Story of iconic Lincoln Memorial continues to unfold

Chicago TribuneJune 5, 2014 

  • MEMORIAL FACTS

    ■ Ground was broken Feb. 12, 1914.

    ■ The Lincoln statue is in 28 pieces and weighs 340,000 pounds.

    ■ The original murals in the memorial faded badly and were restored in the 1990s.

    ■ Hollywood has featured the memorial in movies such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the Transformers films, The Day the Earth Stood Still and National Treasure.

    ■ Urban legend to the contrary, the image of Robert E. Lee is not carved into the curls on the back of Lincoln's head.

It would be difficult to visit the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and not be moved. Few locations, in the nation's capital or anywhere else, are as evocative.

"When you're at the memorial, thinking of all the events (that transpired) there, it's where America goes to challenge itself," Jay Sacher says.

Sacher is author of the new book Lincoln Memorial: The Story and Design of an American Monument (Chronicle Books, $16.95), with illustrations by Chad Gowey.

In the 104-page volume, Sacher looks not only at the nuts and bolts of how the tribute to the 16th president and Kentucky native got built, but why it is so powerful, and what it has meant to the country since it was dedicated in 1922.

"It's incredibly moving," he says. "There's little things in its construction — they followed certain classical design elements, like the walls sloping slightly inward — and those little elements bring out its power. But beyond its construction, there's the history surrounding it. You cannot look at it and not think of Martin Luther King (Jr.). It hearkens to the best of America."

The memorial has been the backdrop for events that are part of the American fabric: Singer Marian Anderson, banned from performing at Constitution Hall because she was black, made the memorial a national stage with an Easter Sunday concert on its steps in 1939; in May 1970, days after the National Guard shot protesters at Kent State and with anti-war sentiment growing, President Richard Nixon made a pre-dawn visit to protesters at the memorial; King delivered his I Have a Dream speech there to 250,000 supporters in August 1963.

Sacher also looks at the partnership between architect Henry Bacon and s culptor Daniel Chester French, who produced the iconic monument. They worked on some 50 projects together.

"But what is interesting," he says, "there was always infighting and machinations, and people had different views (about construction of the memorial), but if you look at the designs Bacon and French put together, they had the vision from day one. They toyed with some things, but the vision of what they wanted was able to sustain itself through all the infighting."

Sacher also writes about some of the alternative designs for the memorial, and plans for the Lincoln Memorial Highway from Washington to Gettysburg, Pa., with parks and places to stop along the way, "sort of an Appian Way."

Readers might also be surprised at the dedications' racist overtones. Black spectators were segregated from whites. The only black speaker, Robert Russa Moton of the Tuskegee Institute, remained behind the rope barrier until he was brought to the stage by his fellow speakers. The speeches also were whitewashed. Lincoln was praised as having saved the Union, not as the Great Emancipator. Moton's speech, in fact, was censored by the memorial commission to remove references to the on going struggle for racial equality.

"When you look at the sort of racist society that built it, there's the notion that at least on the political side people wanted to downplay the idea of Lincoln as an emancipator," Sacher says. "But it came through anyway. And that's the power of the memorial. You can't not think of those things. You think about that slow march to justice, what Lincoln symbolized, despite the revisionists. That's the real power of the memorial."

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