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Jefferson Memorial - 2012-03-15 | by Tim Evanson
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Jefferson Memorial - 2012-03-15

Looking south across the Tidal Basin at the Jefferson Memorial on March 15, 2012.


The memorial is located in West Potomac Park. This area of land (which, along with East Potomac Park, enclosed the Tidal Basin) was created between 1881 and 1911 by soil dredged from the bottom of the Potomac River. As the park was nearing completion, the U.S. Senate Park Improvement Commission (informally known as the McMillan Commission, after its chairman, Senator James McMillan) drew up a plan for the completion of Pierre L'Enfant's vision for the central core of Washington, D.C. This report, best known as the "McMillan Plan," proposed placing a major Neoclassical memorial due south of the Washington Monument in the new park.


In the early 1920s, a memorial to Theodore Roosevelt was proposed for the area, and a design competition held. But no memorial was built.


In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed building a memorial to Thomas Jefferson as part of the Federal Triangle complex of federal office buildings. Although no memorial was built, Rep. John Boylan sponsored legislation in Congress to form a Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission. Congress approved the bill and appropriated $3 million for a memorial. Boylan chaired it. The memorial commission declined to sponsor a design competition. Instead, it asked architect John Russell Pope -- who had imposed a Neoclassical design on Federal Triangle, designed the National Archives Building, designed the National Gallery of Art, and designed the Freemasons' "House of the Temple" in D.C. -- to submit a design.


At the time, no location for the Jefferson memorial had been chosen. The memorial commission was considering four sites: At Buzzard Point, at the south end of East Capitol Street; in Lincoln Park at 12th and East Capitol Streets NE; on the south side of the National Mall at the current site of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum; and in West Potomac Park. The memorial commission chose the Tidal Basin due to its prominence and because it had been chosen in the McMillan Plan as a means of completeing L'Enfant's vision.


Pope submitted a different design for each site. His design for the Tidal Basin site consisted of a central, square structure with columns in front and back, with a free-standing statue of Jefferson and a long, rectangular, north-south running reflecting pool in front. Extending right and left were colonnades, and additional colonnades ran north from these extensions halfway along the reflecting pool. The memorial was intended to stand on a 25-foot high concrete dais. The memorial itself was about 145 feet high and 220 feet wide, and based on the Parthenon in Rome.


Pope's design came under significant criticsm for being monumentally fascist, and a more conservative design requested. Pope's new design was based on the Villa La Rotonda in Vicenza, Italy (which Jefferson had admired). Pope also revised his original design, dropping the height to just 135 feet and the width to just 165 feet.


In 1937, the memorial commission submitted its designs to the National Capital Planning Commission and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, both of which had legal authority to approve the design of the memorial. Both of Pope's designs were widely derided, and scathing criticism came from all quarters. The House of Representatives was so incensed that it began holding hearings on the lack of design competition. Pope died of stomach cancer on August 27, 1937.


A month after Pope's death, his assistants -- Daniel Higgins and Otto Eggers -- met with the Commission of Fine Arts. They agreed to move the memorial 600 feet south, so that it wouldn't stand directly on the banks of the Tidal Basin. They also agreed to abandon Pope's two designs and use Pope's unbuilt Theodore Roosevelt memorial design as a starting point.


But Sadie Pope, Russell's widow and heir to his copyrights on all these designs, was incensed. She began a letter-writing campaign that caught the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt intervened in the design controversy, and proposed a smaller, more intimate memorial that incorporated elements of the Pantheon and the Villa La Rotonda.


In June 1938, Congress restored funding for the memorial. The Commission of Fine Arts never approved a plan for the memorial, but by this time the controversy was over and construction was proceeding. Ground was broken in December 1938 and President Roosevelt dedicated it on Jefferson's birthday on April 13, 1943.


Determined to avoid another design controversy, the memorial commission held a competition for the Jefferson statue in 1939. More than 100 submissions were made, and six finalists chosen. Rudulph Evans was selected as the design winner. Stonecarver Adolph Weinman was selected to sculpt the pediment above the entrance.


Evans' statue was not ready by the time the memorial was dedicated. World War II broke out in December 1941, and bronze was no longer legally available for use in art projects (it all had to be diverted to the war effort). So a plaster version was installed and painted to look like bronze. The finished bronze statue was installed in 1947.

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Taken on March 15, 2012