In the time since the cornerstone was laid in 1915, the Lincoln Memorial has become a national symbol and is easily one of the most recognizable structures in the United States. Situated between Arlington National Cemetery and the Reflecting Pool, the Lincoln Memorial provides a breathtaking view of the World War II Memorial, the Washington Monument, the green dome of the Smithsonian Institution’s Natural History Museum, the Smithsonian Castle and, far off in the distance, the dome of the United States Capitol Building. However, if a different person had won a contest in the early 1900s, we could all be seeing a very different Lincoln Memorial in a different location. Mayan-style ziggurat, anyone? Perhaps an Egyptian pyramid instead?
As early as 1867, a mere two years after Lincoln was assassinated, a group was formed called the Lincoln Monument Association with the intent to build a memorial to honor Abraham Lincoln. Due to a number of different issues ranging from the financial to the political, forty years passed with little to nothing accomplished until Congress stepped in to help with an offer of funding and oversight in 1911. The Lincoln Memorial Commission was created, and the search for a design and a location began.
Several locations were considered including Meridian Hill, the Soldier’s Home in northeast Washington where Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation, a bridge across the Potomac River, or a memorial road between Washington, D.C. and Gettysburg. Initially, the commission had suggested appointing Henry Bacon to design the monument to be erected in West Potomac Park; however, the commission was not pleased with the idea of locating the Lincoln Memorial in an area that had, until very recently, been a swamp and decided to hold a competition for the design of the memorial. The commission further decided to invite John Russell Pope to submit designs, as well. It was Pope who submitted designs for the site at the Soldier’s Hospital and Meridian Hill.
Following the submission of designs by both Pope and Bacon, the commission settled on the West Potomac Park location for the monument and called for a new round of designs to be submitted for that particular site. Fourteen of these concept drawings for the Lincoln Memorial can be found within the holdings of the Cartographic Branch of the National Archives, located in College Park, Maryland, at Archives II. These drawings come from RG: 42, Proposal Plans for the Lincoln Memorial. Further, these drawings have all been digitized and are currently available for viewing and download by searching the NAID # 2524291 at catalog.archives.gov. Eventually, the winning plan was that of Henry Bacon, featuring the Greek Doric Temple that we all recognize today!