The Jefferson Memorial is located in West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C.
This area of land (which, along with East Potomac Park, enclose the Tidal Basin) was created between 1881 and 1911 by soil dredged from the bottom of the Potomac River. As the park was nearing completion, the U.S. Senate Park Improvement Commission (informally known as the McMillan Commission, after its chairman, Senator James McMillan) drew up a plan for the completion of Pierre L'Enfant's vision for the central core of Washington, D.C. This report, best known as the "McMillan Plan," proposed placing a major Neoclassical memorial due south of the Washington Monument in the new park. The McMillan Plan envisioned a building modeled on the Pantheon of Rome, in which hundreds of America's illustrious men (all men, note) would be idolized.
In the early 1920s, a memorial to Theodore Roosevelt was proposed for the area, and a design competition held. But no memorial was built.
In 1934, Rep. John Boylan (D-N.Y.) sponsored legislation in Congress to form a Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, long an admirer of Jefferson, supported the legislation. Boylan's bill proposed building a memorial to Thomas Jefferson as part of the Federal Triangle complex of federal office buildings (on a site later occupied by the Federal Trade Commission or "Apex Building" site). Congress approved the bill and appropriated $3 million for a memorial. Boylan chaired the new commission.
Architect Fiske Kimball, who had overseen the restoration of Monticello (Jefferson's stately plantation home in Virginia), argued for a site in West Potomac Park. He felt the "Apex site" had too much automobile traffic around it and was not prominent enough for a man of Jefferson's stature. He also supported the Pantheon-like suggestion.
Also sitting in an ex officio capacity on the Commission was Charles Herbert Moore, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts (which had approval authority over the look of all major buildings and memorials in the greater D.C. area). Moore argued for a site on the National Mall, just across B Street NW (now Constitution Avenue NW) from the National Archives building. (This is the site of the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden today.)
The memorial commission declined to sponsor a design competition. Instead, it asked architect John Russell Pope -- who had imposed a Neoclassical design on Federal Triangle, designed the National Archives Building, designed the National Gallery of Art, and designed the Freemasons' "House of the Temple" in D.C. -- to submit a design. Now, the lack of an open competition is exactly what has D.C. up in arms about the Eisenhower Memorial. But back in the day, an "invited commission" was much more common, because it was felt that these blue-ribbon panels knew best...
At the time Pope was invited to submit a design, no location for the Jefferson memorial had been chosen. The memorial commission was considering four sites: At Buzzard Point, at the south end of South Capitol Street; in Lincoln Park at 12th and East Capitol Streets NE; on the south side of the National Mall at the current site of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum; and in West Potomac Park. The memorial commission chose West Potomac Park due to its prominent location (near the Washington Monument and National Mall) and because it had been chosen in the McMillan Plan as a means of completing L'Enfant's vision.
Pope submitted a different design for each site. His design for the Tidal Basin site consisted of a central, square structure with columns in front and back, with a free-standing statue of Jefferson in the courtyard and a long, rectangular, north-south running reflecting pool in front. Extending right and left were colonnades, and additional colonnades ran north from these extensions halfway along the reflecting pool. The memorial was intended to stand on a 25-foot high concrete dais. The memorial itself was about 145 feet high and 220 feet wide, and based on the Parthenon in Rome. This same design would have been placed at Buzzard Point. He submitted a massive, high Doric temple for Lincoln Park (smilar to his rejected Lincoln Memorial design), and an open plaza with low walls, inscriptions, some free-standing low columns, and statue for the National Mall.
Pope's designs were strongly criticized. First of all, they were far too expensive for a nation still in the depths of the Great Depression. Second, the Tidal Basin/Buzzard Point and the Lincoln Park designs were monumentally fascist. (People familiar with the East Hill region of D.C. should think about it would look like to have a 150-foot-high gleaming white Greek temple rising above the trees halfway between the Capitol and RFK Stadium, with a footprint that consumed almost all of Lincoln Park.) Pope was reluctant to alter designs he felt were already perfect (read: screaming mad). He was also suffering the first stages of what would be mortal stomach cancer, and his illness made him unwilling to spend any more time at the drafting table. Nonetheless, he agreed to submit new designs which were more modest in scope.
Pope's new design for the West Potomac Park site was based on the Villa La Rotonda in Vicenza, Italy (which Jefferson had admired). Instead of a 145-foot high memorial, he now proposed one just 135 feet high. To retain its imposing feel, however, he proposed setting the memorial atop an artificial marble hill roughly 36.5 feet high.
