By Sarah Vowell
With a building as iconic as the Lincoln Memorial, it’s such a given, it seems so inevitable, I cannot imagine the Mall without it. Moreover, it’s so universally revered it’s hard to believe there were ever protests against the way it looked. But when Daniel Burnham, Cass Gilbert, Daniel Chester French, and their fellow commissioners chose Henry Bacon’s Greek temple design for the Lincoln Memorial in 1913, the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects, led by an associate of Frank Lloyd Wright, threw a fit. Understandably the Prairie school architects from the Land of Lincoln were outraged that the Lincoln Memorial was going to be so purely Greek and entirely un-American. Henry Bacon’s previous buildings included a Greek-looking bank still standing on New York’s Union Square and the Greek-looking tomb for Republican boss, Mark Hanna, and Cleveland’s Lakeview Cemetery. Bacon and French had already collaborated on a tomb for Chicago retail magnate Marshall Field. So by the time they were hired to work on the Lincoln Memorial they were the Republican Party’s top marble go-to guys.
It’s amusing to speculate on what kind of low, flat slab Frank Lloyd Wright might have come up with to honor the tall, skinny Lincoln. It’s more intriguing still to imagine what Wright’s Chicago mentor, Louis Sullivan, might have designed, had he been asked. Sullivan is my favorite architect for the same reason Lincoln is my favorite president—his buildings are logical but warm, pragmatic but not without frippery, grand and human all at once. It’s telling that when Daniel Burnham got back from Europe, he started drawing Doric columns and when Louis Sullivan returned to Chicago from his European study sojourn, he started taking long walks out on the prairie. Sullivan accused the classical influence of Burnham’s World’s Fair of being “a virus,” a “violent outbreak” of “the bogus antique.”
Whereas Burnham’s aesthetic, shared by Henry Bacon, attempted to catapult Abraham Lincoln up to Mount Olympus—“isolated, distinguished, and serene,” Sullivan’s buildings live here on earth. Having strode so often on the prairie that Lincoln also walked upon, Sullivan thought stalks of wheat were as inspiring as the columns of the Parthenon and hoped that his fellow Americans could build their own new country out of the one Lincoln had saved. Sullivan complained in his 1924 autobiography about the sort-of Greek, kind-of Roman buildings springing up all over the United States including the recently dedicated Lincoln Memorial that
What I wouldn’t give to see what a man like that would have conjured in honor of a man like Lincoln. What if this memorial, and while we’re at it, all three branches of government were more courageous and sympathetic and made more sense and aspired and again aspired? What if the pallid and the academic, the fictitious and the false, were banished from this Mall and from this town? Spend too much time pondering what-ifs like that about the nation’s capital and you’ll want to hurl yourself off the Washington Monument.
Thanks to congregational feet-dragging, political infighting, World War I, and the simple time-consuming process of mining then shipping tons upon tons of marble all the way from Colorado, by the time the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in 1922, Abraham Lincoln had been dead for 57 years. There is a wonderful photograph of a clearly enchanted Robert Todd Lincoln sitting in the audience at the ceremony—sitting with the white people in the audience because the Lincoln Memorial dedication ceremony was segregated. Segregated!
So it took a while for the Lincoln Memorial to come to mean what it’s come to mean. Thanks to Marian Anderson who performed here on Easter Sunday 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution barred her from singing at Constitution Hall because of her skin color and of course Martin Luther King Jr, who stood on what he called “this hallowed spot” in 1963 making history with “I have a dream,” the Memorial has long been physically and philosophically desegregated.
So much so, in fact, that at one time I came to the memorial with my friend Dave and as we were climbing the steps he said, “It looks fake.”
“These people,” he said pointing at the other visitors. “Look at them. Every color. from all over the world.”
“Why is that fake?”
“It’s too perfect, like they were brought here by a casting agent to make a commercial.”
He was right. The people who visit the memorial always look like an advertisement for democracy, so bizarrely, suspiciously diverse that one time I actually saw a man in a cowboy hat standing there reading the Gettysburg address next to a Hasidic Jew. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had linked arms with a woman in a burka and a Masai warrior to belt out, “It’s a Small World,” flanked by a chorus line of nuns and field-tripping rainbow-skinned schoolchildren.
Yes, the memorial is lousy with cold-hearted columns, a white Greek temple for a man associated with browns and blacks—the log cabin, the prairie, the top hat, the skin of slaves.
Yes, Lewis Mumford called it a memorial to the Spanish-American War and he’s not all wrong, but loving this memorial is a lot like loving this country. I might not have built the place this way; it’s a little too pompous, and if you look underneath the marble the structure’s a fake and ye olde Parthenon is actually supported by skyscraper steel. But the Lincoln Memorial is still my favorite place in the world and not just in spite of its many stupid flaws. It’s my favorite place partly because of its blankness, because of those columns that are such standard-issue Western civ cliches they don’t so much exist as float. Inside the Lincoln Memorial I know what Frederick Douglass meant when he described what it was like to be invited to Lincoln’s White House: “I felt big there.”
This is an excerpt from Assassination Vacation (Simon and Schuster, 2006), reprinted with permission of the publisher. Here Sarah Vowell walks in the footsteps of the men who murdered presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley and considers how these events reshaped history. Once you get hooked on her wry wit and plain old-fashioned wonder, you’ll want to read The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Lafayette Somewhere in the United States, and Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World.