The state of Ohio is called the “Mother of Presidents” because eight men to occupy the White House were born or raised here. The state’s role in presidential politics dates back to 1840, when William Henry Harrison, a frontier general, defeated the incumbent in a landslide. Ohio played a key role in the Civil War and the state’s battlefield heroes dominated the White House during the late nineteenth century, including Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley. (William Howard Taft and Warren G. Harding continued Ohio’s dominance of the executive branch in the twentieth century.) The state is filled with presidential birthplaces and homes, and with libraries, museums, and monuments, including many that are architecturally distinctive.
Two large memorials preserve the memory of William McKinley (1843–1901), the 25th president of the United States: the McKinley Birthplace Memorial in Niles (1917, McKim, Mead and White) was built near the site of his birth. The McKinley National Memorial in his hometown of Canton contains the tombs of the president, his wife, and their children.
McKinley, the last Civil War veteran to become president, was a skilled orator, a proponent of strong tariffs, and a supporter of industry. He guided the U.S. to victory in the Spanish‑American War of 1898, established an American presence in the Philippines, and embodied the country’s imperial ambitions. He endeared himself to late Victorian America through his Christian piety and his devotion to his wife, Ida, who suffered from epilepsy and became a virtual invalid after the loss of their two infant daughters. While attending public events at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, McKinley was shot by an anarchist on September 6, 1901 and he died six days later. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt succeeded him in office.
After his assassination, McKinley was venerated as a national martyr, one many Americans believed should have a fitting architectural tribute. Roosevelt established the National McKinley Memorial Association to build a monument on a prominent hill in Canton. An invited design competition was held in 1904 with New York architect Harold Van Buren Magonigle, a proponent of Beaux-Arts classicism, selected the winner.
The memorial occupies a 26-acre site in a public park northwest of downtown Canton and consists of a domed and granite-clad mausoleum at the summit of a terraced hill rising at the far end of a long, narrow lawn. Magonigle designed the memorial as a two-part landscape defined by an extended vista between what he called “hills of foliage” and the terraced lawn crowned with the mausoleum. He established a gradual transition in scale from the urban grid of the city to the formal axis of the memorial. When approaching the memorial from the park entrance, the white granite tomb is always in view, the focal point of the site and the visitor's ultimate goal. A 1,000-foot-long approach road rises gently to a plaza at the foot of the hill.
Architectural forms are gradually introduced into the landscape: around the plaza, hedges join granite retaining walls, planted with ivy to unite them with the turf. The hill’s truncated cone, carved into four terraces and crowned by the domed mausoleum, rises above largely flat terrain. The building and hill together form a pyramid, an effect that is made more emphatic by four flights of broad stairs (each with 108 steps) that lead from the plaza to the terrace. On the middle landing of the stairs to the tomb stands a 9.5-foot-tall bronze statue of McKinley by Charles Henry Niehaus.
Magonigle regarded the site plan as a symbolic combination of “the cross of the martyr, the sword of the President in time of war.” Side and rear stairs form the hilt of the sword and three arms of the cross; the main stairway represents the longer arm and, with the addition of the lawn (originally a tiered reflecting pool), created the blade of the sword. The mausoleum thus stands at the junction of sword and cross. The circles of the concentric terraces seem to form halos around this symbolic nexus of military strength and Christian virtue.
The cylindrical tomb is based on a range of precedents including the renowned Roman mausoleums of the first century: the mausoleum of Cecilia Metella on the Appian Way, and the mausoleums of emperors Hadrian and Augustus. In particular, Magonigle referenced how prehistoric tumuli gradually evolved into mausoleums as stone facings were added to earthen mounds over the centuries. The tomb’s plain and almost unadorned cylinder supporting a hemispherical dome also alludes to the Roman Pantheon and the ancient Greek omphalos, the symbolic navel of the earth at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. Ultimately, though, Magonigle’s most important ancient precedent was the primitive, rough‑hewn tomb of the Ostrogothic King Theodoric, built in Ravenna, Italy, in the fifth century. Contemplating the relationship between the McKinley Memorial and the Early Christian tomb, Magonigle saw “an unbridged gap of 1,500 years.” A more contemporary source is Grant’s Tomb in New York City (1897, John H. Duncan), another mausoleum for a Civil War veteran and president.
The McKinley Memorial’s classicism is not limited to the building’s composition; it is evident in its decorative motifs as well. Encircling the drum is an exterior frieze of thick ivy garlands, an ancient emblem of eternity and constancy. The palm branches of victory frame McKinley’s name on the plaque over the entrance. Inside are inverted torches symbolic of death and wing-spread eagles resting on the keystones at the center of the niches that encircle the tomb. The niches are defined by pairs of inset Tuscan columns.
Within the mausoleum, the massive double sarcophagus of the president and his wife is raised high above eye level and utterly dominates the chamber. Inscribed on a plaque in the memorial is “2 in 1... united in death as in life,” and bound with a gilded laurel garland meant to symbolize “a victory of love and constancy over death.” The sarcophagus is carved from a single block of dark green granite and rests on a black granite base supported by conventionalized coffin bearers ornamented with lions’ heads. The McKinley daughters are buried within the rear wall.
The McKinley Memorial was dedicated on September 30, 1907, when McKinley’s body was removed from its crypt in an adjacent cemetery and carried through the streets of Canton and into the park. On the steps of the new memorial, McKinley’s sister unveiled the statue of her slain brother and Magonigle turned the key of the tomb. Theodore Roosevelt delivered the oration, emphasizing the importance of supporting the acquisition of wealth in a free society.
In 1976, during the memorial’s restoration, a stained-glass skylight based on Magonigle’s original design was installed in the 12-foot-diameter oculus. With stars and stripes in red, white, and blue, it replaced the clear glass skylight that topped the 50-foot-diameter dome since the tomb’s completion.
Today the Memorial is operated by the Stark County Historical Society, which also operates the William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum.
Adams, George R., “William McKinley Tomb,” Stark County, Ohio. National Register of Historic Places Nomination, 1974. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
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Gould, Lewis. The Presidency of William McKinley.Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1980.
Heald, Edward Thornton . William McKinley: A Condensed Biography.1964. Reprint, Canton, OH: Stark County Historical Society, 1992.
Kennedy, James H. “Ten to Compete for the Honor.” Cleveland Plain Dealer,1904.
Magonigle, Harold Van Buren. “A Description of the McKinley Memorial at Canton, Ohio, by the Architect.” In The National McKinley Memorial Association, Canton, Ohio, Together with Authentic Historical Data Relating to McKinley's Life and Public Services, edited by Frederic S. Hartzell, 35-53. Canton, OH: McKinley Memorial Association, 1913.
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The McKinley National Memorial.Canton, OH: McKinley Memorial Association, 1907.
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