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.
The son of painters, Pope had studied architecture at Columbia University, Rome’s American Academy and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Although he mainly designed fine mansions for the Northeast’s upper crust, Pope had gained renown as the architect of the neoclassical Memorial Building in Hodgenville, Kentucky, that housed a log cabin symbolic of the one in which Lincoln was born and the Temple of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry in Washington, D.C., modeled after the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Inspired by another ancient structure, the Parthenon in Athens, Pope designed a colossal temple memorial for the Meridian Hill location. From its 250-foot-high elevation—approximately 150 feet higher than Capitol Hill—a massive 100-foot-wide staircase cascaded down the slopes of Meridian Hill to Sixteenth Street in the direction of the White House.
Pope was more partial to the Soldiers’ Home location, atop a 210-foot-tall crest on an axis due north of the U.S. Capitol. “It is, in the author’s opinion, a location in the biggest, finest sense for a great memorial, and the finest in Washington for that purpose,” Pope wrote. With more room available than on Meridian Hill, Pope designed a titanic round memorial with sentinel columns encircling a figure of Lincoln.
After Bacon and Pope presented their plans in December 1911, the commission confirmed its original decision to locate the Lincoln Memorial at the western end of the National Mall and requested that both architects submit new plans for the site. Pope modified the enormous circular memorial he had prepared for the Soldiers’ Home for the site near the Potomac River. His plan called for an open-air terrace 320 feet in diameter ringed by a dual colonnade of 60-foot-high Doric columns encircling the figure of Lincoln in the rotunda. A dedication to the man “who through the bitterness of war preserved the Union” was inscribed on an entablature over the main portico facing the Washington Monument and a reflecting pool with fountains. Pope believed the circular form of his monument would better harmonize with the Potomac’s diagonal shoreline and the traffic circle enclosing the memorial site better than a rectangular structure.
In addition to his preferred neoclassical memorial design, however, Pope also submitted graphite sketches of several jarringly different alternatives. One design resembled a stepped Mayan temple with an eternal flame burning away from a massive brazier mounted on its summit. Another proposed a colossal ziggurat, a terraced monument favored by the ancient Mesopotamians, topped by an enormous statue of Lincoln standing at its apex. Perhaps the most striking sketch depicted an Egyptian pyramid with classical porticoes on each of its four sides. While an architectural style employed for the entombment of Egyptian pharaohs might seem incongruous in a democratic capital, it would have echoed the Washington Monument, which was modeled after an Egyptian obelisk.
The Lincoln Memorial Commission ultimately found Pope’s plans too grand and ostentatious and by a majority vote selected Bacon’s preferred design of a Greek Doric temple that featured an enclosed rectangular chamber, a statue of a seated Lincoln and inscriptions from his second inaugural and Gettysburg Address. The Lincoln Memorial finally opened in 1922, nearly six decades after the 16th president’s death.
Although passed over, Pope’s flamboyant designs attracted wide notice and raised the architect’s stature. He would add his stamp to the neoclassical architecture of Washington, D.C., by working on the designs for the National Archives Building, Constitution Hall, National Gallery of Art and another notable presidential monument—the Jefferson Memorial.