Lincoln Memorial: The Story and Design of an American Monument
My most recent visit to Washington D.C., a spur of the moment trip with my girlfriend to celebrate the imminent publication of Lincoln Memorial: The Story and Design of an American Monument, coincided with both the final, happy snap of this year’s endless winter and the city’s Cherry Blossom Festival. Oops. How did we forget about the Cherry Blossom Festival? Massive, shuffling, carefree crowds everywhere. Street fairs, fried dough, kites, a parade. And everywhere people. And a normally four-hour drive from New York transformed into a seven-hour ordeal. It was akin to absent-mindedly driving into Times Square on New Years Eve so you can go to the ESPN Zone (not to compare one of the world’s greatest monuments with a theme restaurant, but you get the idea).
But my poor travel planning aside, why is the Lincoln Memorial one of the world’s greatest monuments? Why do millions gather at it every year? Why does it succeed? In considering other American monuments, a lot of them are wonderful, but how much all-inclusive punch do they pack? Mount Rushmore is impressive certainly, but weirdly static and remote in person, overwhelmed by the rugged grandeur of the Black Hills. The Statue of Liberty is truly amazing, but requires epic patience to negotiate the long lines and ferry ride to truly interact with it in a meaningful fashion. The Lincoln Memorial, and all of the National Mall, despite its utter familiarity, remains powerful and emotionally accessible.
To me, the answer to the riddle of the memorial is a deeply complex one. I am forever amazed when public spaces, planned by politicians and hoping to serve multiple municipal needs (and boy oh boy did the Lincoln Memorial ever have a circuitous, red-taped, and mangled development), even partially work, let alone become iconic spaces. But the Lincoln Memorial does indeed work. Not only is it a beautiful public space, it carries the weight of history and the promise of the future. It is where the nation gathers to challenge itself–to push the boundaries of what the ideas of justice and liberty behind the American experiment truly mean. Consider that at its dedication in 1922, African American spectators were required to stand behind a roped line, removed and segregated from the general crowd of onlookers. It was a stark reminder that the promise of Lincoln’s words had yet to be fully achieved. But the promise was there–enshrined in the speeches carved into the walls of the memorial, and in the deeds of the man and the moment in history he was a part of. Seventeen years after the dedication, the great opera singer Marian Anderson, after being denied a venue in the capitol because of the color of her skin, gave an historic performance on the steps of the memorial. Anderson’s courage opened the door for others, leading to the most famous moment of the memorial’s history: 1963′s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The images and words of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking underneath the shadow of the monument stirred and inspired the world.
That day, I found the memorial packed with revelers enjoying the balm of our late-blooming spring. The sky was a sharp blue, the sun was warm. A wedding party took photos in front of the Reflecting Pool, a school group, dressed in matching yellow t-shirts, ate pizza on the northern edge of memorial’s steps. Children ran everywhere. A million selfies were being posted to instagram. I pressed my hand to the sunlit marble of those steps, and thought about all the countless millions who’d walked here before me. I considered all the courage and wisdom that had been displayed on those steps. The pure heroism in the face of bigotry and ignorance. Perhaps they were sobering thoughts, but it didn’t make me enjoy that carefree spring day any less. It only added context. It only added promise.
My trusted editorial assistant, Marlowe the Boston terrier, displaying our work:
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