May 30: a temple for the Great Emancipator

2012/05/30 § 2 Comments

On this day in 1922 the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated.

The project brought together some of the early twentieth century’s greatest talents to memorialize America’s sixteenth president: architect Henry Bacon (who also worked for McKim and later did things like this bank), sculptor Daniel Chester French (who could make marble do anything), and muralist Jules Guerin (who you probably know best through his illustrations for a certain famous book published in 1909).  The memorial has become such an indelible part of the way we imagine and understand Washington it’s hard to imagine that it (or the very ground it stands on, for that matter) was ever not there, or that there ever could have been opposition to its construction.

The Memorial stands on reclaimed land firmed up from the boggy edge of the Potomac (best illustrated in a comparison of the eighteenth-century L’Enfant plan with the 1901 Senate Park Commissioners plan).  After shaping the site out of swamp, the location was proposed as the ideal place for a monument for Abraham Lincoln.  But the idea of building a monument here failed to garner immediate approval.  Significant opposition came from a surprising place, Land o’ Lincoln-born Speaker of the House Joseph Gurney Cannon, who fought tooth and nail against the memorial.  He hated the idea of spending money on anything “impractical,” especially an impractical marble building, miles away from the new train station and Capitol, in the swamp, teeming with mosquitos and vagrants.  But Cannon finally, if reluctantly, gave in, especially as the persuasive powers of architects Glenn Brown and Cass Gilbert, both of the American Institute of Architects (Gilbert then was AIA President), skillfully promoted the project.  (We don’t have a chance to say this often, so it is with great pleasure that the Muse can pronounce of this event: Well done, AIA.)

The memorial was positioned in a place of great consequence: the end of the axis shared by the Washington Monument and Capitol.  Bacon altered his Greek temple precedent by eschewing pediments in favor of a tall flat attic, turning the form so that the entry side is the long side (better “capturing” the axis) and re-inventing Classical ornament to relate to specific American themes.  Many people embraced the temple idea immediately, especially with the marvelous sculpture by French of the seated Lincoln inside.  The Greek style was seen as illustrating dignity, beauty, simplicity and strength, qualities that Lincoln embodied.  Others were not so smitten.  The design was criticized for being not indicative of the true national spirit; an alternative, highly “American” idea was to memorialize Lincoln with the construction of a highway–one representative claiming a motorway was “nearer to expressing the epoch of American history than any other form of memorial.”

This debate between the traditionalists–with their poetry and marble and friezes–and the moderns–with their practicality and asphalt and planes–was decisively won by the former.  Even Cannon came around in the end and regretted his earlier opposition.  Given the success and stature of the Lincoln Memorial today, it’s hard to imagine any such opposition to Classicism on the Mall ever being posed again, isn’t it?

Image: The Lincoln Memorial on the day of its dedication (from this source)

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§ 2 Responses to May 30: a temple for the Great Emancipator

  • Susan Barsy says:

    I remember coming across a fascinating book (pub. circa 1912?), perhaps from the Taft Commission, showing all the alternative proposals for the memorial. It’s fascinating to consider what might have been.

    Readers might enjoy this photograph of the Lincoln statue being assembled.

    Photograph of the Abraham Lincoln Statue Installation in the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C., 1920

    Cheers,
    SB

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