By Edward Epstein
Sunday, May 14, 2023
Preliminary work has started on the four-year, $69 million project to enormously expand visitor space under the Lincoln Memorial at the western end of Washington's National Mall, by far the most-visited monument in the nation's capital.
Three sides of the century-old memorial now sit behind uninviting chain-link fencing. But if you're considering a visit to the monument, don't fear. Access to the statuary chamber, home to sculptor Daniel Chester French's giant seated Lincoln, is open -- and will remain so throughout the project. Some eight million people climb the 87 steps (Four score and seven years ago) annually to enter the iconic monument on its eastern side
On a visit to the busy memorial on May 12, the existing 800-square-foot visitors center underneath the south end of the monument was still open; although it will soon close as the work kicks into high gear. The underground restrooms will be replaced by temporary facilities while the work on the building, which is owned and overseen by the National Park Service, is underway.
The long-discussed project on the memorial's so-called undercroft -- the subterranean area where dozens of pilings were sunk into the area's marshy soil more than a century ago to support the massive 38,000 ton granite and marble structure above -- is being paid for by public money and private donations.
The visitors center will grow to 15,000 square feet when work is complete. The project will also include new restrooms, a larger bookstore and elevator replacement work. The current bookstore is in a cramped space off the northeast corner of the memorial's main chamber, not far from where the words of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address are carved into the wall.
The Park Service said the new visitors center will feature ceiling-to-floor glass walls that will offer a view of some of the undercroft's arched supports The latest trends in museum design will include an "immersive theater presentation" that will flash images of the many historic events that have taken place at the memorial onto the foundations.
With the work, the memorial's focal point will change, from its original focus on Abraham Lincoln as the man who saved the union during the Civil War, to Lincoln and the memorial as vital to the nation's endless struggle for full civil rights and equal opportunity for all.
Displays will explain the construction of the memorial and talk about how the Lincoln Memorial became the site of major civil rights demonstrations, most notably the August 1963 march on Washington, at which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I have a dream" speech before a crowd of a few hundred thousand people.
Last May, the Lincoln Group and the Park Service held a centennial commemoration for the memorial, which was dedicated in May 1922.
(Photo credit: Edward Epstein)