The Lincoln Memorial has been one of the most iconic landmarks in the United States since it opened in 1922. The neoclassical monument honoring Abraham Lincoln is Washington, DC’s most visited tourist attraction. It appears on the back of coins and five dollar bills. It has been both a backdrop in memorable movie scenes and a central stage for defining moments in American history such as opera singer Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert and “I Have a Dream” from 1963 by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Here are 10 facts you might not know about the Lincoln Memorial:
1. The memorial opened nearly 60 years after Lincoln’s assassination.
Although calls to erect a national monument in Lincoln’s honor began almost immediately after his assassination, the project dragged on for decades. After the 1867 United States Congress authorized the construction of a monument on the grounds of the United States Capitol, sculptor Clark Mills designed a tiered memorial like a wedding cake that was crowded with dozens of statues and topped with a bronze depiction of Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation. Fundraising, however, halted during the reconstruction and the project failed. It wasn’t until 1911 that Congress approved $2 million to build a national memorial. After three years of contentious debates over its location and design and a long construction process slowed by World War I, the Lincoln Memorial opened in 1922.
2. Rejected designs included an Egyptian pyramid.
In selecting architect Henry Bacon’s design inspired by the Parthenon in Athens, the Lincoln Memorial Commission circumvented several eccentric designs proposed by architect John Russell Pope. In addition to his preferred design for an open-air neoclassical monument, Pope submitted sketches of alternatives that included a stepped Mayan temple with a massive eternal flame at its top, a ziggurat topped by a statue of Lincoln, and a pyramid. Egyptian with classical porticoes. on each side. Although passed over for the Lincoln Memorial commission, Pope then submitted the winning Jefferson Memorial design.
READ MORE: Check out our Abraham Lincoln content hub, with more than three dozen stories about the 16th president.
3. A former Confederate officer dedicated the Lincoln Memorial.
When the monument was unveiled on February 12, 1914, Lincoln Memorial Commission member Joseph Blackburn “turned the first sod”, according to the New York Times. Before representing the martyred president’s home state of Kentucky in the US Congress for nearly 30 years, Blackburn served as a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. “This memorial will show that Lincoln is now considered the greatest of all Americans,” the former Confederate officer said at the simple dedication ceremony, “and that he is so held by the South as by the North .”
4. The walls and columns of the memorial slope inwards.
Although the memorial looks perfectly symmetrical, it’s an optical illusion. The exterior walls, facades and columns of the structure were deliberately built to lean slightly inward, according to the National Park Service, “to compensate for perspective distortions that would otherwise give the memorial an asymmetrical appearance.”
5. Lincoln’s hands carry symbolic meanings.
Daniel Chester French, who sculpted the 19-foot-tall statue of Lincoln for the memorial, put a lot of thought into how to position the president’s hands. “It has always seemed to me that the hands in the portrait were only secondary to the face in expression, and I rely on them just as much to show character in force,” wrote the sculptor. French depicted Lincoln with his left hand clenched to symbolize his determination to carry the Civil War to its conclusion and his right hand open to represent a desire to welcome the defeated Confederacy into the Union without vengeance.
6. Six brothers sculpted the Lincoln statue in the Bronx.
French commissioned six brothers who had emigrated from Italy to chisel Lincoln’s image into 28 blocks of white Georgia marble. Already famous for sculpting the pediment of the New York Stock Exchange and the Washington Square Arch in Greenwich Village, the Piccirilli brothers carved the slabs in their vast workshop in New York’s Bronx district. Once completed, the huge blocks were transported to the memorial and delicately put together like puzzle pieces with almost invisible seams. Although French offered to engrave “Piccirilli Brothers” on the base of the statue, the humble carvers declined the honor.
7. A giant underground chamber can be found under the statue of Lincoln.
Because the Lincoln Memorial sits on land reclaimed from the mudflats of the Potomac River, 122 huge concrete pillars and a foundation as deep as 65 feet in some places were built to anchor the massive monument to bedrock. A three-story basement, known as the Basement, sits beneath the memorial’s Tennessee Pink Marble floor. The cellar holds no secrets, but stalactites hang from the ceiling of the cave-like area, and cartoons scribbled by the memorial’s builders cover its pillars.
8. A corrected typo can be seen on its walls.
A worker who may have caught the wrong stencil accidentally chiselled “EUTURE” instead of “FUTURE” while carving the words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address on the north wall of the memorial. Although the bottom line of the “E” was filled in to correct the error before the memorial was dedicated, remnants of the misspelling can still be spotted by a trained eye.
9. The groundbreaking ceremony was racially segregated.
As Confederate veterans were given seats of honor as a sign of national unity at the Lincoln Memorial’s dedication on Memorial Day in 1922, armed soldiers led black onlookers away from the monument and behind a rope barrier for the separate white spectators. “The conditions we faced as a race were most shameful,” WEB DuBois wrote. Tuskegee Institute President Dr. Robert Russa Moton, the only African-American speaker at the inauguration, was banned from sitting on the platform with his fellow speakers, and the White House has heavily censored his speech to remove comments about the need for further progress on racial justice such as this line about Lincoln: “This memorial which we erect in token of our reverence is but a vain mockery, a symbol of hypocrisy, unless we can together make real in our national life, in every state and in every section, the things for which he died.”
10. “Friendly fire” hit the Lincoln Memorial during World War II.
To protect Washington, D.C., from possible German air attack during World War II, the Army installed anti-aircraft guns at strategic locations around the nation’s capital, including on the rooftops of buildings lining the National Mall . In September 1942, a crew accidentally fired four rounds from one of the guns. Three stray shots hit the facade of the Lincoln Memorial above the entrance. Luckily, no visitors were injured, but a blow left a lasting scar after gouging out a baseball-sized chunk of marble.
WATCH: HISTORY Channel’s documentary event Abraham Lincoln will premiere Sunday, Feb. 20 at 8/7c. Watch the trailer now.