In the decades following the 1868 dedication of the white marble figure of a solemn standing Abraham Lincoln in front of City Hall in Washington, D.C., memories of the living Lincoln faded as those who knew him passed away. But the nearly sacred place the martyred president held in the hearts and minds of most Americans only continued to grow.
Although several other memorials to Lincoln were erected in Washington over the next decades, there remained an unfulfilled longing in the country for a fitting national monument to be built in his honor.
The first such effort was begun in 1867, when the U.S. Congress established a Lincoln monument commission. This led to the development of a grandiose design for a four-tiered 70-foot tall monument that would be installed near the Capitol Building. It would include six equestrian statues, an oversized statue of Lincoln, and 31 other large statues depicting historical and allegorical figures. The project was eventually abandoned due to lack of funding.
In the early 20th century the idea of the memorial was revived, and in February 1911 the U.S. Congress established the Lincoln Memorial Commission. With President William H. Taft as the Commission’s president, the group moved forward without impediment. Within two years Congress approved a site for the building on the western end of the National Mall, across from the Washington Monument, and overlooking the Potomac River. Congress also approved a Greek-temple-inspired design by architect Henry Bacon, and it appropriated the necessary funds. Construction of the Lincoln Memorial began in early 1914.
The Commission had chosen the perfect architect for the project, as Bacon had been working on design schemes for a national Lincoln monument since 1897. This was when he was approached by a private group that had wanted to raise funds for such a monument, but had failed to get its effort off the ground.
Bacon was an accomplished designer of both public and commercial buildings, and he had also completed notable projects for private clients. Among these were the studio and house for sculptor Daniel Chester French at Chesterwood, his estate in Sturbridge, Mass.
In 1915 French was commissioned to create the statue of Lincoln that would become the centerpiece of the Lincoln Memorial. He and Bacon had already happily collaborated on the creation of several public monuments. Among their notable projects was the Commodore George Hamilton Perkins monument (1902), installed on the back (State Street) side of the New Hampshire State House in Concord.
French’s naturalistic bronze statue of Perkins, a Civil War naval officer from Hopkinton, New Hampshire, is displayed within a dramatic granite setting featuring a stylized eagle’s head platform, and a surround with bas-relief angels.
The two men had also collaborated on a Lincoln monument on the grounds of the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska (1912). Known as the Gettysburg Lincoln, the nearly nine-foot-tall bronze statue on a stone pedestal stands starkly against a plain stone wall. Lincoln is depicted with his head bowed, and his hands clasped in front of him.
French would make use of his meticulous research for the Nebraska Lincoln statue when developing his ideas for the Lincoln Memorial sculpture. For this work French chose to depict a contemplative but vigorous Lincoln, seated in a throne-like chair. French’s initial three-foot-tall model of this concept was reviewed and approved by the Commission in April 1916.
He completed a seven-foot-tall model later than year, and made plans for the finished sculpture to be enlarged from this model into a 12 feet high statue. However, both he and Bacon soon realized that the piece would be dwarfed when installed in the 60 feet wide, 74 feet deep, and 60 feet high display chamber in the center of the building. They agreed that the statue needed to be enlarged to 19 feet tall.
Also, French’s original plans had been to cast the statue in bronze, but he ultimately decided that it should be carved out of white marble. The Commission agreed to the resulting cost overruns, and a family of expert Italian-American artisans, the Piccirilli Brothers of New York City, was hired to do the carving. Their meticulous work was begun at the end of 1918.
Next week: The Lincoln Memorial is dedicated May 30, 1922.