The Lincoln Memorial rose from the mud of the Potomac 100 years ago

The national shrine has become a place of pilgrimage perched on pilings 50 feet high

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The Lincoln Memorial, seen in construction in 1915, marks its centennial this month.
The Lincoln Memorial, seen in construction in 1915, marks its centennial this month. (Library of Congress)

The site was once called Kidwell Flats, an insect-ridden tract on the Potomac River that had been reclaimed with mud dredged from the bottom. Bedrock was 50 feet down, and a prominent member of Congress called it a “God-damned swamp.”

Back then, it was a remote spot, two miles from the U.S. Capitol — yet fitting, many believed, for the noble project at hand. So there, over 100 years ago, builders began sinking concrete pilings, gathering earth, and hauling in blocks of marble and limestone to erect one of the nation’s most hallowed shrines.

It was the Lincoln Memorial — the 38,000-ton columned edifice built to honor President Abraham Lincoln, who led the United States through the Civil War, ended the enslavement of millions of African Americans, and died by the hand of an assassin with a pistol in 1865.

Monday marks the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Memorial on May 30, 1922, an event attended by thousands, including President Warren G. Harding and Lincoln’s 78-year-old son, Robert, on what was then called Decoration Day.

It was the unveiling of the monument that would captivate Americans for a century, draw visitors as if pilgrims, and stand as a global symbol of courage, possibility and solace in times of grief.

The dedication of the Lincoln Memorial on May 30, 1922, included including former president Former President William Howard Taft and Lincoln's son Robert. (Video: National Archives)

The weather in Washington was breezy and warm that Tuesday. Old movie footage from the National Archives shows women carrying parasols, men in straw hats, and people clustered in the shade of trees along what is today the Reflecting Pool.

Inside the memorial, the 175-ton marble sculpture of a seated Lincoln had just been cleaned, and seemed to shine in the soft light. The memorial itself, with its 44-foot tall columns tilted slightly inward for architectural effect, was majestic in its isolation by the river.

It was modeled on the Parthenon, the Greek temple to the goddess Athena. Lincoln, too, was “of the immortals,” his former close aide and biographer, John Hay, had said.

“You must not approach too close,” Hay said. “His monument should stand alone, remote from the common habitations of man … isolated, distinguished and serene.”

But people could not resist approaching. Fifty thousand were there for the dedication — African Americans, as was the cruel custom in segregated Washington, shunted off to the rear.

And over the next century millions more trudged up the steps to stand by the seated figure of America’s most revered president, invoke his words, and add to the story of the Memorial.

Let’s go see old Abe, the poet Langston Hughes wrote in 1926.

Sitting in the marble and the moonlight,

Sitting lonely in the marble and the moonlight,

Quiet for ten thousand centuries, old Abe.

The memorial was supposed to represent the healing of the country after the Civil War. But Lincoln knew the war had been about slavery, and “the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil,” as his words carved in the memorial proclaimed.

And in 1922 the United States was unhealed. It was still harshly segregated and racially oppressive. Fifty-one Black Americans were lynched that year, and six months after the dedication, the Senate killed a federal anti-lynching law, according to the Library of Congress.

On Easter Sunday 1939, the African American opera star Marian Anderson elevated the meaning of the memorial when she sang there after she was barred from performing at Whites-only Constitution Hall, seven blocks away.

“When Marian Anderson stepped on that platform and sang, ‘My country tis of thee’ … it was transformative,” said historian Harold Holzer, author of the 2019 book, “Monument Man,” about the Lincoln sculptor Daniel Chester French. “Sweet land of liberty,” she sang, “to thee we sing,” changing the standard lyrics “of thee I sing.”

“Suddenly this statue and this building became a symbol of aspirational equality, instead of just a symbol of Northern and Southern brotherhood,” Holzer said in a recent telephone interview. “And I think it’s held that place now for four score of its hundred years. It means much more. And that’s why it’s so mesmerizing and so moving to this day.”

The concert at the Lincoln Memorial that changed America

Twenty-four years after Anderson’s performance, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech before 250,000. The speech’s powerful legacy adds another assassinated leader to the memorial’s story. And 50 years later, President Barack Obama, the country’s first Black president, spoke there on the anniversary of King’s speech.

Hundreds of gatherings to protest, celebrate, pray, mourn and entertain have unfolded against the backdrop of the memorial. Fourth of July fireworks, and formations of warplanes have appeared overhead. (A single airplane buzzed the 1922 dedication, too.)

In recent years, U.S. presidents-elect have visited the memorial the night before their inaugurations, “as if to touch base with Lincoln and to be as one with America’s greatest president,” Holzer said.

But it has also been vandalized, marred with racist graffiti, and, on a recent weekend, was trashed during a graduation event that left broken bottles, litter and spilled wine on the steps, the National Park Service said.

