The Lincoln Memorial’s Bizarre Rejected Designs

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The Lincoln Memorial’s Bizarre Rejected Designs
Pope's proposal for a pyramid-style monument // Image © National Archives

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A century ago on February 12, 1915, dignitaries commemorated the 106th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth by laying the cornerstone of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The neoclassical monument designed by Henry Bacon has become an iconic piece of architecture, but had one of the designs from the other competing architect been selected, the familiar Lincoln Memorial would have looked jarringly different—perhaps in the form of a ziggurat, Mayan temple or Egyptian pyramid.

Before Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train even arrived in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, calls rose for a national monument in his honor. For nearly a half-century after Lincoln’s assassination, however, the movement to build a memorial to America’s 16th president in Washington, D.C., foundered as the lingering wounds of the Civil War remained raw.

In 1911, Congress finally approved $2 million for the project and created a Lincoln Memorial Commission, chaired by President William Howard Taft, to approve a location and design for the monument. While some leading politicians and self-serving automobile companies pushed for a utilitarian remembrance such as a bridge spanning the Potomac River or a memorial road from the capital city to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the commission initially recommended the selection of architect Henry Bacon to design a Lincoln Memorial to be situated in the newly created West Potomac Park as a counterweight to the U.S. Capitol on the eastern end of the National Mall.

Not all commission members, however, were happy with the decision. Former House Speaker Joseph Cannon believed that the isolated swampland reclaimed from the Potomac River was no place to honor Lincoln, and he objected to the lack of competition for the design. At Cannon’s behest, the commission agreed to also engage architect John Russell Pope to develop designs for a memorial at two other locations—Meridian Hill, a mile and a half due north of the White House, and the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home, the location of the presidential cottage where Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. ….

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