The Thomas Jefferson Memorial, located on the National Mall in Washington, DC, is a memorial the third U.S. President and Founding Father. It sits on the south bank of the Tidal Basin, around the bend from the George Mason Memorial, and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.
This neoclassic memorial, constructed of white marble, is encircled by a row of ionic columns and capped with a shallow dome. The barrel shape of the main chamber is fronted by a rectangular portico supported by a double row of columns, giving it the appearance of a temple. The portico and main chamber are reached by a climbing a wide flight of marble terraced steps, which serve double duty as both a means of access to the main chamber and an elevated place to sit and view the Tidal Basin.
The Memorial chamber is open on all four sides, allowing natural light to pour in between the columns and illuminate the dark contours of the smooth bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson standing in the center. The 19-foot statue is raised another six feet by its granite base, giving it greater proportion to the massive memorial under which it resides. Look up to see the details of the sculpture of Jefferson depicted in mid-life, wearing a long coat and holding a rolled up copy of the Declaration of Independence in his left hand.
Etched into the curved, marble interior walls are four panels containing an amalgamation of Jefferson quotes, edited to fit into the limited space. The southwest wall contains excerpts from the Declaration of Independence. The others are from an assortment of his writings, such as Notes on the State of Virginia, the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, his Autobiography, and letters to colleagues. They express Jefferson’s views on religious freedom, the U.S. Constitution and liberty. See the quotations and original passages here.
Another reference to the Declaration of Independence can be found on the front exterior. On top of the portico is a triangular pediment containing a bas-relief sculpture of the Committee of Five – the five men tasked by the Second Continental Congress to draft the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson sits in the center as the main author, with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams on the left and Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston on the right. The original signed Declaration is on display at the National Archives Museum located nearby on the National Mall.
For those who can’t climb the steps to the main chamber, elevators are located on the ground level under the Memorial, along with a small museum, a gift shop and restrooms. National Park Service rangers are on hand to give tours and answer questions. The Memorial is always open to the public, but check the website for hours to access the ground level or to speak with a park ranger.
The best time to visit is in the spring when the cherry blossom trees are in full bloom. The Tidal Basin, lined with about 3,800 Japanese cherry trees, bursts with pink and white cherry blossoms that provide a soft, flowery frame around the stony Memorial.
With the creation of West Potomac Park and the Tidal Basin, the McMillian Commission designated the site for use of a future, unspecified memorial. Congress proposed a memorial to Jefferson in 1926, but plans stalled until President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a great admirer of Jefferson, pushed the project forward. The Memorial was designed by architect John Russell Pope, a prolific architect well-known for his classical style, who also designed the National Archives Museum and National Gallery of Art – West Building in Washington, DC. Sadly, he died before construction of the Memorial began and his partners, Daniel Higgins and Otto Eggers, finished the job.
Pope’s design, an adaptation of the Roman Pantheon, is a tribute to Jefferson’s architectural style. Jefferson had, in fact, designed the University of Virginia Rotunda as a half-scale version of the Pantheon. A self-taught architect, Jefferson studied the writings of famed Italian architect Andrea Palladio and incorporated Palladio’s architectural philosophy into his own designs, including his homes at Monticello and Poplar Forest, the University of Virginia, and the Virginia State Capitol Building. Jefferson rejected Georgian architecture from his nemesis Great Britain in favor of classical architecture from ancient Greece and Rome, and played a large role in introducing that style to the new United States, particularly with regard to public buildings.
By the time the Jefferson Memorial design was being debated, however, classical architecture was losing support amongst the city planners. After his death, Pope’s widow fought to preserve her late husband’s Pantheon-style memorial, which was ultimately approved by Roosevelt, but it was the last one to be built in the classical style in Washington, DC. Watch more about the debate here. Architectural drawings for the Memorial are here.
Consistent with the McMillan Plan, the Jefferson Memorial was positioned on the same axis as Jefferson Pier, the stone marker where the Washington Monument was supposed to be located, and the White House. Roosevelt held a groundbreaking ceremony in 1938, laid the cornerstone in 1939 and dedicated the completed Memorial on the anniversary of Jefferson’s 200th birthday, April 13, 1943.
The Memorial was built in the midst of World War II, when the spread of socialism and communism had led to deaths of millions and the brutal destruction of human rights. During that dark period in history, Roosevelt declared the Memorial a “shrine to freedom,” and Jefferson the “Apostle of Freedom” in his dedication speech. He related their present-day fight to Jefferson’s fight. The full text of his speech is here. Years later, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial would be built nearby, with both men sharing the shores of the Tidal Basin.
World War II also had an impact on the Jefferson Memorial itself. At the time of the dedication, the statue of Jefferson was made of plaster and painted to look like bronze. It wasn’t until 1947 when the war was over and the restrictions on metals were lifted that the bronze statue set into place.
The sculpture was created by artist Rudulph Evans, a Washington DC metro local who studied his craft in Paris with guidance from famous American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and famous French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Adolph A. Weinman, sculptor of the Mercury dime and also student of Saint-Gaudens, designed the Committee of Five bas-relief on the Memorial’s pediment. Famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. designed the Memorial grounds.
It’s difficult to describe Thomas Jefferson with just one word. A Renaissance man and student of the Enlightenment Period, Jefferson’s talents and contributions to society extend far beyond the political realm. Although Jefferson is best known for drafting the Declaration of Independence, here is a list of his other major accomplishments which he used in promoting the cause of liberty:
Everywhere you go in the United States, you will see the influence of Thomas Jefferson, not limited to the naming of streets, buildings, statues and parks after him. Because his interests and talents were so extensive, his imprint can be seen anywhere shaping our Republic, to his Louisiana Purchase, to his gardening experiments, to his philosophy on education, or to importing classical architecture to American homes and public buildings. In Washington, DC, he helped design the city itself and the U.S. Capitol in its early days of construction.
If you want to experience more about Jefferson, here are a few places to visit in the Washington, DC and surrounding areas.
Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress – see his original library, which influenced his political philosophy
National Archives Museum – see the original Declaration of Independence.
Constitution Gardens – see the Thomas Jefferson stone at the 56 Signers of the Declaration Memorial
White House – see where he lived from 1801 – 1809 as the 3rd U.S. President
Smithsonian National Museum of American History – see his writing desk where he wrote the Declaration of Independence
U.S. Capitol – see the building which he helped design in its early stages
Monticello – see his home and plantation
Poplar Forest – see his second home and plantation
Jefferson Vineyards – visit and enjoy the winery where Thomas Jefferson and Philip Mazzei planted Virginia’s first commercial vineyard
Barboursville Ruins – see the ruins of a home he designed for his friend, Virginia Governor James Barbour, which burned down on Christmas Day, 1884
University of Virginia – see the University he founded and the Academical Village that he designed
Virginia State Capitol – see the Capitol building, located in Richmond, that he designed
Natural Bridge – see the 215-foot tall limestone gorge on land once owned by Jefferson