The Lincoln Memorial Turns 100 This Month: What You Need to Know about the Memorial and its Architect

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The Lincoln Memorial Turns 100 This Month: What You Need to Know about the Memorial and its Architect

Rachel Mueller


May 30, 2022 marks the 100th anniversary of the completion of the Lincoln Memorial. Dedicated to the 16th United States President Abraham Lincoln, the memorial celebrates the life of a man who protected the Union with strength and compassion.

While the statue of Lincoln is what many typically remember, the entire building is dedicated his memory and accomplishments. The structure was built to signify the freedom and dignity of the people of the United States.   

The Architect Behind the Memorial

Henry Bacon, the architect behind the nearly 100-foot-tall structure, attended college for just one year in 1885 before practicing architecture. He went on to work for McKim, Mead and White - often considered the most distinguished architectural firm at the time.

Bacon won the Rotch Traveling Scholarship in 1889, which gave him the opportunity to travel Europe for two years and study architecture. This experience is where he became fascinated with the intricate details found in the architecture of Greek and Roman structures.  

In 1911, the Lincoln Memorial Commission chose Bacon to design the Lincoln Memorial - which went on to win the Gold Medal of the Institute from the American Institute of Architects.  


Image Credit: Alchetron

Taking Inspiration from the Parthenon

The Athenian temple known as the Parthenon was Bacon's inspiration for the memorial. The Parthenon was dedicated to the Greek Goddess Athena to show the power and dominance she possessed - one of the primary reasons why it was chosen as the model for the Lincoln Memorial.

Bacon enjoyed the architecture found in ancient Greece and believed that a memorial dedicated to a man that believed in democracy should be inspired by a structure found where democracy first began. 


Image Credit: Earth Trekkers

Materials Sourced from Around the United States

Bacon’s most prominent request was that the memorial should be built with a variety of materials. The ground level used granite sourced in Massachusetts, the marble found in the upper stairs and outside façade came from Colorado, and the chamber used pink marble floor from Tennessee.


Image Credit: National Park Service

Visitors can also find Indiana limestone on the interior walls and columns of the chamber, and marble soaked in paraffin from Alabama on the ceiling tiles. The paraffin is what gives the structure the iconic translucent appearance.

The statue of Lincoln was carved out of marble found in Georgia. Using materials sourced from around the United States capitalized on the importance of the Union to Lincoln.

The Location Struck Rebellion and Controversy

The controversy around the proposed location of the memorial caused public outcry against it being built. The National Mall, where the memorial sits today, was not always the clean park it is now. The park was engulfed by a swamp where many gamblers, cattle drivers, and even dead bodies were frequently found.

It was unfathomable for many politicians to imagine the National Mall being extended beyond the swamp and having the Lincoln Memorial at the west end of it. 


Image Credit: Vox

Joe Cannon, the speaker of the House in 1903, could not accept the scope of the project and tried proposing alternatives. He was able to keep construction off the table for most of the early 1900s until a resistance began in favor of the initiative. Progressives took Cannon out of speakership in 1910 and the memorial was approved in 1911. After completing the project in 1922, even Cannon admitted to liking it.  

More Than Just a Statue

While the memorial commemorates the life of Abraham Lincoln, there is a great deal of symbolism behind it.

The structure uses 36 columns representing the 36 states (which are named above each column) in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death. There are also 58 steps - 2 for the number of terms Lincoln served in office and 56 for how old he was.

Perhaps the most symbolic feature of the memorial is the use of fasces. Fasces are a Roman symbol of power and authority and are made out of rods with an axe bound by a leather thong. You can find them carved into the base of the main stairs of the memorial.


Image Credit: National Park Service

A chamber behind the head of Lincoln was once intended to be a Hall of Records but was never completed. Instead, the vault was moved to Mt. Rushmore and still contains biographies of the four figureheads - Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt - copies of important U.S. documents, and other historical artifacts. The memorial also features The Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, two of his most famous speeches.

Lincoln Memorial Today

Today, the Lincoln Memorial receives over 6 million visitors every year. The memorial can be seen in the background of the presidential inauguration and many speeches, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream.” It is also often used as a gathering place for activists and rallies.Image

Image Credit:


Other Works from Henry Bacon

Bacon had a history of designing memorials and government institutions before the Lincoln Memorial, including the Danforth Memorial Library, the World War I Memorial at Yale University, the New York Herald Building, and the Pennsylvania Station in New York City. 


Image Credit: The Real Deal


Rachel Mueller

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David, 5/10/2022 1:20:55 PM

The Hall of Records is at Mt. Rushmore, not the Lincoln Memorial.