By Wendy Swanson
Saturday, April 23, 2022
Location, location, location! The choice of the location for the Lincoln Memorial on the Potomac seems to most of us today as a “slam dunk” decision. What site could be more perfect? However, location was a hotly discussed topic during the planning phases for the memorial and not all – and particularly not Congressman (and later Speaker of the House) Joe Cannon – saw the Potomac Park site as the right location for honoring Lincoln.
The Commission of Fine Arts, in recommending a site for the memorial, looked for certain things. The funds appropriated for the structure were the largest amount to that time for such a purpose and as a result were suggestive of a large structure, one that would combine grandeur with beauty. Therefore, the memorial which would need to fit with and not be influenced by existing surroundings.
In the spring of 1902, three members of the Senate Park Commission, charged with planning a park system for the city, explored the edge of the Potomac, looking for just the right spot for the memorial. This small group included the esteemed architect Charles McKim and sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens. They placed a stake at the spot they deemed perfect, one in line with the Washington Monument and the Capitol Dome. High level officials including President Theodore Roosevelt supported the choice. This would be the very spot eventually recommended by the Commission of Fine Arts for the monument. In this undeveloped, isolated area, the monument would dominate the landscape.
The report of the Commission of Fine Arts discussed other proposed locations for the monument. Here are the runners-up in the competition; those sites lacking the right stuff for Lincoln’s site of honor:
Sites near the Capitol: The Commission of Fine Arts considered numerous locations near the Capitol. However, any change to that area would require a unity with the structures already in place; any new monument there would not fit in easily with existing buildings. There was also the concern that the proposed monument would block the view of the Capitol and Dome and/or the view of the Washington Monument. Granted, more people would see a monument on Capitol Hill or near Union Station than at some of the other possible sites. On the other hand, the impact of the grandeur and beauty of the monument would be lessened by competing structures in the area.
Meridian Hill (in the axis of Sixteenth Street): The vista on Sixteenth Street was narrow, with foliage extending far into the street; therefore, for a considerable portion of the year, the memorial would be hidden from prime viewing points. The area too was becoming busier and already was filled with residences of varying architecture. The proposed monument would lack the isolation required for a great structure.
Fort Stevens: This location is where Lincoln was under fire during the raid of General Early and would tie into the military aspect of Lincoln’s presidency. However, the location on 7th Street is not a great radial avenue in the city plan; coordinating the site with other major monuments would be difficult.
A Memorial Bridge: The Commission noted that Congress had recognized the desirability of a bridge to connect Potomac Park with Arlington. Such a structure could supplement the memorial, if constructed at that location. However, the Commission opined that the memorial should take “some form of abstract art, indicative of the endeavor and character of the man.” A bridge was thought to lack a “distinctly monumental character.” In light of its traffic-bearing purpose, a bridge simply would not impress one as a memorial. As we know today, a bridge was constructed near the site of the memorial but was not erected as a memorial in and of itself.
A Road to Gettysburg: Yes, some had proposed a national road between Washington and Gettysburg to honor Lincoln. That’s a whole separate story. However, the wording of the Act outlining requirements for the proposed monument saw its location as in Washington, D.C. Discussion ended as far as the Commission was concerned.
After all the discussions and delays, Potomac Park, a site desired by many for so long, was the Commission’s recommended site. This was a relatively undeveloped piece of land, with no structures or obstacles to interfere with development of the setting. The selection rationale sought a site to “endure throughout the ages.” Site selection required a vision as one must consider not what the location "was or is …but what it can be made for all time to come.”
John Hay was one who supported this site. In acknowledging that Lincoln “was one of the immortals,” Hay provided these thoughts:
You must not approach too close to the immortals. His monument should stand alone, remote from the common habitations of man, apart from the business and the turmoil of the city, isolated, distinguished and serene. Of all the sites, this one, near the Potomac, is most suited to that purpose.
Even the Potomac site’s major foe, Joe Cannon, later agreed that this was the right choice. In 1915 he was asked by architect Glenn Brown his thoughts on the Lincoln Memorial “now that it was taking place.” Brown wrote in his memoir that Cannon replied "I have been in many fights -- some I have lost, many I have won. It may have been better if I had lost more. I am pleased I lost the one against the Lincoln Memorial."
He later went on the House floor and acknowledged he was wrong to have ever opposed the monument. Perhaps conceding that his strong point was not as a visionary in the artistic field, he stated “We tenderfeet . . . perhaps ought not to have our way in matters of art. Looking through hindsight, I am inclined to think the Art Commission and the majority of the Memorial Commission located this memorial where it ought to be located.”
Join the Lincoln Group of DC, with co-sponsorship by the National Park Service and The Lincoln Forum, in celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln Memorial. See our series of centennial events here.
(Sources: The Lincoln Memorial Washington, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.; Mandel, Susan, “The Lincoln Conspirator,” The Washington Post, February 3, 2008)
(Photo credit: Library of Congress)