Of all the monuments in my home town of Washington, D.C., my favorite is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, probably one of the least well-known of all the historical markers in the Nation’s Capital. (I suspect the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial on Theodore Roosevelt Island in the Potomac is less renowned; I didn’t even know it was there myself until maybe 15 years ago.) It’s not the man to whom the monument’s dedicated, our third president, though he was a favorite historical figure of my father’s, but the combination of its design and its setting that appeals to me. This is principally an aesthetic preference, not a historical or philosophical one—though I harbor admiration for Jefferson’s political philosophy as well.
Sometimes compared with the much more famous Lincoln Memorial, I suppose because they’re both modeled on classical Greco-Roman temples, the Jefferson Memorial is much less imposing than its larger cousin. At 27,336 square feet, the Lincoln Memorial, in the form of a Greek Doric temple, is 204 feet long, 134 feet wide, and 99 feet tall, surrounded by 36 44-foot-tall columns. The Jefferson Memorial, on a little over 18 acres of ground, is 165 feet in diameter (about 519 feet around) and 129 feet high, with 26 Ionic columns around it. Though taller than the Lincoln, the Jefferson Memorial building is about 22,000 square feet in area. It’s smaller in scale than the Lincoln, like a miniature, and the architecture is just as elegant. Because it’s round, it seems more graceful and less boxy, and, open to the air all around, it appears lighter and airier than the enclosed marble structure of the Lincoln Memorial. To my eye, the Jefferson Memorial is more “18th century” and the Lincoln is more “19th century,” even though they were both built in more or less the same era (the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in 1922; the Jefferson in 1943).
The Jefferson Memorial is less popular (annual visitation is around 2.3 million) than the Lincoln (3.6 million visitors a year) largely because of its location next to the Tidal Basin along the banks of the Potomac River in what is designated as East Potomac Park; it’s not far from National Mall and is directly South of the Washington Monument and the White House. (The T. R. Memorial gets as few as 112,000 visitors a year. Few people even know it’s there, much less how to reach it.) Ironically, the Jefferson Memorial is fourth on the List of America's Favorite Architecture compiled by the American Institute of Architects (after the Empire State Building, the White House, and the National Cathedral); the Lincoln Memorial is seventh. While the Lincoln Memorial is essentially set in a busy traffic circle (before 1976, you used to be able to drive around its circumference along Lincoln Memorial Circle), the Jefferson Memorial is sited somewhat obscurely on the south bank of the Tidal Basin, surrounded by the cherry trees that were a gift to the people of Washington from the people of Tokyo in 1912 (see my blog article, “Washington’s Cherry Blossoms,” 9 April 2012) and the George Mason Memorial Garden. Encircled by a grove of trees, it’s especially beautiful during Cherry Blossom season in the spring, when both the cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin and the flowers in the garden are in bloom. There’s no lovelier sight in the Capital than the little, round Jefferson Memorial with the Tidal Basin before it glimpsed through a curtain of cherry blossoms. (You can also get a unique view of the memorial if you rent a paddle boat in the Tidal Basin. The boathouse, open from March to September, is right opposite the memorial.)
The Jefferson Memorial was the third monument on the National Mall in honor of a past president. The Washington Monument, an Egyptian Revival obelisk designed by architect Robert Mills, is dedicated to the first President of the United States, George Washington, completed in 1884. The Lincoln Memorial, the Greek Revival Doric temple designed by Henry Bacon, honors Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president and was dedicated in 1922. The Thomas Jefferson Memorial commemorates the statesman, architect, eloquent and prolific writer, inventor, and farmer who drafted of the Declaration of Independence, and advised on the Constitution of the United States. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), aside from being the third President of the United States (1801-1808), had been the second Vice President (under John Adams, 1797-1801) and the first U.S. Secretary of State (in Washington’s cabinet, 1790-93). As the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had been a Delegate to the Continental Congress from the Colony of Virginia (1775-76). Later he served as the second Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia (1779-1781). From 1785 to 1789, he served as Minister to France under the Articles of Confederation (before the adoption of the Constitution). In 1819, Jefferson established the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which he also conceived and designed. An architect who had designed his own home in Monticello, Virginia, he also anonymously submitted plans for both the U.S. Capitol building and the White House. At Monticello, his plantation, he experimented as a planter who started the wine industry in Virginia. Jefferson was an accomplished musician (violin and cello) and a voracious reader whose private library, nearly 6,500 books, formed the basis of what became the Library of Congress (after the original collection had been destroyed in 1814 by the British in the War of 1812). Jefferson was also an inventor who devised the polygraph, the pedometer, an enciphering machine, a clock that ran on the Earth’s gravity, wire coat hangers, swivel chairs, and sliding doors.
(I don’t overlook the troublesome aspects of Jefferson’s biography, notably his slave ownership and his affair with Sally Hemings, a slave in his household. They just have no place in this article about his memorial in Washington. There were also controversies and complaints about the memorial and its design, including the selection and editing of some of the quoted passages inscribed in its interior, but the coverage of those details of this history is readily available elsewhere.) Jefferson died on 4 July 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence; his death preceded that of John Adams, his great political rival whom he served as vice president, by 5½ hours. (Jefferson and Adams are the only two U.S. presidents to die on the same day, though Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson came pretty close: 26 December 1972 and 22 January 1973, respectively.)
