The sense of quiet and repose essential to the experience of the Lincoln Memorial derives from its placement in the extended landscape created especially for it and from the perfectly balanced relationship between Daniel Chester French's great statue of Lincoln and the equally great architecture that Henry Bacon designed to shelter and display it. The ideal of monumental Beaux-Arts public architecture was the dynamic fusion of landscape, architecture, sculpture, painting, and the written word to draw the spectator toward, into, and through an architectural space that culminates in some transcendent meaning. Bacon saw the building as the logical conclusion to the historical development of the Mall, with the Capitol symbolic of American
The building itself is a paradigm for the union of the states. Thirty-six Doric columns (and double wreaths in the entablature above them) represent the states at the outbreak of the Civil War. The easily read names of each state with the date of admission into the Union were intended to make this relationship manifest. Forty-eight festoons in the recessed attic represent the states at the time of the memorial's erection. (A bronze plaque with information on Alaska and Hawaii was installed at the foot of the approach stairs in 1985.)
Bacon's spatial and organizational frame was designed not only to display this historically potent iconographic program but also to enhance its meaning by providing an appropriate setting and approach, as well as a subdued and supportive interior space. The monument's physical isolation and elevated position were intended to reflect the character of Lincoln, who was seen to be above petty politics. The progressive experience of first viewing the gleaming white temple at the end of the reflecting pool, then approaching it off axis, and finally arriving at the broad plaza was meant to make visitors feel that they were entering a sacred precinct. The intensity of the experience gradually increases as one mounts the staircase, first by gradual ascents and finally by a steep rise requiring a real effort. One's initial impression on arrival is of a single-volume, lofty interior, so powerful are the east-west directional forces. The sense of gravitas emanates from French's statue and from the high and uncluttered cella that Bacon provided for it. Subdued daylight seeps though the double roof (ridged on the exterior) that is glazed with thin translucent panels of marble set within a framework of bronze beams. Screens composed of four 60-foot-tall Ionic columns create two antechambers. On the south wall Jules Guerin's mural entitled Emancipation spans its upper portion, while Lincoln's “Gettysburg Address” in bronze letters is inscribed below. On the north wall Guerin's Reunion is paired with Lincoln's “Second Inaugural Address.”
Although the dimensions and proportional relationships (188 feet long by 118 feet wide by 74 feet high), cella sculpture, and details of the Doric columns all suggest the Athenian Parthenon as the major inspiration for the Lincoln Memorial, its orientation with the entry on the long side (rather than at the narrow end, as at the Parthenon) and its high attic rather than a sloping roof indicate that the memorial was not derived from any specific prototype. Classical precedents existed for roofless temples and those entered on the long axis, as we know from the Roman writer Vitruvius. Refinements to make the entire building appear perfectly rectilinear and symmetrical when viewed from afar include the entasis that modulates the 44-foot-tall Doric columns and the increased intercolumniation in the center of the east facade; this nearly square (45 feet by 44 feet) entrance creates a dark backdrop that needed to be lightened. The exterior is of white Colorado marble. Interior floors and wall bases are of pink Tennessee marble, with Indiana limestone on the upper walls. An underground catacomb of floating reinforced concrete arches spreads beneath the long staircase approach to the memorial and on the other three sides.
The reflecting pool was intended to mirror the Washington Monument from the top step of the Lincoln Memorial, but it had to be shortened to accommodate the foundations necessary to support the memorial, which was being constructed on what a quarter-century earlier had been tidal flats. Thus the obelisk is not reflected in its entirety.