Washington, D.C.’s unforgettable skyline is dominated by some of the world’s most celebrated monuments. The fantastic temples, structures and statues that grace the green expanses of the National Mall tell fascinating stories through their history and design. Here is some background information on the city’s most famous sights.
The National Mall
(stretches from 3rd St., NW and the Capitol grounds to 14th St., between Independence and Constitution Aves)
Officially, the National Mall is a swath of green space that begins at 3rd Street and stretches to 14th Street. Visitors and locals, however, widely use the term to refer to the entire expanse of monuments and museums, from the grounds of the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. Pierre L’Enfant's original plans for the city called for this open space, which he envisioned as a grand boulevard to be used for remembrance, observance, and protest. Today, it serves this purpose, hosting concerts, rallies, festivals, as well as frisbee matches, family outings and picnics.
(15th St. and Constitution Ave., NW. Architect: Robert Mills. Dedicated: 1888)
Towering 555-1/8 feet above the National Mall, the Washington Monument was built as a powerful tribute to George Washington. George Washington initially objected to the allocation of federal funds for a monument in his honor, but relented and approved the site selected by Pierre L’Enfant—where the western axis of the Capitol intersects with the southern axis of the White House.
After Washington’s death in 1799, popular support grew for the erection of the monument, and Thomas Jefferson laid a stone in the precise spot where the monument was to be built. During Jefferson’s time, however, the grounds were quite marshy, and the stone sank into the earth. Enthusiasm for the project also sank as Congress and Washington’s heirs squabbled over the design.
In 1833, momentum resurged, thanks to the efforts of Washington’s fellow Freemasons and George Watterson, the Librarian of Congress. The proponents formed a group called the Washington National Monument Society and asked all Americans to contribute $1 each to fund the monument. A national design competition was held in 1836, and trustees selected a design by Robert Mills, who had previously designed the monument to Washington in Baltimore. His design called for a 500-foot obelisk rising out of a 110-foot circular Greek temple that would house statues of outstanding figures in American history.
Mills’s elaborate plans were met with fundraising difficulties, however, and the design was altered dramatically. The site of the monument was moved to a higher, more solid site, 350 feet east of the intended placement. Ground was finally broken on July 4, 1848. The trowel used during the groundbreaking ceremony was also used by Washington in the groundbreaking of the U.S. Capitol.
As costs for the monument construction rose, the Monument Society asked states, countries and dignitaries to donate blocks of marble that would be installed in the interior wall. One such stone was donated by Pope Pious IX, which brought immediate controversy to the monument effort. The anti-Catholic and xenophobic Know-Nothing Party burglarized the monument construction site in 1854 and tossed the “Pope Stone” into the Potomac River.
Construction came to a halt shortly after, as funding dried up, conflicts arose within the Monument Society, and Civil War loomed. The project stood unfinished at 156 feet for 22 years. Mark Twain referred to the monument as “a factory chimney with the top broken off.”
In 1876, the country celebrated its centennial with an unfinished monument to its first president. Later that year, President Ulysses S. Grant approved funds to complete the project according to Mills’s modified design. By 1884, the monument had grown to 500 feet. The marble used for the remaining 48 feet had weathered to a different stage, which can still be noted.
A pyramid-shaped apex, crafted from aluminum (which was highly valuable at the time) was placed atop the obelisk. The monument was dedicated by President Chester A. Arthur, and was opened to the public on October 9, 1888.
In 1959, 50 flagpoles were installed, representing each state, encircling the perimeter of the monument.
(23rd St. and Constitution Ave., NW; Dedicated: 1922; Architect: Henry Bacon; Sculptor: Daniel Chester French)
One of Washington, D.C.’s most familiar landmarks honors its 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. The movement to create a memorial to Lincoln began shortly after Lincoln’s assassination. The Lincoln Monument Association was established by Congress in 1867, but the site for the memorial was not selected until 1901. The public was outraged by the selection of West Potomac Park—marshy land that had originally been under the Potomac River.
Architect Henry Bacon submitted his final plans for the Greek temple design that would soon become one of Washington, D.C.’s most familiar sites in 1913. Ground was broken in 1914. The Lincoln statue was sculpted by Daniel Chester French, the chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts.
French opted to portray Lincoln seated, a symbol of mental and physical strength. French planned to create a ten-foot statue but found his statue dwarfed by the huge memorial and doubled its size.
Above the temple’s 38 columns are the names of the 36 states that were in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death in 1865. Murals sculpted by Jules Guerin adorn the temple’s inner walls. Emancipation is on the south wall and hangs above the inscription of the Gettysburg Address. Unification is on the north wall, above Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.
The Lincoln Memorial was dedicated on Memorial Day, May 30, 1922, by Supreme Court Chief Justice William Howard Taft. During the dedication ceremony, African-Americans in attendance were made to sit in segregated seating sections. The memorial would later become the backdrop for milestones in the struggle for civil rights, such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and a concert by black singer Marian Anderson, who was denied the right to perform at Constitution Hall.
