Tuesday, March 11, 2014


West Potomac Park (the entire National Mall west and south of the Washington Monument, and the Tidal Basin) was all river until 1890. (Contrary to popular myth, this was not swampland.) For seven years, Congress debated turning the newly-reclaimed land into an industrial area, but finally passed legislation establishing a park there in 1897. Still, the land remained bare earth and weeds until 1902, when grass, trees, and bushes were planted; sidewalks and bridle paths built; and sewer and water pipes laid.

A memorial to slain American president Abraham Lincoln had been proposed as early as 1867. But although sculptor Clark Mills won a competition to design a memorial, no funding was forthcoming.

Meanwhile, there was endless debate about how to manage the growing District of Columbia. In 1900, the American Institute of Architects proposed creating a federal commission to come up with a plan. The House of Representatives, under notoriously skinflinty Speaker Joe Cannon (R-Ill.), refused to authorize a commission for fear it would generate support for extensive public building projects in the capital city. The Senate had more foresight, however, and established a Senate Park Committee. The chairman of the committee -- Senator James McMillan (R-Mich.) -- was an avid fan of art and architecture. He ignored the committee's legislative mandate and had the committee (which was almost completely staffed by architects, artists, and landscape architects) study not only parks but roads, the National Mall, housing of federal agencies, the future growth of the entire metro region, and much more. It issued a report, the "McMillan Plan" in January 1902. In part, the plan proposed turning B Street NW into a vast ceremonial avenue (it is now Constitutional Avenue NW), building a huge memorial on the western end of the mall (that's where the Lincoln Memorial is now), and building a bridge from this memorial to Arlington National Cemetary (that's now Arlington Memorial Bridge).

Congress never formally adopted the McMillan Plan for the city, but the commission's members were so influential and so active in testifying before Congress that they managed for a long time to block any construction on the Mall that didn't conform to the plan.

As the 50th anniversary of Lincoln's death approached and no memorial was in sight, the congressional delegation from Illinois began pushing for a Lincoln Memorial Commission to build a memorial. Legislation establishing a commission was enacted in 1910.

Unfortunately, Speaker Cannon was part of the commission. So was the former Speaker, Champ Clark (D-Mo.). Cannon would rather be boiled alive than spend money on the District of Columbia. Yet, Congress had spoken and Cannon could not oppose a memorial any longer. Cannon and Clark both knew that if the memorial were put in West Potomac Park, it would cement the McMillan Plan in place and unleash a barrage of building around the National Mall. So they worked overtime to have the memorial located first at the Soldiers' Home in far northeast D.C., then at Meridian Hill Park in upper northwest D.C., then the site of Ft. Stevens (the former Civil War fort in northeast D.C.), and then at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Fed up with the constant site-searching, Taft introduced a successful motion at the next memorial commission meeting to have the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts should decide where to put the memorial. The commission, established at Taft's suggestion and approved by Congress in 1910, had legal jurisdiction to provide advice on the siting of memorials. The CFA's chairman in 1911? Daniel Burnham -- one of the McMillan Commission members. The CFA unsurprisingly approved the West Potomac Park site in July 1911.

The CFA went even further, however. Because the Lincoln Memorial would be in such a prominent location, it said, the memorial should NOT have a dome and should NOT be tall. Instead, the CFA said, the memorial should be somewhat low and have strong horizontal lines.



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The Lincoln Memorial Commisson now confronted the need to identify a designer for the memorial. It asked the Commission of Fine Arts for its advice. The CFA told the Memorial Commission that if it wanted to choose a designer for the memorial, it had two choices: Select someone, or hold an open competition.

But Speaker Cannon still opposed the West Potomac Park site. He argued that a memorial should be designed to fit the site, and that designers should have a variety of sites to choose from so that they could create th best memorial possible. But the other memorial commission members wanted to move forward. To once more break the impasse, the Lincoln Memorial Commission decided to ask an expert's opinion. The commissioners asked the CFA for the name of a designer who could advise on a site and a memorial design. The CFA immediately recommended Henry Bacon.

