In celebration of Presidents Day on February 20, the National Park Service unveiled an ambitious plan to build a $69 million museum underneath the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Dedicated in 1922, the Lincoln Memorial is a Neoclassical temple-style building honoring Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States. Before his assassination in 1865, Lincoln abolished slavery and set the nation on a path to reconciliation following the Civil War.
The underground space at the Lincoln Memorial is called the undercroft—typically a type of storage cellar or crypt with a vaulted ceiling. The cavernous space features a tall grid of concrete columns that will be converted into 15,000 square feet of exhibition space with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, replacing the current displays.
The redesign will also add restrooms, a bookstore, and a refurbished elevator, as well as spotlighting doodles believed to have been left on the foundations by construction workers and engineers during the building process.
“The undercroft of the Lincoln Memorial, long hidden from public view, offers a fascinating setting to learn more about America’s 16th president and the memorial that honors him,” Jeff Reinbold, superintendent of National Mall and Memorial Parks, said in a statement.
“Thanks to the National Park Foundation and its generous donors, visitors will be able to view this dramatic architectural feature, learn about the how the memorial was built, and how its meaning has evolved over the last century,” he added.
“The first time people see this, it’s unexpected that you have this enormous undercroft,” Mike Litterst of the National Park Service told WTOP News. “The columns that you’re looking at are 40 to 50 feet in height, they go down into the floor and another 40 to 50 feet until they hit bedrock. So all told, it’s about 90 feet worth of columns. And this was done specifically to create the illusion that the Lincoln Memorial sits up on a hill.”
The memorial is the last and best-known project of Beaux-Arts architect Henry Bacon. The monumental 19-foot-tall marble seated statue of the president, titled , is the work of Daniel Chester French, a leading figure of the American Renaissance whose career has fallen somewhat into obscurity since his death in 1931.
French and his role in the Lincoln Memorial was the subject of a 2022 documentary, , by filmmaker Eduardo Montes-Bradley.
In the century since its completion, the Lincoln Memorial has become an important site of public protest, such as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, where Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. The museum will highlight the history of the space, including other important events, like African American contralto Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert for a desegregated audience of 75,000.
“For more than a century, the Lincoln Memorial has been the crucible of American democracy, an enduring platform for free speech, the site of civil protests that still shape society, and the scene of national celebrations,” Will Shafroth, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation, said in a statement.
The museum is part of a public-private partnership that began in 2016 with an $18.5 million gift from businessman and philanthropist David M. Rubenstein to the National Park Foundation. In total, the foundation is providing $43 million in funding for the project, including $38.5 million in donations from the likes of noted art collector, hedge-fund magnate, and philanthropist Ken Griffin, as well donations from the John L. Nau III Foundation, the Rick L. and Vicki L. James Foundation, and the Glenn W. Bailey Foundation.
Rounding out the budget is $26 million in funding from the National Park Service.
The plan is to open the new museum in 2026, timed to the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, with the steps and the main chamber remaining open to the public during the work. The National Park Service has awarded the contract on the project to Consigli Construction Company, Inc.
See renderings and floor plans for the new museum below.
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