Today’s post comes from Christina James, intern in the National Archives History Office.
Walking through our nation’s capital, you will inevitably come across at least one structure adorned with triangular pediments, massive columns, or a majestic dome. Many of Washington, DC’s most iconic buildings and monuments feature these elements and exemplify neoclassical architecture.
John Russell Pope, one of the most famous American neoclassical architects, believed that a democracy’s public buildings should be designed in the style of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Today, Pope’s designs are scattered throughout the city and include the Jefferson Memorial, the National Gallery of Art, and the National Archives.
However, one of the most recognizable neoclassical structures in the capital, the Lincoln Memorial, is not one of Pope’s designs. If Pope had been chosen to design the memorial, the National Mall would look very different.
The construction of a memorial to President Abraham Lincoln in Washington, DC, was first approved by Congress in 1911. The bill authorizing the construction created the Lincoln Memorial Commission to approve a site and a design for a memorial honoring the 16th President. The Committee was given a budget of $2 million dollars, the largest amount to ever be provided for a national memorial at the time.
Coming off of his enormously popular and celebrated design for the Temple of the Scottish Rite in Washington, DC, John Russell Pope was eager to be given the honor of designing the Lincoln Memorial. Despite Pope’s interest, the Commission of Fine Arts advised the Lincoln Memorial Commission to select architect Henry Bacon as the designer. Knowing Pope’s interest in the project, and reluctant to accept the ideas of the Commission of Fine Arts, Representative Joseph G. Cannon of the Lincoln Memorial Commission laid out his own plan.
Cannon proposed that Bacon and Pope each be allowed to design a memorial. Perhaps in an attempt to give Pope a greater chance of being selected, Cannon arranged for Pope to present designs for two proposed sites, Meridian Hill and Old Soldiers’ Home. Bacon prepared a design for the third site, Potomac Park.
When the Lincoln Memorial Commission officially chose the Potomac Park site for the Lincoln Memorial, Bacon and Pope were each asked to submit one last design. The two men then presented their designs to the Lincoln Memorial Commission and President William Howard Taft.
Pope’s final proposed design was an enormous monument, circular in shape.
In addition to this design, he presented several alternative drawings, including pyramid and ziggurat style structures.
In the end, the Commission of Fine Arts awarded Henry Bacon the job, choosing to stick with their initial recommendation. Though the structures Pope designed for the Lincoln Memorial were never constructed, they were widely appreciated at the time. His designs were released and displayed by prestigious architects clubs in 1914 and received a great deal of interest and admiration from the public.
Today, these drawings are kept among the records of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital at the National Archives.
John Russell Pope went on to have great success and see his later designs become celebrated landmarks in Washington, DC, and other cities around the country.
Construction on Bacon’s design began in 1914 and the Lincoln Memorial was completed in 1922.