The impulse to create a memorial to Lincoln began shortly after he was assassinated in Ford’s Theatre by actor John Wilkes Booth, who was enraged that the Confederacy had just lost the Civil War.

In 1867, Congress approved the incorporation of a Lincoln Monument Association, “for the purpose of erecting a monument in the city of Washington, commemorative of the great charter of emancipation and universal liberty in America.”

But nothing came of this effort, according to a 1927 history of the memorial by Edward Concklin. And the focus changed with the times from emancipation and liberty to reunion. Other plans were raised and fizzled. Finally, in 1911 an official Lincoln Memorial Commission was set up to carry the project through.

But who would build it? Where would it be located? And what would it look like?

Designs were suggested that showed the memorial as a huge pyramid, or a giant ziggurat topped with a statue of Lincoln, or a large circle of columns around a statue of a seated Lincoln.

Officials quickly settled on a 44-year-old New York architect, Henry Bacon Jr., to design and build the memorial. In 1915 his friend, New England sculptor Daniel Chester French, 64, was picked to carve the statue of Lincoln.

Bacon had come up with an elegant design suggested by the 2,000-year-old Parthenon, in Athens, and he built a detailed seven-foot-wide wooden model to show the commission. (The National Park Service still has the model.)

Inside the memorial, a statue “of heroic size … will occupy the place of honor,” he wrote in 1912. One of the interior walls would display the carved words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Another wall would show the words of his Second Inaugural Address.

But where to build it? Some suggested Washington’s Meridian Hill. Others preferred a spot near what is today the Armed Forces Retirement Home, or a place near the Capitol, or Fort Stevens, or somewhere in Virginia. Some thought the memorial should just be a special road from Washington to Gettysburg.

The site on the former marshland by the river was preferred by Bacon. But one powerful opponent was Rep. Joseph G. Cannon, former speaker of the House, who called the place a swamp. A memorial there “would shake itself down with loneliness and ague,” he said.

He was overruled, and ground was broken on Feb. 12, 1914. The first task was to create a solid foundation. A special railroad spur was built to get stone to the site, and a special river pier was built to carry earth and gravel, according to old newspaper accounts.

Workers began by sinking 122 hollow steel cylinders through the soft ground down to solid rock, according to Concklin’s history. Huge stone slabs were stacked atop the cylinders to press them into the earth. When the cylinders reached bedrock, the dirt was scooped out, and they were filled with concrete to create solid pillars.

Over this was built an upper foundation, which raised the floor level of the memorial about 25 feet above ground. Dirt was packed around the foundation to create an artificial hill. And upon that, the memorial itself was constructed.

On Feb. 12, 1915, the 17-ton cornerstone was lowered into place. An old photograph shows a team of African American workers guiding it as it was lowered on what looked like a cold day. A small chamber had been cut into the stone to receive a sealed copper box filled with mementos.

The box contained, among other things: Copies of the Bible and the U.S. Constitution, a signature of Lincoln’s, a map of the Gettysburg battlefield, a dollar bill and $2.06 in change, a copy of the Feb. 12, 1915, Washington Post, and a small silk American flag.

That same year, French started on the sculpture. He pored over literature about Lincoln and studied casts of the president’s face and hands. “I feel at times so inadequate,” he fretted, according to Holzer’s biography.

The first thought was to make the statue in bronze, but that was scrapped in favor of a marble statue that would be about 12 feet tall. In 1917, though, French realized that a 12-foot-tall statue would be dwarfed inside the giant memorial. It needed to be seven feet taller.

Twenty-eight blocks of Georgia marble were brought in, and carved with French at the New York studio of the Piccirilli brothers, a team of renowned Italian stonecutters. The blocks were then shipped to Washington and assembled inside the memorial in 1919.

At least two workers were seriously injured during the project, and one was killed when he was crushed by a huge block of stone that fell from a toppled wagon, according to news reports at the time.

On Jan. 28, 1922, officials announced that the dedication would be May 30. It would be “the greatest exercise of a dedicatory nature ever witnessed in Washington,” The Post declared.

When the day came, there were VIPs aplenty. Lincoln’s son, Robert, received an ovation when he arrived. Speeches were carried via loudspeakers and radio. The Marine Band played “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” A poet said Lincoln was made of “clay of the common road.”

The lone Black speaker was Robert Russa Moton, head of the Tuskegee Institute. He had written a speech suggesting that the “unfinished” work Lincoln spoke of in the Gettysburg Address remained unfinished for African Americans.

Addressing a wrong at the centennial of the Lincoln Memorial

Holzer wrote that the White House frowned on what he had written, and told him to tone it down or lose his chance to speak. Moton changed the speech, but ended it: “I somehow believe that all of us, Black and White, both North and South, are going to strive on to finish the work which [Lincoln] so nobly began to make America an example for the world of equal justice and equal opportunity.”

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