Call it the paradox of the big room. Like cathedrals, monuments inspire both awe and suspicion—often in equal measure. A common complaint (uncommonly expressed) is the gripe art historian Kenneth Clark made in his 1969 BBC TV series Civilisation: “I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room, except, perhaps, in the reading room of the British Museum.”
An alternate view emerged recently when I climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. In front of me, a father turned to his teenage son, shouting: “I told you it was better than the back of the five-dollar bill!”
Everything about the Lincoln Memorial is better and bigger than one remembers. Located at the west end of the National Mall—on a direct east-west axis with the Washington Monument and the US Capitol, at one end of the reflecting pool which lies between the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial—the monument to Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, is one of America’s most inspired and inspiring monuments.
If Washington DC is the nation’s secular Mecca, which every American family visits at least once, then the Lincoln Memorial is the city’s Kaaba—democracy’s perfect shrine or centerpiece.
Built between 1914 and 1922 after years of municipal and congressional wrangling, the memorial contains enough coded themes to resemble a Masonic temple. The Doric-inspired structure, the final project of architect Henry Bacon (1866-1928), is 190 feet long, 118 feet wide and 99 feet high. The building has an exterior peristyle of 36 marble columns, one for each state of the Union at the time Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.
Each column stands 44 feet high; the names of the 48 contiguous states in 1922, when the memorial was dedicated, are inscribed above the colonnade. Alaska and Hawaii, both latecomers to the Union in 1959, are identified on a metal plaque near the memorial’s steps.
Inside the building’s vast hall is where the real persuasion happens. The interior features a 19-foot-tall seated marble statue of Lincoln. Assembled on the premises from 28 separate pieces, it rests on an 11-foot-tall marble pedestal—the whole sculpture weighs 175 tons.
Designed by Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) and carved by the Tuscan-born, New York-based Piccirilli brothers, the monument includes additional classical allusions. Lincoln’s throne’s armrests, for instance, are fasces—bundles of wooden sticks that have represented Roman power for centuries.
Inscribed on the south wall of the monument is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address; on the north wall his Second Inaugural Address—both are among the greatest political tracts in American history. Above each is a huge mural by Missouri-born Jules Guérin (1866-1946), Emancipation above the Gettysburg Address and Unity above the Inaugural Address.
Though enormous, Lincoln’s giant body appears only reluctantly imposing. If the statue could stand, it would be 28 feet tall, yet he is almost dwarfed by Guérin’s 60-foot-long murals and the colossal scale of the hall.
“With monuments as with men, position means everything,” Honoré de Balzac once said. Because we live in a time when massive monuments devoted to great men are a thing of the past, it’s difficult to describe the effect that this statue of a giant, seated Lincoln has on generations of visitors today.
More informed pilgrims will recall key episodes in the memorial’s history—among them Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert on its steps, after the singer had been denied permission to perform for an integrated black and white audience at the nearby Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall (Washington was still segregated at the time).
Other landmark events for which it was the focus include Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech and the 1995 Million Man March to raise awareness of the plight of African Americans—Lincoln’s figure still serves as a magnet for America’s hopes and aspirations, what he himself termed “the better angels of our nature”.
The imposing monument has long served as “America’s soapbox” despite its pharaonic size. The reason is simple. It commemorates a magisterial historical figure—one who played a huge part in rescuing the country from a national catastrophe with little more than his pen and a principled vision of America reconciled and free of slavery. Those ideals are capable of filling any room.