It quickly became clear that Henry Bacon wasn't just an advisor, but someone who was deeply interested in designing the Lincoln Memorial. Bacon knew from friends in the art community that a memorial design competition was in the works, and he'd been working on a design for months already. The memorial commission asked Bacon what a memorial should look like. When he turned in his design -- which is almost exactly what we have today -- the Lincoln Memorial Commission almost unanimously agreed that Bacon should not only be the site advisor, but that he should design the memorial itself.

Cannon knew that Bacon's design was not only likely to be accepted by the rest of the commission, but also a very economical design which he could not oppose on cost grounds. However, a number of architects were angry that no competition had been held. Cannon took advantage of their anger and proposed asking John Russell Pope -- probably the nation's best-known and best-loved Neoclassical architect at the time -- to submit a design. To placate Cannon, and to put Bacon in a position to win the "competition", the rest of the memorial commission agreed that Pope should be allowed to submit a design as well.

Pope was told to submit designs for Meridian Hill and the Soldiers' Home. Convinced that the statue of Lincoln should take precedence over the structure, and realizing that the Lincoln Memorial Commission members were enthralled by Bacon's proposal for a seated statue of the dead president, Pope collaborated with sculptor Adolph Weinman on the statue for the memorial.

Pope's submission for Meridian Hill was a roofed Greek Doric temple approached by a set of steep, broad stairs that rose from a broad, deep plaza. It was designed to be solid and chunky so that it would stand out against the sky. There would be no interior chamber (or "cella") for the statue, which means it would be open to the air on all sides. The Meridian Hill temple was just 100 x 200 feet due to the small site size.







Pope's design for the Soldiers' Home site was different because the site was larger. The Soldiers' Home temple was 600 feet on each side. Instead of a square temple, this was 600 feet across. It featured a double-colonnade of Doric columns, and porticoes at the points of the cardinal. In the center was the same seated statue of Lincoln he and Weinman proposed for the Meridian Hill site.

For the Soldiers' Home site, Pope also had the memorial reached by a steep, broad set of stairs that began at a large plaza. However, at least one of his drawings showed the memorial (as it is here) in West Potomac Park, before a reflecting pool.



Pope's submitted designs weren't the only ones Pope created. Although the public, architectural press, and newspapers favored Bacon's design, Cannon would not stop promoting Pope. So Bacon and Pope were asked to revise their designs and resubmit. Pope removed three of the four porticoes for his design, and placed it in West Potomac Park.



Pope dotted the landscape with statue after statue.



He also created sketches of several wild ideas to give the commissioners something to think about.

One design he submitted in the second round was a step-pyramid with a gigantic statue of Lincoln stop it, and massive stone pedestals at the four corners.



Another of Pope's second-round designs was a gigantic ziggurat with eternally burning brazier at the top!! This one was dotted at the corners with statues of sphinxes.



Another of Pope's designs was a circular structure of steps, with a slightly less gigantic statue atop it. This structure had a square entrance, and a museum on the interior.



Yet another of Pope's designs in the second round was a massive pyramid, with Greco-Roman square temples on the four sides. Numerous statues on pedestals dotted the landscape.



All of Pope's sketches were ignored except for his double-colonnade. Not even that design caught the eyes of either commission. The Commission of Fine Arts overwhelmingly favored Bacon's roofed and walled design. It warned the Lincoln Memorial Commission against being overly influenced by Pope's dramatic, colored sketches and cautioned that Pope's schemes were likely to be much, much more expensive.

The Lincoln Memorial Commission worried that Pope's designs were simply too large, and would overwhelm the setting and the nearby Washington Monument. Pope began lobbying the memorial commission, and (now former) President Taft exploded at the impropriety.

The Lincoln Memorial Commission voted 4-to-2 (Clark and Cannon in the minority, as always) to accept Bacon's design.

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