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On Feb. 12, 1915, officials placed a ceremonial cornerstone to mark the start of construction on the Lincoln Memorial. Since opening to the public in 1922, the memorial has become one of the most iconic and beloved structures in America. It’s hard to imagine today, but original proposals for the memorial looked quite different, with some calling for a log cabin, and one design proposing a Mayan pyramid. Here’s a look at a few other surprising facts about this iconic structure.

 

5. Proposals For Lincoln Memorial Included a Pyramid, Log Cabin

Proposed designs for the Lincoln Memorial included a ziggurat-style structure (top) and a pyramid. Credit: National Archives

Proposed designs for the Lincoln Memorial included a ziggurat-style structure (top) and a pyramid. Credit: National Archives

As proposals circulated on where to build the Lincoln Memorial, some prominent critics opposed the current site, feeling the area was too swampy as well as inaccessible to the public. Joseph Cannon, speaker of the House of Representatives at the time, proposed an alternate site across the Potomac River, saying, “I’ll never let a memorial to Abraham Lincoln be erected in that g—damned swamp.”

There was also vigorous disagreement over the memorial’s design. Some critics felt the ostentatious size and design of the Lincoln Memorial would have embarrassed the humble Lincoln. Others proposed building a simple log cabin structure, saying it would be a fitting monument for a president who had been born in a log cabin. Other proposals were far more bizarre, at least to modern sensibilities. An open contest was held to choose the design for the memorial; the runner-up in the competition, John Russell Pope, developed several unique designs, including a Mayan temple, a ziggurat, and an open-air memorial. Ultimately, officials chose Henry Bacon as the architect; he provided the design that we have today. As for Pope, his work is visible elsewhere in Washington, D.C., as he designed the Jefferson Memorial, the National Archives and the National Gallery of Art.

 

4. Lincoln Statue Originally Designed to be Much Smaller

The Lincoln sculpture, here under construction in 1920, was originally intended to be 10 feet high, but was changed to almost twice that size. © Jeff Kubina

The Lincoln sculpture, here under construction in 1920, was originally intended to be 10 feet high, but was changed to almost twice that size. © Jeff Kubina

Original plans called for the statue of Lincoln to be 10 feet high. It didn’t take long to realize that at that scale, the sculpture would be dwarfed by the size of the chamber. So the statue was resized to 19 feet, from Lincoln’s head to his feet; if Lincoln were standing, he would be 28 feet tall.

 

3. Memorial Has Spawned Two Unusual Urban Legends

Some people believe sculpture Daniel Chester French, who had a deaf son, sculpted Lincoln's hands to form an "A" and "L" in American Sign Language. © Jeff Kubina

Some people believe sculpture Daniel Chester French, who had a deaf son, sculpted Lincoln’s hands to form an “A” and “L” in American Sign Language (inset). © Jeff Kubina

There are a couple of pervasive urban legends about Lincoln’s sculpture. The first holds that Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s profile is carved into the back of Lincoln’s head. That myth is rather easy to dismiss; the only thing on the back of Lincoln’s head is hair, no matter how hard you squint.

The other legend is a bit harder to dispel; some claim that Lincoln’s two hands are sculpted to spell out “A” (his left hand) and “L” (right) in American Sign Language. The reason that urban legend is so pervasive involves the background of Daniel Chester French, who directed the sculpting of Lincoln. French had a deaf son, and so presumably was familiar with sign language. Some believe French wanted to express his gratitude to Lincoln, who had signed legislation authorizing a school for the deaf in Washington, Gallaudet University, to grant college degrees. We’ll let the National Park Service have the final say in the matter. The NPS notes that,” It takes some imagination to see signs in Lincoln’s hands.”

 

2. Memorial Was Initially Segregated

African-American singer Marian Anderson performs before a crowd of 75,000 at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday in 1939.

African-American singer Marian Anderson (standing in front of piano) performs before a crowd of 75,000 at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday in 1939.

The memorial honoring the “Great Emancipator” has come to hold special meaning for the civil rights movement in America. It’s here in 1963 that Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s unfortunately ironic that at the Lincoln Memorial’s dedication in 1922, black attendees had to sit in a special segregated section. Among those saddled with this indignity: Tuskegee Institute President Robert Moton, who spoke at the dedication.

However, the memorial later became a symbol of the fight for civil rights in America. On Easter Sunday in 1939, African-American singer Marian Anderson performed a concert on the Lincoln Memorial’s steps before a crowd of 75,000 and a nationwide radio audience of millions. Anderson had earlier been denied a permit to sing at a couple of other local venues because of prevailing segregation in the city. Hearing of her plight, President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, arranged for the singer to perform at the memorial.

 

1. Lincoln Memorial Even More Popular Than You Might Imagine

More than 6 million people visit the Lincoln Memorial each year. © Orhan Cam

More than 6 million people visit the Lincoln Memorial each year. © Orhan Cam

It should come as no surprise that this memorial is an extremely popular attraction. But it’s even more popular than you might think. More than 6.5 million people visited the Lincoln Memorial in 2013. That’s more than 10 times the number of people who visited the Washington Monument the last full year it was open before renovations in 2010. It’s more than twice the number of people who visited the Jefferson Memorial in 2013. TripAdvisor.com users rate the Lincoln Memorial the No. 2 attraction in Washington, D.C., behind only the National Gallery of Art.

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