The Thomas Jefferson Memorial is an iconic 129ft tall feature located at the southern end of the National Mall in Washington D.C. The dome-shape structure with inspiration from the Pantheon of Rome is designed after Jefferson’s own University of Virginia rotunda. The 26 pillars of the memorial are representative of the number of states in the union at the time of Jefferson’s death.
Thomas Jefferson was one of the key figures in early American colonialism as the author of the Declaration of Independence, member of the Continental Congress, first Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Secretary of State under President George Washington, Vice President under President John Adams, and the third President of the United States from 1801 to 1809. He is also known as the founder of the University of Virginia, where the memorial takes its design inspiration from.
The Jefferson Memorial was designed by architect John Russell Pope and built by John McShain, a Philadelphia contractor. However, its beginnings go back to 1901 when the Senate Park Commission, known as the McMillan Commission, proposed a pantheon-like structure, sitting directly south of the White House, hosting “the statues of the illustrious men of the nation, or whether the memory of some individual shall be honored by a monument of the first rank may be left to the future.”
It wasn’t until the 1908 when the Tidal Basin Inlet Bridge was completed that the East and West Potomac Parks were able to see increased recreational usage. By 1918, chlorine dispensers were used to make the Tidal Basin swimmable. The Tidal Basin Beach sat at the site of the Jefferson Memorial from May 1918 until its closure in 1925.
When a design competition was held for the construction of a memorial to honor Theodore Roosevelt in 1925, the winning design by John Russell Pope was considered but never funded by Congress. It was originally intended to be a half-circle memorial next to a circular basin. Many may not be entirely familiar with Pope’s work, but he famously designed the National Archives Building, and the original National Gallery of Art.
When President Franklin Roosevelt was in office in 1934, the admirer of Jefferson contacted the Commission of Fine Arts about including a memorial to Jefferson as part of the on-going Federal Triangle project. It wasn’t until later in the 1934 that things were fast tracked as Congressman John J. Boylan urged Congress to form the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission. As the first chairman of the commission, Boylan was given $3 million to complete the memorial.
During 1935, John Russell Pope was selected as the architect of the newly commissioned memorial. While competing sites had separate plans created by Pope, the commission eventually selected the Tidal Basin directly south of the White House due to its prominent location and fit with the McMillan Commission’s four-point plan.
It wasn’t until December 15th, 1938 that construction actually began, nearly 4 years after President Roosevelt’s initial inquiry and a year after Pope had died on August 27th, 1937. When the cornerstone was set to be laid the honor was performed by Franklin Roosevelt on November 15th, 1939. While the project was in defiance with the Commission of Fine Arts and L’Enfant’s original plan for America’s capitol, construction was never halted.
The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission selected the sculptor for the statue to be placed in the center of the memorial in 1939 from a collection of 101 entries and 6 finalists. Rudulph Evans was eventually the winning individual chosen to be the project’s main sculptor. Adolph A. Weinman was selected to sculpt the pediment relief to be featured above the entrance to the memorial.
When the memorial was officially dedicated on April 13th, 1943, the 200th anniversary of Jefferson’s birthday, by President Roosevelt, the statue placed in the center was only a plaster cast of Rudulph Evan’s now famous statue. The material shortages brought on by World War II meant that the finished bronze statue had to wait until 1947 to be finally installed.
Visiting the Jefferson Memorial
While the Jefferson Memorial is open to the public 24 hours a day, Park Rangers are only on site to answer questions between 9:30 AM and 11:30 PM daily. Between 10:00 AM and 11:00 PM daily there are interpretive programs available. Please respect requests to prohibit filming or photography of the interior of the Jefferson Memorial.
While many may skip the Jefferson Memorial because of its more secluded location compared to the other featured sites in the capitol, you can reach it quite easily either by taking the Metro Bus or Metro Rail. The closest station to the memorial is the Smithsonian station accessible via the Orange and Blue lines. You can take the buses number 32, 34, and 36, to get to the site as well.
While parking is extensively limited, you can find parking along Ohio Drive with a number of handicapped accessible parking spots.
The Jefferson’s Memorial location along the Potomac River Tidal Basin places it close to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, which are also located on the Tidal Basin.
If you choose to walk, you can quickly get to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, World War II Memorial, and Holocaust Museum.
The longest-running fish market in the United States is also located nearby at the Southwest Waterfront.