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Trailblazing woman helped create 100-year-old Lincoln Memorial

Two men often get the credit for the iconic memorial. But the famous speeches carved inside are sculptor Evelyn Longman’s design.

The Lincoln Memorial, which is officially 100 years old on May 30, features two of Abraham Lincoln's speeches on the inside walls. Sculptor Evelyn Beatrice Longman designed the lettering and the surrounding decorations. (Ken Cedeno/Sipa USA/AP)
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It has been 100 years since the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Henry Bacon was the architect of the memorial’s overall design, inspired by an ancient Greek temple called the Parthenon. Daniel Chester French worked on the inside of the monument, including sculpting the massive marble statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln.

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Construction of the memorial lasted eight years, ending in a dedication ceremony on May 30, 1922. The memorial was Bacon’s last project and is the one he’s most famous for, and it is one of French’s most important achievements, too.

Their contributions to one of the most recognizable American memorials are well documented and celebrated. However, if you dig deeper into history, you’ll find that another sculptor also contributed: Evelyn Beatrice Longman.

Longman, who in 1919 became the first woman elected as a full member of the National Institute of Design, was a talented sculptor who assisted French. Longman designed the lettering of Lincoln’s speeches that are engraved inside the monument, along with the ornamentation of wreaths and eagles that surround them.

Dana Pilson is a curator at Chesterwood, French’s former summer estate that is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Pilson curated an online exhibition about French and Longman’s close professional relationship and friendship. She says that Longman, who was French’s only female assistant, was also one of his closest confidantes when it came to art.

“It’s not just a case of the teacher influencing the student. I think it’s much more mutually beneficial,” Pilson says about their professional relationship, which started in 1900 when Longman was age 26 and French was age 50. French relied on Longman’s advice and taste about as much as Longman relied on his. “When you read his letters, you see just how much he treasured her,” she says.

Longman had an illustrious career, creating many public monuments and significant statues. These include the Spanish-American War Memorial in Connecticut named, “Spirit of Victory,” a 12-foot bronze bust of Thomas Edison at the Naval Research Academy in Washington, and the “Spirit of Communication” statue that became a symbol for the company AT&T.

Pat Hoerth, who is married to Longman’s grandson and is working on a biography of her, says that “she was relentless in pursuing her art.” However, there is little recorded evidence that Longman thought much about being a trailblazing woman by pursuing art in the early-20th century, Hoerth says.

“She didn’t make a big deal about the woman thing. She just made a big deal by beating men in competition,” Hoerth says. “The big commissions for monumental art, they were blind competitions. So people didn’t know that she was a woman when she competed.”

Not only was Longman’s work on the Lincoln Memorial important, but she also helped maintain the grandness of the project, said her husband, Nathaniel Horton Batchelder, in his unpublished memoirs.

During construction, French and Bacon were having second thoughts and wanted to scale back the memorial. Longman knew that wasn’t a good idea. “She convinced them that whatever the costs … they had to do it,” Hoerth says.