The Lincoln Memorial Was Almost Totally Different

The dedication was May 30, 1922. By the time the District of Columbia erected the Lincoln Memorial, it was $1-million over the original plan. The original plan, of course, wasn’t actually the original-original plan. There was one before that.

These things happen when planners decide to make a 10-foot tall statue of Lincoln 19-feet tall instead. Of course, that was one design change among many, which took place between 1868 and 1922.

In true Washington fashion, the plan was fraught with red tape, argument, and eventually completed with concessions made on all sides. The final result might be much more ornate than the late president would have preferred, but it remains one of the most visited places in the country.

The final design

The memorial remains as it did 95 years ago, with an imposing statue of Abraham Lincoln at the center. There he sits in a stone chair for eternity.

The statue of Lincoln faces east from the west end of the national mall in Washington, D.C. The Piccirilli Brothers, two renowned artists, carved Lincoln and his chair from Tuscan marble.

There wasn’t much they could do creatively with Lincoln, not his face at least, but their design for the chair feature something many will overlook. The pillars under his wrists, which adorn the front of the armrests for his chair, feature bundles of wood, a Roman symbol of power.

Lincoln’s house, the structure where he lives, is a Greek post-beam style of pillars, not unlike the Parthenon. The famous architect Henry Bacon shepherded that part of the design.

The total structure is so massive, the monument extends 66 feet into the earth to support the weight of it from sinking. It was Bacon’s massive design that warranted Lincoln double in size to better fill the space. He’s huge, but fill the space he does not.

The memorial is 99 feet tall. Lincoln fills only 19 feet of the space in height.

Earlier Plans

The best bit of trivia about earlier plans was the Clark Mills’ design. In 1867, Mills won the right to design the memorial after Congress passed the first bills to commission a memorial.

Mills had already created one tribute to Lincoln, and another of Andrew Jackson. Knowing this was an important monument, Mills drafted a 12-foot tall likeness of Lincoln, who would sit perched atop a multistoried pillar 70-feet in the air, adorned with six horses and 31 bronze people.

Mills design was no doubt a sight to behold, but in the end too expensive. Why later designs didn’t go back to Mills’ design, who knows, but the project went a different way altogether after the turn of the century.

When the project resumed, planners considered a couple of locations, including the train station, but landed on what was a marshy plot of land at the time.

One member of Congress, the Speaker of the House Joe Cannon said, “I’ll never let a memorial to Abraham Lincoln be erected in that [explicative] swamp.” Cannon, otherwise known as Uncle Joe, fought many aspects of the project, but lost in the end.


Some thought the Parthenonian design of the exterior failed to capture Lincoln’s simple humility, suggesting a log cabin would better serve the memorial.

Another architect, John Russell Pope, suggested a different direction altogether. In fact, he suggested several designs, including an Egyptian pyramid, and a Mayan temple in another design.

Also, Uncle Joe wasn’t the only one who had concerns about the west end of the mall, which at the time was not much to look at. They couldn’t imagine what it would look after we added a little landfill and some trees.

Despite taking more than 50 years to complete, on the day they dedicated the Memorial, Lincoln’s last remaining son was alive and present.

Since that day, other salient points in history have been at Lincoln’s memorial, often related to civil rights, like the 1939 performance of Marian Anderson live, and Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The fact that the giant memorial took so long to build, and came in 33 percent over budget is hardly a surprise. It’s patriotic in a way, as it tells a microcosmic version of everyday life in Washington D.C.,