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Visiting Washington, DC & its Jefferson Memorial: a shimmering presence over the Tidal Basin

Updated on November 8, 2013
Flag of the United States
Flag of the United States | Source
Flag of the District of Columbia
Flag of the District of Columbia | Source
Cherry Blossoms frame the Jefferson Memorial, Washington DC
Cherry Blossoms frame the Jefferson Memorial, Washington DC | Source
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt | Source

Franklin D. Roosevelt strengthening Federal perceptions, in John Russell Pope's Neo-Classical structure

It is certainly an impressive sight to behold the smooth, white lines of the domed, Jefferson Memorial across the Tidal Basin, at the southern end of the National Mall, near the Potomac, at Washington, DC. (I was impressed, anyway!) Generations of visitors have come to associate this most photogenic of Washington's structures, managed by the National Park Service, with its striking broader environment of cherry trees, planted around the Tidal Basin. Indeed, the Memorial is a focal point of an annual National Cherry Blossom Festival (1).

The architect responsible for the Jefferson Memorial was John Russell Pope (1874-1937)(2), who died before groundbreaking in 1938. The Memorial's actual construction took place between 1939 and 1943. Particular features include Ionic columns in its imposing portico, and marble steps on a large scale. The materials used in the Memorial are: Vermont marble for the columns, Tennessee marble for the flooring and Georgia granite for the foundation.

The enormous, 5.8 metre bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) within the domed Memorial is by Rudulph Evans (1878-1960). The statue was completed in 1947. On the interior walls are quotations from Jefferson himself as well as from the US Declaration of Independence.

It was President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), who, in 1934, took the initiative to pursue the possibility of a Memorial commemorating Jefferson. As a Canadian (but I cannot presume to speak for anyone else) I am instinctively pleased when people assert Federal, country-wide identities in Canada. Americans need no lessons in civics from myself, but I can understand why, in difficult times, and when many conflicting forces were challenging the US Government, the Administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt saw fit to create a great Federal project in the shape of the Jefferson Memorial, where emphases on support for education, discovery and free commerce are clearly discernible.

FDR took a keen interest in progress in the planning and work on the Memorial and was repeatedly present at ceremonies at the Jefferson Memorial site in the late 1930s and early 1940s, as the structure took shape. A day short of two years before President Roosevelt's untimely passing, he formally inaugurated the Memorial on April 13, 1943.

There was opposition to the Memorial, strange to relate, though this now may seem. Originally the same architect designed a monument in the 1920s to honour Theodore Roosevelt. Congress, however, literally did not buy it. Then with FDR in the White House, and cooperation in Congress, John Russell Pope again got out his drawing board, and put together another Memorial design; except that this time it was supposed to be in honour of Thomas Jefferson. Anyway, objections surfaced; John Russell Pope's second design did not meet with the full approval of a specially designated committee which was to oversee it; so the design was modified, although in fact the committee members were never actually able to agree among themselves as to the best design; but Congress approved the project anyway. Then some people didn't think it was a good idea to dig up some cherry trees located at the proposed site of the Memorial; these cherry trees, a few of many planted around the Tidal Basin, had been a gift from the Japanese government in the early 20th century. (After all, if a few of the cherry trees were dug up to make room for the Jefferson Memorial, what might the Japanese government think? However, after the raid on Pearl Harbor and the ensuing World War Two commitment of American forces against Japan, culminating in the fateful nuclear flattening of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, gardening issues about the location of Japanese cherry trees seemed to revert strictly to the annals of horticultural history.)

Others have taken issue with the quotations from Jefferson, implying that what Jefferson would have meant about freedom, progress and society would not have been quite the same as what the Memorial's editor of his quotations might have agreed with at the time of FDR's New Deal. Stated differently, the Jefferson quotations were supposedly a kind of New Deal plot to make what Jefferson and others thought was self-evident look as if reasons for the New Deal were self-evident. One can thus imagine some people saying, Why spoil a good Monument with such criticism? or, even, why spoil criticism of the New Deal with such a good Monument?

And so it goes.

A great Memorial, anyway, commissioned by a great President.


(1) Prominent in the process of promoting and planting cherry trees by the Tidal Basin was writer and photographer Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore (1856-1928), who, being from a diplomatic family, had travelled widely in the East, and was also a trustee of the National Geographic Society. She was aided in this endeavour by First Lady Helen Herron Taft (1909-1913).

(2) Other noted buildings for which Architect Pope was responsible include, in Washington, DC: DAR Constitution Hall, the National Archives Building, the National Gallery of Art West Building; in London, England: the Elgin Gallery, British Museum.

Also worth seeing

The huge number of visitor attractions in Washington, DC are too numerous to mention adequately, but a few of these include the Washington Monument, the United States Capitol, the Smithsonian 'Castle', the White House and Lafayette Square, and many others.


How to get there: Wide air connections to Washington, DC are available via Reagan National, Washington Dulles and Baltimore Washington International airports, where car hire is available. Road access to the Memorial is available from the south by the I-395; general parking is available on Ohio Drive, SW. Some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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    • MJFenn profile image

      MJFenn 5 years ago

      Lynn S. Murphy:

      Yes, the Memorial is very impressive, and the historical context of FDR's commissioning of it is interesting, also. Thank-you for your comment.

    • profile image

      Lynn S. Murphy 5 years ago

      It is a beautiful memorial and I find that all the memorials in DC are magnificent. I adore DC, the buildings and history there are beautiful and I love roaming the streets.