While building the Lincoln Memorial between 1914 and 1922, crews dug out a cavernous space underneath the monument. They filled this hidden, 43,800-square-foot area, called an undercroft, with rows of tall, concrete columns to help support the memorial’s weight and create the illusion that it was situated on top of a hill.
Soon, the undercroft will serve a new purpose: After extensive renovations, it will become an immersive museum dedicated to the popular monument on the surface above, the National Park Service announced.
Exhibits will explore how the Lincoln Memorial was built, as well as its significance as a site for civil rights demonstrations: Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech from its steps in 1963; it’s also the site of Black singer Marian Anderson’s historic 1939 performance for a desegregated audience.
In addition, visitors will be able to watch an immersive theater presentation that includes images from historic events. The site will also include a larger bookstore, new restrooms and an updated elevator to the chamber level.
“For more than a century, Lincoln Memorial has been the crucible of American democracy, an enduring platform for free speech, the site of civil protests that still shape society and the scene of national celebrations,” says Will Shafroth, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation, the nonprofit charitable partner of the Park Service, in a statement.
Construction on the nearly $69 million project will begin this month. The Park Service hopes to open the new museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. by 2026, in time to celebrate the Declaration of Independence’s 250th anniversary.
When finished, the undercroft will house 15,000 square feet of exhibition space surrounded by floor-to-ceiling glass walls that offer views of the rest of the unfinished undercroft. As much as possible, crews will try to preserve the undercroft’s historic character and leave the space as it has been for decades. For instance, they hope to protect the graffiti scribbles and cartoons made by the original builders.
The Park Service initially revealed plans to turn the undercroft into a museum in 2016, after receiving an $18.5 million donation from philanthropist David Rubenstein. However, even before receiving that funding, Park Service officials had been discussing ways to incorporate the memorial’s undercroft into the broader visitor experience.
“We’re essentially building a modern glass structure inside this historic space,” says Jeff Reinbold, superintendent of the Park Service’s National Mall and Memorial Parks, to the Washington Post’s Michael E. Ruane. “And all of the challenges of how visitors would move throughout the space, interact with this historic space … took a little longer than we expected. But in the end, we’re really excited about the product.”
American Beaux-Arts architect Henry Bacon designed the Lincoln Memorial, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2022. American sculptor Daniel Chester French created the 19-foot statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln that sits inside the memorial.