The Jefferson Memorial on Washington's Tidal Basin.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt laid the cornerstone of the Jefferson Memorial eighty four years ago today on November 15, 1939 it was just plain good politics. He was planning to run for re-election in November for an unprecedented third term which was sure to elicit howls of outrage by Republicans who could hardly stand to utter his name. The country’s recovery from the Great Depression had not only slowed but had slid backwards as a new recession hit the already shaky economy—a recession brought on in no small part to his agreement with Congress to belt tightening budget cutting after years of stimulating the economy with free spending. Even Southern Democrats, who by in large had backed his New Deal programs as long as he left their traditional racial arrangements untouched, were getting restive, especially a few Senators who could see themselves in the White House if FDR would get out of the way.
The new memorial would remind voters that the generally revered Founding Father and author of the Declaration of Independence was also the founder of what evolved into the Democratic Party. It would celebrate the particular hero of southerners. And, of course, it would be another of those high profile public works projects that put Americans to work—always the most popular part of the New Deal.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt symbolically lays the cornerstone of the Memorial.
But the monument and its honoree both had plenty of critics. Republican conservatives of that era were to a man—there were hardly any leading women to speak of—Hamiltonians. They favored sound money, a national bank (the Federal Reserve would do), high tariffs, low internal taxes, and a Federal government vigorous enough to defend not only the shores but the industrial and commercial elite from the democratic rabble. Only much later when they make a marriage of convenience with Southern Whites resentful of Civil Rights legislation would the GOP adopt states’ rights conservatism which would claim Jefferson as its founder.
FDR and the Democrats preferred to see Jefferson as a champion of the people against oligarchy and privilege. They cherished the ringing endorsements of liberty in the Declaration, but also his oft stated view that one generation cannot bind future ones. They believed that whatever his views on the balance of state and Federal power may have been when alive, that his commitment to the wellbeing of the common man and suspicion of the amassing power of corporations, would put him in that day squarely on the side of the New Deal.
None of the political opposition to memorializing Jefferson came then, as it surely would today, because of his ownership of slaves, his racist assumptions of the inferiority of Blacks, his aggressive Indian policy, and his perceived hypocrisy for not extending the blessings of his beloved Liberty to all.
There was also the customary carping and complaining about every aspect of the Memorial itself from its location to its design. Traditionalists were shocked that its placement broke from Pierre Charles L’Enfant original and elegant grand design of the city. Construction also required the destruction and removal of a grove of ancient oaks and several of the Japanese cherry trees that had been a gift of that country in 1928. Others felt that the location between the main channel of the Potomac River and the Tidal Basin was too remote or that the landfill on which it would be built was too unstable to support the weight. And just about everybody had a critical opinion of the design.
Despite it all, the project, which had begun with site preparation a month earlier, was definitely going to be built when the President, who could not stand unassisted, symbolically laid the cornerstone by touching it before workmen set it into place.
It had been a long time coming.
The future site of the memorial was created by landfill from dredging of the Potomac in the late 19th Century. In 1908 the construction of Tidal Basin Inlet Bridge made the site accessible and it became part of Potomac Park. Ten years later chlorine dispensers were installed under the bridge to make the brackish water safe to swim in. Sand was brought in and a public swimming beach opened. It was operated for Whites only and was popular with local residents in the scorching Washington summer. But when challenged by local Blacks who claimed that segregation of public facilities was not legal under Federal Law, the beach was permanently closed. In ’28 those cherry trees were planted along the shoreline.
Meanwhile, after the completion and dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922 it was assumed that it would complete the grand plan and would be the last big monument on the National Mall. But some people thought there should be accommodation made for at least one future memorial reserved perhaps for some future Great Man. Others supported the erection of a classic Pantheon containing statues of notable and honorable dignitaries—a sort of open air Hall of Fame had the term been in circulation at the time. The Tidal Basin site was one of the proposed possible locations.
Memorial architect and champion of Neo-Classical design John Russell Pope.
In 1925 some admirers thought they found just the right man to honor with a grand new memorial—Theodore Roosevelt. They raised money for a national design completion for the structure. Leading New York architect John Russell Pope who proposed a colonnaded half-circle next to a circular basin. He envisioned the Tidal Basin site, so recently vacated by bathers.
Despite hefty Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, funding for the project could not get approved. Not only did powerful business interests oppose memorializing the Trust Buster, but many conservative Republicans were still bitter at his splitting the party in 1912 costing William Howard Taft re-election.
Plans for any memorial or for other use of the Tidal Basin site languished for years until 1934 when another Roosevelt asked the Commission of Fine Arts to consider adding a memorial to Jefferson to the massive Federal Triangle Project already under construction. Encompassing several blocks facing Pennsylvania Avenue along its hypotenuse the project featured the construction of several massive buildings in the Neo-Classic style including the National Archives, Internal Revenue Service, and the Departments of Justice, Commerce, and Labor.
