Image by Jack Says Relax
It became apparent that the site was well suited for another high-profile memorial since it sat directly south of the White House. By 1901 the Senate Park Commission, better known as the McMillan Commission, had proposed placing a pantheon-like structure on the site 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"; no action was ever taken by Congress on this issue.
The completion of the Tidal Basin Inlet Bridge in 1908 helped to facilitate the recreational usage of East and West Potomac Parks. In 1918, large liquid-chlorine dispensers were installed under the bridge to treat the water and make the Tidal Basin (also known as Twining Lake) suitable for swimming. The Tidal Basin Beach, on the site of the future Memorial, opened in May 1918 and operated as a "Whites Only" facility through 1925, when it was permanently closed to avoid the question of racial integration.
A design competition was held for a memorial to Theodore Roosevelt in 1925. The winning design was submitted by John Russell Pope and consisted of a half-circle memorial situated next to a circular basin. The plan was never funded by Congress and was not built.
Jefferson Memorial Side View
The Memorial’s chance came in 1934 when President Franklin Roosevelt, an admirer of Jefferson himself, inquired to the Commission of Fine Arts about the possibility of erecting a memorial to Jefferson, including it in the plans for the Federal Triangle project, which was under construction at the time. Later the same year, Congressman John J. Boylan jumped off FDR’s starting point and urged Congress to create the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission. Boylan was appointed the Commission’s first chairman and Congress eventually appropriated million for a memorial to Jefferson.
Jefferson warns that a nation cannot be "ignorant and free."
The Commission chose John Russell Pope as the architect in 1935. Pope was also the architect of the National Archives Building and original (west) building of the National Gallery of Art. He prepared four different plans for the project, each on a different site. One was on the Anacostia River at the end of East Capitol Street; one at Lincoln Park; one on the south side of the National Mall across from the National Archives; and one situated on the Tidal Basin, directly south of the White House. The Commission preferred the site on the Tidal Basin mainly because it was the most prominent site and because it completed the four-point plan called for by the McMillan Commission (Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol; White House to the Tidal Basin site). Pope designed a very large pantheon-like structure, to sit on a square platform, and to be flanked by two smaller, rectangular, colonnaded buildings.
Under construction in 1941, as seen from across the Tidal Basin
Construction began on December 15, 1938 and the cornerstone was laid on November 15, 1939, by president Franklin Roosevelt. By this point Pope had died (1937) and his surviving partners, Daniel P. Higgins and Otto R. Eggers, took over construction of the memorial. The design was modified at the request of the Commission of Fine Arts to a more conservative design.
Construction commenced amid significant opposition. The Commission of Fine Arts never actually approved any design for the Memorial and even published a pamphlet in 1939 opposing both the design and site of the Memorial. In addition, many Washingtonians opposed the site because it was not aligned with L’Enfant’s original plan. Finally, many well established elm and cherry trees had to be removed for construction. Construction continued amid the opposition.
In 1939, the Memorial Commission hosted a competition to select a sculptor for the planned statue in the center of the Memorial. They received 101 entries and chose six finalists. Of the six, Rudulph Evans was chosen as the main sculptor and Adolph A. Weinman was chosen to sculpt the pediment relief situated above the entrance.
The Jefferson Memorial was officially dedicated by President Roosevelt on April 13, 1943, the 200th anniversary of Jefferson’s birthday. At that time, Evans’ statue had not yet been finished. Due to material shortages during World War II, the statue that was installed at the time was a plaster cast of Evans’ work painted to look like bronze. The finished bronze statue was installed in 1947, having been cast by the Roman Bronze Company of New York.
One of the last American public monuments in the Beaux-Arts tradition, the Memorial was severely criticized even as it was being built, by those who adhered to the modernist argument that dressing 20th century buildings like Greek and Roman ones constituted a "tired architectural lie." More than 60 years ago, Pope responded with silence to critics who dismissed him as part of an enervated architectural elite practicing "styles that are safely dead." As a National Memorial it was administratively listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966.
The monument’s marble steps, portico, and circular colonnade of Ionic order columns, and shallow dome.
