- Historic Sites
An Epitaph For Mr. Lincoln
The curiously troubled origin of a brief and fitting inscription
February/March 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 2
On February 9, 1911, Congress approved a bill authorizing construction of a monument to Abraham Lincoln in the nation’s capital. The notion of building such a memorial had long moved many people for varied reasons. The Republican party naturally wanted to honor its greatest hero. Millions of Americans saw a memorial as a way of finally announcing the end of sectional animosities as the Civil War receded into history. And Lincoln had long before become the national hero he remains today, symbolizing many American traits and ambitions that rose above section or party.
Congress would have to approve and fund the project, but choosing the memorial’s design and location would begin with the newly established Lincoln Memorial Commission and its sister body, the Commission of Fine Arts, which passed on the siting and form of all public buildings and parks in the District of Columbia. The Lincoln Memorial Commission, under the chairmanship of President William Howard Taft, began at once to address questions of place, form, and function, seeking the opinions of architects, city planners, and other interested parties. After some deliberation, the commission asked the country’s two leading classicist architects, John Russell Pope and Henry Bacon, to submit plans for a formal monument. The commission would choose one. Pope’s major effort was a large circular colonnade on a platform that enclosed a statue of Lincoln in the open air. Bacon proposed a Grecian temple whose every aspect was freighted with careful symbolism and understated decoration.
In April 1912 the commission chose Bacon’s plan, and Congress approved the choice in January 1913. The site was to be Potomac Park, reclaimed land beyond the Washington Monument, not far from the river’s banks. There the basically horizontal lines of Bacon’s memorial would complement the bulk of the Capitol at the Mall’s other end but not clash with the Washington Monument’s verticality. The Lincoln Memorial would sit in a planted green park, clad in the whitest marble, with an elegant reflecting pool at its entrance. Its form and symbolism would complete the Mall’s aspiration to grandeur and harmony. On February 12,1914, Lincoln’s birthday, a small group gathered at the site for groundbreaking. In the following eight years the complex and carefully planned structure rose slowly but steadily, its makers apparently oblivious to a world war and the problems that followed it.
Cortissoz knew his words must speak to generations, must condense many symbols and ideas.
Though he was a busy practicing architect of national stature, Bacon devoted much of his time in these years to overseeing the building’s construction. He realized, as did almost everyone else involved in the work, that here was a chance for immortality. A native of Illinois, Bacon was born in 1866 and served a youthful apprenticeship in the great firm of McKim, Mead & White before establishing his own office. He attained fame as an exponent of classicism in a series of public and business buildings. He especially enjoyed designing monuments, which he imbued with a powerful sense of harmony, repose, and reflection.
The memorial for Lincoln, basically a rectangular Greek temple, called forth all his talents. Thirty-six fluted Doric columns, one for each of the states at Lincoln’s death, surrounded the exterior walls. The names of the forty-eight states in the Union at the time of construction ran around the attic wall. All external decoration was done with care not to detract from the building’s harmonious proportions and unified design. Inside, Bacon divided the space into three separate but complementary parts. The central portion accommodated a great seated statue of Lincoln by Daniel Chester French. To the south the visitor could pass through a small screen of columns to view the Gettysburg Address incised on the wall. Above that the painter Jules Guerin had placed a mural twelve feet high and sixty feet long in which a series of allegorical figures presided over the emancipation. A similar arrangement for the Second Inaugural Address occupied the north wall, under Guerin’s mural Reunion .
It was planned that the visitor’s attention would focus on the statue of Lincoln, seated in an attitude of contemplation in a large open area, against a wall of white marble. The statue was nineteen feet high, on an eleven-foot pedestal. Behind it the designer provided an elegant entablature, with carefully molded edges and cornices at the top. This rose several feet above the figure’s head and helped the eye define the statue against the smooth wall. Bacon wanted the visitor to reflect without distraction on Lincoln’s life. “This portion of the Memorial where the statue is placed would be unoccupied by any other object that would detract from its effectiveness, and the visitor will be alone with it,” he noted.
As the building took shape, Bacon began to think the wall needed embellishment. No added ornament seemed suitable, but an inscription increasingly seemed appropriate. Placed above the statue’s head, it would direct the viewer’s eyes downward across the figure, or would comfortably arrest upward movement from the bottom. An incised inscription’s angles and shadows would also be a welcome break in the expanse of marble wall, and a logical part of the entablature.