Under Your Nose: A Jeffersonian Tribute

Posted April 10, 2009 at 1:26pm

With all the focus on the cherry blossoms, one focal point of the Tidal Basin is often forgotten.

[IMGCAP(1)]In the background of all the pictures sits a stately architectural and historical masterpiece — a masterpiece that almost wasn’t.

Today, it might seem that the Thomas Jefferson Memorial is innate to the Washington landscape, something so rightly chosen for the location. In fact, there was actually a great deal of controversy with the site, the design and a host of other issues.

Jefferson, whose 266th birthday is marked today, tended to create controversy as he tried to expand America, so it’s only natural that his memorial was also plagued by great debates.

Beyond all of his political achievements, Jefferson — a member of the Continental Congress, governor of Virginia, secretary of State, vice president and, from 1801 until 1809, president — was also a gifted architect, America’s first, according to some scholars.

As minister to France, he fell in love with Europe’s neoclassical architecture and brought it back to this country, as demonstrated by several of his famous designs, including Monticello, the Virginia State House and the University of Virginia. Thus, it seems wholly appropriate that his memorial be built in this model. But not everyone felt this way.

[IMGCAP(2)]However, that wasn’t nearly the first hurdle. First, the commission that was created to honor the third president with a prominent memorial needed to find a location.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission was formed by an act of Congress in June 1934, nine years before Jefferson’s 200th birthday.

The original bill proclaimed the site of the memorial to be the intersection of Constitution and Pennsylvania avenues, just east of the National Archives. However, President Franklin D. Roosevelt overrode Congress and claimed the site was far too small for such an important monument. We’ll see Roosevelt step in many times in this winding tale.

While several sites were considered, the favored option involved the creation of an island in the middle of the Tidal Basin. Though this turned out to be too expensive, it did establish the idea of having the memorial on the axis with the White House.

This southern “compass point— — located one straight-line mile from the White House — was finally selected in 1937 and completed the cross-like plan that had been suggested as part of architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s original city layout, with the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Memorial as the base of the design.

Not surprisingly, the site choice caused more problems as people realized how many Japanese cherry trees were marked for removal from the Tidal Basin to make way for the building. According to a National Park Service Cultural Landscape Inventory report, women’s groups organized petitions against removing the trees, while others chained themselves to the trees to prevent construction. The commission caved, and instead of removing the 600 trees, it decided to reduce the number to a total of 88 cherry trees to be cut and 83 to be moved.

A ground-breaking ceremony took place in December 1938 in which Roosevelt quite literally got the project under way. Prior to the ceremony, at his request, all the trees were cleared from the area of construction. He also put his foot down on the design of the monument.

The commission had selected John Russell Pope as the architect for the memorial. Pope, who designed the National Archives and was working on the National Gallery of Art, was probably the nation’s most famous classicist.

His original plan for the monument called for a massive building and the transformation of the Tidal Basin into a series of reflecting pools, rectangular terraces and formal rows of trees.

Pope took much flak for the design. The criticism of this proposal’s scale and site was highlighted by a message from respected landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. urging the commission to abandon this particular plan.

“The Jefferson Memorial with its terraces as now designed would be so stupendous in appearance that in my opinion an adequate setting could probably never be created in the Tidal Basin location hemmed in by Bureau of Engraving and Printing and by railroad and highway embankments and bridges.—

Others argued that Pope’s neoclassical concept for the structure was considered passé in the late 1930s, when modernism was becoming fashionable. Architects and artists alike condemned the building as a “senile sham— and a “cold mausoleum imitation of imperial Rome.—

Still more criticism came when the Commission of Fine Arts objected to the Pantheon-style design because it would compete with the Lincoln Memorial.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission, which had selected Pope because of his classical style, took the design controversy to Roosevelt, who urged them to proceed with a scaled-back version of the Pantheon concept — and of course to ditch the idea of multiple reflecting pools.

Finally, a year after Roosevelt’s ground-breaking ceremony, the president laid the cornerstone.

On April 13, 1943, the 200th anniversary of Jefferson’s birth, Roosevelt finally had the pleasure of dedicating the completed memorial. To 5,000 spectators and a radio audience of millions, Roosevelt proclaimed, “Today in the midst of a great war for freedom, we dedicate a shrine to freedom.—

Thomas Jefferson Memorial
• Location: East Basin Drive Southwest, between Ohio Drive and Maine Avenue on the south bank of the Tidal Basin
• Hours: Open 24 hours daily; National Park Service rangers are on duty from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.
• Nearest Metro: Smithsonian stop on the blue or orange line, then a 10-minute walk
• Parking: Metered street parking is available, as well as several lots.