Although that location was shot down, Congressman John J. Boylan of New York proposed the creation of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission. The bill passed later in ’34 and Boylan was appointed the first chairman. The next year he secured a $3 million appropriation to go ahead with the design and construction.
Eschewing a long and inevitably controversial design competition, the Commission turned to John Russell Pope who had recently completed the designs of two of the most prominent buildings in the Federal Triangle Project—the National Archives and the National Gallery of Art (now the West Wing of the Gallery.)
Pope quickly turned out four distinct plans for four possible locations—the Anacostia River at the end of East Capitol Street, at Lincoln Park, on the south side of the National Mall across from the National Archives, and the Tidal Basin site. The Tidal Basin won out both because it was the most prominent site and because it was located directly across the Basin from the White House, affording a dramatic view of each building from the other.
Pope returned to the familiar Neo-Classical style. He drew heavily on his Henry E. Huntington mausoleum on the grounds of The Huntington Library in Los Angeles. It was to be an open edifice based on the Pantheon and surmounted by a shallow dome. It was to sit on a broad platform on a rise from the Tidal Basin and to be flanked by two smaller temple-like buildings.
Popes plans were savaged by modernists who were chaffing at the bit to liberate public architecture from Neo Classicism. Pope never responded to the complaints, serene in his conviction that the design, which echoed architect Jefferson’s own Monticello home and his design for the Rotunda of the Main Hall of the University of Virginia. As it turned out it, however, it would be the last major Neo Classic structure built in Washington.
By the time construction began, Popes had died. His former partners Daniel P. Higgins and Otto R. Eggers completed the project. At the request of the Commission, they eliminated the side buildings and made other modifications, but stayed essentially true to the original designer’s intent.
The Memorial under construction.
As construction was underway the Commission did undertake competitions for a statue of Jefferson to go under the rotunda dome and for the decorative frieze for the pediment above the entrance overlooking the Basin. Rudolph Evans won the commission for a standing bronze statue of Jefferson and Adolph Weinman, noted for his architectural animation did the frieze.
The 1943 dedication competed with war news.
The building was finally completed and dedicated by FDR on April 13, 1943, Jefferson’s 200th birthday. Because of World War II metal shortages, Evans’ statue could not be cast. In its place stood a plaster model painted to look bronze. It was not until well after the War in 1947 that a bronze could be cast and put into place.
Along the walls of the rotunda were large plaques containing quotations from Jefferson, including long excerpts from the Declaration of Independence and from the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom as well as snippets from his only book Notes on Virginia and from several letters. In a frieze ringing the rotunda under the dome was carved one of Jefferson’s most famous epigrams, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
Naturally the selected words caused an uproar. Historians noted that the word inalienable rather than unalienable had been used in the opening words of the Declaration—a common error—and that some of the final words were not from Jefferson’s pen but additions from other members of the drafting committee. It also eliminated the right of revolution passage that was central to Jefferson’s justification for Independence.
Conservatives charged that other quotes were cherry picked to seem to endorse the New Deal and its priorities such as a passage on the necessity of an educated electorate which they charge was intended to fool people into believing that Jefferson would support universal public education. Of course Democrats countered that is exactly what he had in mind.
On the subject of Blacks and slavery, always tricky with Jefferson, the Commission truncated on crucial sentence which began “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than these people are to be free” but omitted the second half, “Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government.”
Rudolph Evan's standing bronze is surrounding by Jefferson's words on the gleaming walls.
Today the Monument is maintained by the National Park Service and is open 24 hours a day. Because of its location far enough away from other attractions to require a long hike around the Tidal Basin, driving, or tour bus—it is not served by the Metro—it is not visited as much as other leading attractions. Still more than 2 million people visit it each year. But if you are planning a visit soon, keep in mind that the pending government shutdown would close and all National Parks, Monuments, Battleground, and Cemeteries.
Controversy over the design has faded among all but the bitterest International Modernists. In fact, in 2007 it was ranked fourth on a List of Americas Favorite Architecture by the American Institute of Architects.
The damaged dome of the Monument was cloaked in scaffolding during the major restoration begun in 2019.
In 2019 a major restoration project got underway to address severe deterioration of the structure including dealing with a dark biofilm that had spread over the surface of the dome and preservation of the marble itself which had become pitted by pollution and acid rain. Insect and arachnid infestations needed to be eradicated. Decorative stonework which has been falling needs to be shorn up. It is an $8.5 million dollar, multi-year project.
The Jefferson Memorial can be seen from the White House across the South Lawn, Ellipse, and Tidal Basin.
In my opinion whatever it and its subject’s flaws the Memorial is a stunningly beautiful building. It is best seen as dusk descends. Jefferson seems to peer out across the Tidal Basin to the shining, illuminated White House across the water. Similarly seen from the White House in the same gloaming, the Memorial seems to glow. Gives me chills.