Proposals for some significant monument on the site of the present-day Jefferson Memorial were raised from the turn of the 20th century on, the location being so inviting for something important. The first concrete proposal was for a memorial to Theodore Roosevelt, made in 1925, but the plans were never funded by Congress and the monument was never built. In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt, an admirer of Jefferson, made inquiries about a memorial to the third president and Congress created the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission and appropriated $3 million (about $52½ million today) for the project. In 1935, the commission chose John Russell Pope (1874-1937; National Archives, completed in 1935; West Building of the National Gallery of Art, 1941) as the architect. As Jefferson was a supporter of Neoclassicism, Pope planned a structure in the president’s honor modeled after the dome-like Pantheon in Rome, which was also the basis for Jefferson’s design of the Rotunda of the University of Virginia.
Pope died in 1937, but construction of the memorial began in 1938 anyway under his surviving partners, Daniel P. Higgins and Otto R. Eggers. FDR laid the cornerstone of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in 1939, the same year the memorial commission held a competition to select the sculptor for the commemorative statue inside the monument. In 1941, Rudulph Evans (1878-1960) was commissioned to sculpt the statue of Thomas Jefferson and Adolph A. Weinman (1870-1952) was chosen to carve the pediment relief above the entrance. Though the statue wouldn’t be completed for four more years, President Roosevelt dedicated the Jefferson Memorial on 13 April 1943, the 200th anniversary of Jefferson's birth. A temporary statue, made of plaster painted to resemble bronze (because of metal shortages during World War II) was installed. The final bronze casting, 19 feet tall and standing on a 6-foot-high triangular pedestal of black Minnesota granite, was erected in 1947 (after the wartime restrictions on using metals were lifted).
The statue of Jefferson, which weighs five tons, gazes out at the White House. The standing image represents the Age of Enlightenment and depicts Jefferson as a philosopher and statesman in midlife. At the back of the sculpture, at its base, the hem of Jefferson’s fur-collared coat, a gift from his close friend (and hero of the American Revolution), the Polish General Tadeusz Kościuszko (1746-1817), drapes over ears of corn because he was a farmer and a book to represent his scholarship; in his left hand is the Declaration of Independence because he was its principal author. In addition to the statue, five engraved quotations from Jefferson’s writings adorn the interior of the memorial, including passages from “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” 1774; the Declaration of Independence, 1776; “A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom,” 1777; and Notes on the State of Virginia, 1785. The passages were selected to illustrate the principles to which Jefferson dedicated his life. The pedimental sculpture group carved by Weinman is the Drafting the Declaration of Independence, a relief depicting Jefferson standing behind a table around which are seated Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Robert Livingston of New York, as they present the draft the Declaration to the Continental Congress. The memorial’s interior is illuminated at night, making a striking sight as you drive past on the “ring road” along the Tidal Basin.
The Neoclassical monument consists of circular marble steps, a portico, a circular colonnade of Ionic columns, and a shallow dome. The circular, colonnaded Neoclassic structure was introduced to the U.S. by Jefferson. The memorial is constructed of stones chosen not for their aesthetic appeal alone but also for their historical implications. To symbolize the geographic extremes of the original thirteen colonies, the exterior stonework is Vermont marble from New England while the inside walls are white Georgia marble from the Deep South. Inside the structure are stones from the growing Union: the floor is Tennessee marble and the inner dome is Indiana limestone. (Tennessee and Indiana became states in 1796 and 1816, respectively.) President Jefferson is tied historically to the Louisiana Purchase (1803), so his statue stands on a block of Minnesota granite with a gray Missouri marble ring surrounding its base. (Minnesota and Missouri were admitted to the Union in 1858 and 1821, in that order.)
Few alterations have been made to the Jefferson Memorial since the bronze statue was installed, but in early 2006, signs of potentially serious trouble began to appear in the monument’s structure. When the memorial was built, it was constructed on pilings and caissons driven into a man-made mud flat, reclaimed from the marshland along the banks of the Potomac River to accommodate the monument’s construction. A section of the sea wall that separates the 32,000-ton monument from the Tidal Basin was breaking away and sinking into the artificial inlet. Other parts of the foundation and surrounding terrain also appeared to be shifting. (The Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Korean War Veterans Memorials are also built on pilings set in landfill. Those monuments, however, haven’t shown any signs of settling.) By 2013, the slippage was measured at almost a foot. The recovery work, which was expected to take 18 months, was scheduled to be completed this spring, but I was unable to find any reports of a final estimation.
Even during the restoration work, the memorial was not closed to visitors. Under the management of the National Park Service through its National Mall and Memorial Parks division, the Jefferson Memorial is open 24 hours a day and Park Rangers are on duty to answer questions from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. daily and to provide interpretive programs on the hour from 10:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. There’s no admission charge or requirement to make advanced arrangements (except for special events). The Jefferson Memorial hosts many events and ceremonies each year, including memorial exercises, the Easter Sunrise Service, and the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival.
[“The Jefferson Memorial” is the 400th post on Rick On Theater, which marked its fifth anniversary last March. Like “Jefferson Memorial,” the majority of posts on the blog have been written by me, either expressly for ROT or for some earlier use and repurposed for the blog, but I’ve also published articles by friends and colleagues whom I’ve invited to contribute and even occasional strangers whose previously-published work I’ve found interesting, amusing, informative, or entertaining and have republished (always fully credited, of course) on my blog. Whatever the source, however, I’m responsible for the content and have selected the material because I decided it was worth a look by ROT-readers. I hope that among those varied articles have been some that have provided you all with some enjoyment—or perhaps raised a question or two. I have no plans to stop posting on ROT anytime in the near future, and I hope from time to time I’ll come up with more pieces of writing that intrigue or edify the blog’s readers. As always, I welcome comments and I hope you’ll indulge now and then. ~Rick]