The National Mall in Washington DC is a one stop shop for memorials and monuments, all crammed into the nations only urban national park and open to visitors for the wonderfully low cost of $0.00. As one of the most popular attractions in all of DC, it contains many of the most famous sites visitors come to the capital to see – the monolithic memorials to presidents, wars, leaders, and luminaries that shaped the United States in one way or another.
The people and events commemorated on the National Mall are the the material of legend, and most Americans can recite the history of the people and events which the memorials commemorate at will. However, the monuments themselves actually have their own fascinating histories behind them – histories that aren’t as well known by the average American.
During my visit to Washington DC, I wanted to learn more about the events that shaped the development of these monuments. What I found was astonishing – secret messages, symbols, and monuments that look nothing like their original designs. I’m sharing my five favorite stories behind the monuments and memorials on the National Mall.
1. Washington Monument
Built and named in honor of the first president, the Washington Monument was the tallest building in the world when it was completed, and is still the tallest stone structure and tallest obelisk.
However, the Washington Monument was not planned to look the way it does today. In fact, it was originally intended to have a grand colonnade surrounding the obelisk, a statue of George Washington in a chariot, and a flat top as opposed to the pointy top of the monument we know today.
The design was slated to cost over $1 million dollars to build, but the Washington National Monument Society (the group charged with building the monument) had only raised $87,000 towards the effort. Rather than raising the rest of the money before starting the project, the group decided to dive in head first and begin construction with the most obvious and visible portion of the monument – the obelisk.
Construction on the monument began in 1848 and continued until 1854, when the group had run out of money. The monument sat unfinished as the nation plunged into Civil War and remained as such until construction resumed in 1879.
By this time, various groups had submitted alternative designs for how to best complete the monument, and Congress decided on a design that removed the colonnade and added the familiar pointed top to the obelisk. Construction continued in earnest until the monument was finally opened to the public in 1888, forty years after it was started.
Due to the two separate phases of construction and the different quarries used for the stone, if you look closely at the monument you can see that the lower third of it is a slightly lighter shade.
2. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
During Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (FDR) lifetime, he expressed his wishes for a memorial to be built for him. You have to admire a guy who had the chutzpah to ask for his own memorial to be built, however, his request was actually quite modest – he did not want a towering monument like Washington or a Greek temple like Lincoln.
Instead, Roosevelt had a simple request: a memorial the size of his office desk placed in front of the National Archives. His request was fulfilled and in the 1960s and the first FDR memorial was dedicated – according to his exact wishes.
However, as time rolled on and the nostalgia and legend of FDR grew, a movement for a larger, more fitting memorial began to pick up, and 30 years after the original FDR memorial was dedicated, a new memorial on the National Mall was constructed and dedicated. The memorial is a series of four outdoor rooms (representing each term in his presidency) and incorporates elements of running water.
Since the construction of the new, grandiose FDR memorial on the National Mall, the original FDR memorial has become a somewhat forgotten, unknown, or ‘secret’ site within Washington DC. But if you’re ever touring around the sites of the National Mall, make sure to stop just outside the National Archives and pay homage to the 32nd president at the memorial he originally envisioned for himself, still sitting exactly where he wanted it.
3. WWII Memorial
After years without a proper memorial and a very public campaign to raise the money necessary to build it, the World War II Memorial was dedicated and opened to the public in 2004. Consisting of 56 pillars (representing each of the states and territories) surrounding a pool, the memorial has become one of the most popular attractions on the National Mall.
The idea of graffiti on a national memorial may sound atrocious, but it’s actually an element of design for the memorial and is an homage to the Americans who served. The graffiti? ‘Kilroy was here.” The image that became a symbol of United States servicemen during World War II who would draw the simple image wherever they were – barracks, encampments, etc.
If you’re wanting to see the images for yourself when visiting the memorial, there is a small walled off area on the west side where you’ll see a metal grate. Look on the back wall of the memorial there to find the graffiti.
4. Vietnam Veterans Memorial
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is perhaps one of the most famous and somber memorials in all of Washington DC. Families come to scan the wall and find the names of loved ones who were lost in the conflict. Names are continually added to the wall, with six added as recently as 2011.
The design of the memorial is one of the most striking on the National Mall – a V shaped wall cutting into the ground, representing the wound or opening left by the loss of American service men and women. Made of a shiny, black granite, the wall not only captures the names of those lost etched into it, but also the reflections of those who come to the site to remember or pay respect.
What’s most surprising about the design is that it was not designed by a famous, respected architectural firm. When the memorial was in the design phase, the committee responsible for it held a public design competition and received over 1,400 entries, many from well known, established architectural firms. However, the final design chosen was submitted by a 21-year old Yale University undergraduate architecture student, Maya Ying Lin.
The selection process was blind and the design selection committee were only given numbers with no information about the artists behind the designs. Maya Ying Lin is convinced that had they known she was just a college student before selecting the memorial design, she would not have won, and we’d have an entirely different memorial today.
5. Lincoln Memorial
Of all the rumors, urban legends, and intrigue on the National Mall, no site generates more controversy and conspiracy than the Lincoln Memorial. A monument to the 16th president and the site of such famous speeches as Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, the site is forever etched in the American psychee and is perhaps the most famous site along the mall. I encountered three particularly interesting rumors while researching The Lincoln Memorial – some more believable than others – but I’ll let you be the judge on these…
Lincoln’s Hands Convey a Secret Message – Rumor has it that the sculptor of the Lincoln statue, Daniel Chester French, designed Lincoln’s so that he would be signing his initials of ‘A’ and ‘L’ in American sign language. Officials associated with the memorial claim there was no such intention. Look at the hands of Lincoln compared to the American Sign Language symbols for ‘A’ and ‘L’. What do you think?
Lincoln is Buried Beneath the Memorial – Another common urban legend is that Abraham Lincoln is actually buried beneath the Lincoln Memorial in DC. The National Park Service (who oversees the National Mall) officially states that this urban legend is false, as Lincoln is buried in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, and not in a secret sarcophagus beneath his memorial, though the rumor persists.
Robert E. Lee is Hidden on the Statue of Lincoln - Perhaps the most bizarre rumor about the Lincoln Memorial is the presence of the confederate general Robert E. Lee on the back side of Lincoln’s head. Some people claim to see the famous general in profile in the back of Lincolns toussled hair. I’ve included an image of the statue and a profile image of Robert E. Lee. Again, I’ll leave this one up to you.
The National Mall is a place of significant historical importance to The United States of America. Next time you’re visiting, make sure to take a minute at each of the sites to consider the history behind these monumental efforts – it can be almost as fascinating as the people and events they commemorate.