April 13, 1943 – Dedication of Jefferson Memorial

The Tidal Basin, an area of about 107 acres in Washington, D.C. is a partially man-made reservoir between the Potomac River and the Washington Channel in Washington, D.C. (The two-mile long Washington Channel runs parallel to the Potomac River.) The Jefferson Memorial, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, and the George Mason Memorial are all located around the Tidal Basin.

The concept for the Tidal Basin originated in the 1880s; it was intended to serve both as a visual centerpiece and as a means for flushing the Washington Channel. The basin was initially named Twining Lake, in honor of Washington D.C.’s first Engineer Commissioner.

For a brief time the Tidal Basin served as a beach for swimming. The Tidal Basin Beach, on the site of the future Memorial, opened in May 1918 and operated as a “Whites Only” facility until 1925, when the Senate voted to close it permanently, “partly due to concerns about pollution and partly because of pressures from African American leaders to build a black bathing beach on the other side of the Tidal Basin.”

White swimmers enjoy the Tidal Basin Bathing Beach in 1922. (Photo source: Library of Congress)

In 1934 President Franklin Roosevelt, an admirer of Jefferson, inquired to the Commission of Fine Arts about the possibility of erecting a memorial to Jefferson, although that (or any) site had not yet been selected. Later the same year, Congressman John J. Boylan urged Congress to create the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission. Boylan was appointed the Commission’s first chairman and Congress eventually appropriated $3 million for a memorial to Jefferson.

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. The Commission preferred the site on the Tidal Basin mainly because it was the most prominent site and because it completed a proposed four-point design plan that encompassed the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol and the White House to the Tidal Basin site.

As the National Park Service observed:

Once the site for the Jefferson Memorial was chosen, there was never any question about its visual relationship with the White House – a direct line. In fact, President Roosevelt ordered trees to be cut so that the view of the memorial from the White House would be enhanced.”

The National Park Service also recounted how Pope used Jefferson’s own architectural tastes in the design of the Memorial. The Commission of Fine Arts objected to the pantheon design because it would compete with the Lincoln Memorial. The Thomas Jefferson Commission took the design controversy to President Franklin D. Roosevelt who preferred the pantheon design and gave his permission to proceed. Architects Daniel P. Higgins and Otto R. Eggers took over construction upon the untimely death of Pope in August 1937. On November 15, 1939, a ceremony was held in which President Roosevelt laid the cornerstone of the Memorial.

Roosevelt returned on April 13, 1943, to dedicate the memorial, which coincided with the 200th anniversary of Jefferson’s birth.

Only the bronze statue of Jefferson had not been completed, owing to wartime metal shortages. (In 1938, two artists had won a competition to make the memorial. Rudulph Evans was chosen to make the statue of Jefferson and Adolph A. Weinman to sculpt the pediment relief located above the entrance.) A painted plaster version was in place for the dedication and would remain until the restrictions on metal use were lifted in 1947.

During the dedication celebration, the original Declaration of Independence was on display in the new memorial. The document had been brought out of its war-time hiding place at Fort Knox.

President Franklin Roosevelt at podium for dedication of Jefferson Memorial. National Park Service photo.

Roosevelt, speaking at the dedication, called the memorial a “shrine to freedom” and added that it was a payment on “a debt long overdue.” FDR took the opportunity to remind those in attendance (and listening via radio across the country), of the parallels between Thomas Jefferson’s challenges in the founding of the republic, and those being experienced at the time by a nation embroiled in a world war:

He faced the fact that men who will not fight for liberty can lose it. We, too, have faced that fact.

He lived in a world in which freedom of conscience and freedom of mind were battles still to be fought through — not principles already accepted of all men. We, too, have lived in such a world.

He loved peace and loved liberty — yet on more than one occasion he was forced to choose between them. We, too, have been compelled to make that choice.”

The memorial features white marble from Vermont and Georgia, and pink marble from Tennessee. Indiana limestone and Minnesota granite also are part of the structure. The statue of Jefferson, sculpted in 1941, is 19 feet tall. Four quotations from Jefferson’s writings are carved into the walls of the memorial chamber.

A fifth quote engraved on the frieze encircling the memorial’s interior is from an 1800 letter of Jefferson’s and reads, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” [He meant white men of course, but it was a noble sentiment in theory.]

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