It may rank as only seventh in the “List of America’s Favorite Architecture,” but the Lincoln Memorial is the most memorable to me. Seeing its unearthly beauty, especially at night with its image shimmering in the Reflecting Pool and Lincoln’s statue illuminated from within, I always have to catch my breath. I am reminded of so much about this man, this monument that is the “better part of our natures” and of our country’s hoped for values. Yet, creation of this symbol of the best that we as Americans can be took years of political debates and controversy over its proposed locations. Even as it was being dedicated on May 30, 1922, racism clouded the event. African-Americans were divided from the rest of the attendees by a rope across a rough dirt track.
Each year I try to learn something new about my favorite president. Recently, I came across a slim, delicately illustrated book entitled, “Lincoln Memorial: The Story and Design of an American Monument” by Jay Sacher. I was able to gather a harvest of facts and stories that intrigued me. For instance, I hadn’t realized how many different architects and artists contributed to the memorial. It was the friendship between Henry Bacon, architect, and Daniel Chester French, sculptor, that became the ideal artistic partnership to create this miracle on the banks of the Potomac. Two different master carvers—Ernest Bairstow and the Piccirilli family who had emigrated from Italy to the Bronx in 1888—carved exterior features on the temple-like structure. Jules Guerin, one of the Beaux Arts style of painters, created the murals (which I had completely forgotten were there).
During all the political wrangling and delays before the ground for the monument was broken, French constantly studied Lincoln’s images, Leonard Volk’s life mask of the president, and made countless sketches. He was passionate about details, even making molds of his own hands to use as models to decide on the right placement of Lincoln’s hands. Finally, he began making clay models of the sculpture. After a series of experiments with first one, then another enlarged photograph, Bacon and French determined that the statue should be 19-feet high and that it should be marble. The Piccirillis were paid $46,000; their original estimate had been $18,000 for a sculpture 10-feet high. With his concern for details and to cut costs, French carved a full-scale face so that the carvers wouldn’t have to “scale it up” from a 10-foot model to the final 19-foot marble sculpture.
It is inspiring to reflect upon how the Lincoln Memorial has evolved as a sacred place to hold rallies, make memorable speeches, and host events that have become milestones in the anti-war and Civil Rights movements. The first occurred when the Daughters of the American Revolution banned Marian Anderson from giving a concert in its hall and Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for her to bless a landmark audience with her glorious voice on the steps of the memorial. There were anti-Vietnam War protests and the immortal “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King that didn’t repeat his printed notes, but welled up from his passion of the moment. More recently, the speech Barack Obama made at the Lincoln Memorial, two days before his first inauguration, drew an enthusiastic, diverse audience of well-wishers.
Some curious legends about the memorial have grown up. A ridiculous one is that among the curls on the back of Lincoln’s sculpted head is the face of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Another is that his hands are in such a position that they spell out “AL” in sign language. A child’s eyes, however, seldom see such tomfoolery. A few days ago I was interested in what the 9-year old granddaughter of a friend had noticed when her class visited the memorial. Sophie commented, “Whoever made that statue of Abraham Lincoln made it look so realistic. It’s cool.”
I was happy this year to discover the following poem by Langston Hughes:
“Let’s go see old Abe
Sitting in the marble and the moonlight,
Sitting lonely in the marble and the moonlight
Quiet for ten thousand centuries, old Abe,
Quiet for a million, million years,
And yet a voice forever
Against the timeless walls of time—