DC’s Underground “Cathedral” To Be Revealed

One of the most iconic structures in America may be about to reveal its hidden depths to the public.

The Lincoln Memorial, which opened to the public in 1922, is well-known to anyone who has visited the Capital or seen it on film. It was designed by architect Henry Bacon (1866-1924), working with his frequent collaborator, sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931). As a monument to one of our greatest Presidents, it stands as a singularly impressive piece of architecture at the western end of the National Mall here in Washington. As a public gathering place, its steps have served as a podium for significant historic events, such as soprano Marian Anderson’s legendary performance of 1939, or Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963.

The building has long served as a backdrop in popular films and television, as well, from “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” to “Forest Gump”. Clint Eastwood and Rene Russo sat on its steps eating ice cream at the end of 1993’s “In The Line Of Fire” for example. Mark Wahlberg came upon an unpleasant surprise there at the conclusion of the 2001 remake of “The Planet Of The Apes”, where director Tim Burton chose to play with the monumental sculpture of Abraham Lincoln, rather than the Statue of Liberty, as had been the case in the 1968 original.

What most people do not know however, is that this massive Greek temple – Doric on the outside, Ionic on the inside – sits atop an equally massive foundation which is, if not as impressive as the structure which it supports, nevertheless a work of wonder in itself. The undercroft, as this area is known, has been described as a “cathedral-like” space, and with good reason. Rising to three stories in height at its highest point, what is essentially a concrete basement has some rather grand passages, that would look perfectly at home in one of the dwarf kingdoms in “The Lord of the Rings”:


Thanks to a gift from philanthropist David Rubenstein, who wants to see the Lincoln Memorial fully restored for its 100th birthday in 2022, the National Park Service is now planning to rehabilitate this underground space in order to expand the useable footprint of the building. Currently a warren of crisscrossing pipes, electrical conduits, and – presumably – rat holes, the hope is that the undercroft could be reconfigured to permit areas for exhibition space and visitor facilities. This would hopefully allow the main floor of the building, which houses the monumental statue of President Lincoln, to be freed from the ignominy of pedestrian things such as a gift shop.

In order for this to happen, a number of bodies charged with preserving DC’s historic buildings will need to give approval, and that is no small thing. Previous attempts to make use of this invisible, wasted space have been shot down before. Yet given the new underground visitors centers at the Capitol (currently open) and the Vietnam Memorial (opening in 2020), it is not hard to imagine that a similar solution may be forthcoming for the Lincoln Memorial.

Filmmakers should not get too excited however: as of 2017, filming from within the Memorial is currently banned, and presumably that ban would extend to any basement rehab, as well.

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