By Edward Epstein
Monday, February 20, 2023
The National Park Service in coming weeks will finally start work on long discussed and long- delayed work to vastly expand visitor space under Washington's landmark Lincoln Memorial, by far the most visited of the capital city's many monuments and memorials.
Most of the century-old memorial will remain open during thework, which is expected to last at least four years, the Park Service said in unveiling news of the project's kickoff. The project was originally announced in 2016, with an $18.6 million donation from billionaire David Rubenstein, a philanthropist who has played a major role in several ventures involving historical preservation in Washington, including paying $7.5 million for repairing the Washington Memorial after a 2010 earthquake. Among other projects, he also bought an original copy of the Magna Carta from 1297 for $21.3 million and has lent it to the National Archives to put on display.
The project's total price tag is now put at $69 million.
Other donors include the National Park Foundation, which gave $43 million, including Rubenstein's gift. The Park Service said other major donors include the John L. Nau III Foundation, the Rick L. and Vicki L. James Foundation, the Glenn W. Bailey Foundation and hedge fund billionaire Kenneth C. Griffin. The Park Service is putting in some $26 million.
The current visitors center in the Lincoln Memorial's basement, or undercroft, is 800 square feet. That will grow to 15,000 square feet. 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, which were sunk deep into the marshy land on which the memorial was built to provide support for the massive 38,000 ton granite and marble structure. 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.
Displays will explain the epic 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.
Other well-known events at the memorial include African-American soprano Marian Anderson's performance on Easter Sunday 1939, after the Daughters of the American Revolution denied her the use of Constitution Hall in an era of racial segregation. In 1947, Harry S Truman became the first president to address an NAACP convention at the memorial. In his speech, he called for a civil rights program.
"We're essentially building a modern glass structure inside this historic space," said Jeffrey Reinbold, superintendent of the park service's National Mall and Memorial Parks. In an interview with the Washington Post, he added, "And all of the challenges of how visitors would move throughout the space, interact with this historic space ... took a little longer than we expected" to plan.
During the long construction work on the renovations, visitors will be able to climb the 87 steps outside the memorial designed by Henry Bacon to view the huge statue of a seated Lincoln, created by sculptor Daniel Chester French. The basement area will be closed off for the work, but the Park Service will provide temporary restrooms and a handicapped-accessible lift to get people up to the statue chamber. The bookstore will remain open.
The work is supposed to finish in 2026, in time for the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th. But given the vagaries of construction work, that could be optimistic.
Rubenstein issued a statement, saying that "having a state-of-the-art visitor center will enable the memorial's eight million annual visitors to better understand the greatness of Lincoln and the pivotal role he played in saving the union and freeing enslaved people."
The figure of eight million visitors comes from before the covid pandemic. The number of visitors dropped to six million in 2021, according to Park Service figures. Nonetheless, the Lincoln Memorial remains by far the most visited of Washington's many memorials and monuments.
The Park Service's annual report says that the Lincoln Memorial has a vast economic impact on the capital region's economy. Before the pandemic, it put that impact at $149.3 million, which covers the money that out-of-town visitors whose trip included a stop at the memorial spent on hotels, food and shopping.
The Lincoln Group has also played a role in the memorial's story. Most recently, the group organized a well-attended centennial celebration in May 2022 on the eastern plaza of the memorial that featured speeches and music on a sunny, warm Sunday. The Lincoln Group also participates in the annual laying of wreaths at the memorial on February 12, Lincoln's birthday.
Carol M. Highsmith photo, donated royalty free to the Library of Congress.