Pope was no dummy, however, and knew how to play the political game. So he provided two alternative designs to the commission. "Scheme A" depicted a low dome seated over a circular peristyle hall. (A "peristyle" is a series of regular columns designed to act as a see-through wall of sorts.) Jutting from the north face of the memorial would be a rectangular portico, with a triangular pediment inset with sculpture above the entrance. The entire memorial would stand on five vast terraces of gleaming white marble. Some 57 steps would be cut into the four sides of this marble terrace. To either side would be smaller, free-standing colonnades set among copses of trees. "Scheme A" required filling in the Tidal Basin to connect West Potomac Park with the National Mall and placing the memorial smack in the center of the filled-in pool. (This would have left small, irregularly-shaped pools south, east, and west of the memorial.) A vast reflecting pool -- 250 feet wide and 500 feet in length, lined with trees on the east and west -- was proposed for the north end of the memorial. Mythological creatures (griffons, sphinxes, etc.) on pedestals would dot the sides of the reflecting pool.
"Scheme B" was almost identical to "Scheme A." However, instead of a single rectangular portico jutting north, there would be a rectangular portico jutting from each side of the circular peristyle hall.
Scheme A and Scheme B were both gigantic -- 50 percent taller than the Lincoln Memorial!
In February 1937, Roosevelt met with Broylan, Kimball, and Pope in the White House. He announced that he had changed his mind and now favored the site on the Tidal Basin. After much discussion, Roosevelt chose Scheme A. The memorial commission endorsed his choice a few days later.
The memorial commission submitted its designs to the National Capital Planning Commission and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, both of which had legal authority to approve the design of the memorial. At a joint session in March 1937, they disapproved of Scheme A. They weren't alone in their criticism. Both of Pope's schemes were widely derided by architects. Frank Lloyd Wright called it an "insult" to Jefferson. Neoclassical architects, who should have supported Pope, instead leveled scathing reviews of it for being derivative of Pope's just-completed National Gallery of Art. The House of Representatives was so incensed at the two schemes that it held hearings on the lack of design competition. Pope died of stomach cancer on August 27, 1937. Charles Moore then resigned suddenly from the Commission of Fine Arts, to be replaced as chairman by landscape architect Gilmore Clarke.
A month after Pope's death, his assistants -- Daniel Higgins and Otto Eggers -- met with the Commission of Fine Arts. Rather than let the memorial die, they wanted to revise Pope's designs and get something built. Clarke advocated semi-circles of open columns ringing a solitary statue, and Kimball for an even smaller version of Scheme A. Higgins and Eggers agreed to move the memorial 600 feet further south, so that the Tidal Basin wouldn't have to be destroyed. They also agreed to abandon Pope's two designs and use Pope's unbuilt Theodore Roosevelt memorial design as a starting point.
The redesign process dragged on and on. In February 1938, Kimball testified before the Commission of Fine Arts that Eggers and Higgins were working on a more "open memorial" design that combined the National Mall design with the Theodore Roosevelt design. But Sadie Pope, Russell's widow and heir to his copyrights on all these designs, was incensed. She began a letter-writing campaign that caught the attention of the president. Roosevelt intervened again in the design controversy, and personally sketched out on a notepad what the memorial should look like. A chastened Eggers and Higgins put the president's sketch (based on Scheme "A") into architectural form, and the memorial commission this smaller, more intimate design.
In June 1938, Congress restored funding for the memorial. The Commission of Fine Arts never approved a plan for the memorial -- and, in fact, repeatedly attacked the Roosevelt-modified Scheme "A" design publicly. But the controversy was over and construction proceeded. Ground was broken in December 1938 and President Roosevelt dedicated the memorial on Jefferson's birthday on April 13, 1943.
Determined to avoid another design controversy, the memorial commission held an open competition for the Jefferson statue in 1939. More than 100 submissions were made, and six finalists chosen. Rudulph Evans was selected as the design winner. Stonecarver Adolph Weinman was selected to sculpt the pediment above the entrance.
Evans' statue was not ready by the time the memorial was dedicated. World War II broke out in December 1941, and bronze was no longer legally available for use in art projects (it all had to be diverted to the war effort). So a plaster version was installed and painted to look like bronze. The finished bronze statue was installed in 1947.