Composed of circular marble steps, a portico, a circular colonnade of Ionic order columns, and a shallow dome, the building is open to the elements. Pope made references to the Roman Pantheon and Jefferson’s own design for the Rotunda at the University of Virginia. It is situated in West Potomac Park, on the shore of the Tidal Basin of the Potomac River. The Jefferson Memorial, and the White House located directly north, form one of the main anchor points in the area of the National Mall in D.C. The Washington Monument, just east of the axis on the national Mall, was intended to be located at the intersection of the White House and the site for the Jefferson Memorial to the south, but soft swampy ground which defied 19th century engineering required it be sited to the east.
 The interior
Rudulph Evans’s statue of Thomas Jefferson with excerpts from the Declaration of Independence to the right
The interior of the memorial has a 19-foot (5.8 m) tall, 10,000 lb (4336 kg) bronze statue of Jefferson by sculptor Rudulph Evans showing Jefferson looking out toward the White House. This statue was added four years after the dedication. Most prominent are the words which are inscribed in a frieze below the dome: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." This sentence is taken from a September 23, 1800, letter by Jefferson to Dr. Benjamin Rush wherein he defends the constitutional refusal to recognize a state religion.
On the panel of the southwest interior wall are excerpts from the Declaration of Independence, written in 1776:
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men. We…solemnly publish and declare, that these colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states…And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour.
Note that the inscription uses the word "inalienable", as in Jefferson’s draft, rather than "unalienable", as in the published Declaration.
On the panel of the northwest interior wall is an excerpt from "A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, 1777", except for the last sentence, which is taken from a letter of August 28, 1789, to James Madison:
Almighty God hath created the mind free…All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens…are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion…No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion. I know but one code of morality for men whether acting singly or collectively.
Detail of the statue
The quotes from the panel of the northeast interior wall are from multiple sources. The first sentence, beginning "God who gave…", is from "A Summary View of the Rights of British America". The second, third and fourth sentences are from Notes on the State of Virginia. The fifth sentence, beginning "Nothing is more…", is from Jefferson’s autobiography. The sixth sentence, beginning "Establish the law…", is from an August 13, 1790, letter to George Wythe. The final sentence is from a letter of January 4, 1786, to George Washington:
God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than these people are to be free. Establish the law for educating the common people. This it is the business of the state to effect and on a general plan.
The inscription on the panel of the southeast interior wall is redacted and excerpted from a letter July 12, 1816, to Samuel Kercheval:
I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
Cato Institute Fellow and University of Alberta history professor emeritus Ronald Hamowy has called the inscriptions "[p]erhaps the most egregious examples of invoking Jefferson for purely transient political purposes." Hamowy argues that:
Planned and built during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the walls of the memorial are adorned with quotations from Jefferson’s writings, many of which suggest that Jefferson advocated positions consistent with the aims of the New Deal—with which he would, in fact, have had little sympathy. Thus, Jefferson’s admonition that an educated electorate was essential if liberty were to be preserved is transmuted into a call for universal public education. And his caution that man, as he advances in his understanding of the world, must accompany his greater enlightenment with changes in his social institutions becomes a justification for a new theory of government in keeping with the social-democratic principles that animated the New Deal.
The excerpts chosen from the Declaration have been criticized because the first half alters Jefferson’s prose (for the sake of saving space) and eliminates the right of revolution passage that Jefferson believed was the point of the Declaration, while much of the second half (from "solemnly publish" to "divine providence") was not written by Jefferson.
The fifth sentence quoted on the northeast interior wall ("Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than these people are to be free.") has been called "misleadingly truncated" by historian Garry Wills, because Jefferson’s sentence continued with: "Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government."
Jefferson Memorial, with Potomac River in the background. Photographed from the top of the Washington Monument, January 1967
The site of the monument is in Washington D.C. West Potomac Park, on the shore of the Potomac River Tidal Basin, is enhanced with the massed planting of Japanese cherry trees, a gift from the people of Japan in 1912.
The monument is not as prominent in popular culture as other Washington, D.C. buildings and monuments, possibly due to its location well removed from the National Mall and the Washington Metro. The Jefferson Memorial hosts many events and ceremonies each year, including memorial exercises, the Easter Sunrise Service, and the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival.
The monument is open 24 hours a day but park rangers are there only until 11:30 p.m.;however, the monument is only a few hundred yards from the National Park Police D.C. Headquarters in East Potomac Park. (0330 UTC)