Thomas Jefferson Memorial
(South end of 15th St., SW on the Tidal Basin; Dedicated: 1943; Architects: John Russell Pope, Otto R. Eggers; Daniel P. Higgins)
With a form reminiscent of the Pantheon, the memorial to the third president took only nine years to complete. The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission was created in 1934, and the memorial was dedicated on April 13, 1943.
Architect John Russell Pope incorporated one of Jefferson’s favorite design elements, the rotunda, into the memorial design. While derided by critics who felt the memorial should be more American in style, the classical influence reflects Jefferson’s admiration of Roman politics and architecture.
More controversy surrounded the monument’s placement on the Tidal Basin, which required the removal of many of the beautiful cherry trees that had been planted in 1912. Protesters chained themselves to the trees to prevent their destruction; the government responded by offering the protesters refreshments. As nature called, the chains came off, and the design prevailed.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt laid the cornerstone for the memorial using the same silver gavel that had been used to lay the cornerstone of the Capitol and the Washington Monument. Pope passed away before the construction began, and the dedication took place on April 13, 1943, the 200th anniversary of Jefferson’s birth.
Though the memorial was opened, the statue that now stands at the center was not completed until 1947. Mired in World War II, the United States could not afford to use its stores of bronze for the execution of the 19-foot statue. The original statue was created in plaster and later replaced.
On the interior walls of the memorial, four panels are inscribed with familiar quotations reflecting Jefferson’s philosophies. In 1972, a professor discovered that some of the quotes displayed on the walls of the memorial were inaccurate; due to space constraints, they had been shortened and punctuation had been changed.
Jefferson stands at the center of the temple, his gaze firmly fixed on the White House, as if to keep an eye on the institution he helped to create.
U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima)
(Adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery on the George Washington Memorial Parkway; Dedicated: 1954; Architect: Horace W. Peaslee; Sculptor: Felix W. de Weldon)
Located just across the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia, the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial is home to one of the most celebrated patriotic sculptures, in which five soldiers and one Navy corpsman raise the flag at Iwo Jima. The statue is modeled after a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal. The three survivors of the battle posed for the sculptor, who recreated the expressions of the deceased soldiers from photographs.
The figures stand 32 feet tall; the canteen featured in the sculpture would hold 32 gallons of water, and the M-1 rifle is 16 feet long.
The memorial itself is a tribute to all Marines who have died in combat since the Corps was founded in 1775. The statue is mounted on a granite base that lists every major Marine Corps engagement, and a flag flies atop a 60-foot flagpole 24 hours a day by presidential proclamation.
Theodore Roosevelt Memorial and Island
(East of the Key Bridge on the Potomac River; Dedicated: 1967; Architect: Eric Gugler; Sculptor: Paul Manship)
Theodore Roosevelt’s deep love of nature and strong commitment to conservation are reflected throughout the 88-acre island, where 2.5 miles of hiking trails pass through dense forests and marshy swamps.
Originally called Analostan Island, it was used during the Civil War to sequester African-American soldiers. The island was purchased in 1931 by the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Association and was presented as a gift to the American people the following year. The centerpiece of the island, a memorial to the President, was dedicated in 1967. The memorial features a 23-foot statue of a strong, “fit-as-a-bull-moose” Roosevelt situated in an oval terrace with two roaring fountains. The terrace is surrounded by four granite tablets inscribed with the President’s philosophy on nature, manhood, youth and the state.
The Potomac cuts between the island and the Georgetown Waterfront. The Little River, a branch of the Potomac, separates it from Virginia. Rich in ecological diversity, Roosevelt Island hosts a variety of flora and fauna in its swamp, marsh, rocky shore and woodland ecosystems. Along the island’s southern end, the swamp trail passes a rare tidal freshwater marsh, filled with cattails and redwing nests. Drier patches attract foxes, great owls, ground hogs, raccoons and opossums.
Roosevelt Island is an excellent example of a wilderness outpost in a thriving urban area and can be easily accessed by land or water. Two-hour parking is available off the southbound side of the George Washington Parkway. The footbridge to the island is just minutes from the Rosslyn Metro Station. For a different experience, rent a canoe or kayak the perimeter of the island.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
(Constitution Ave. and Henry Bacon Dr., NW; Architect: Maya Ying Lin; Dedicated: 1982)
Often referred to as the “Wall,” the Vietnam Veterans Memorial honors the American soldiers who were killed during the war, were prisoners of war and who remain missing in action. Their names are listed chronologically on the black granite V-shaped memorial.
The movement to erect a memorial to Vietnam Veterans was started in 1979 by Jan Scruggs, an infantry corporal. By 1980, Congress had dedicated two acres of Constitution Gardens for a tribute to the veterans of the controversial conflict. No federal funds were used in the building of the memorial, which relied on private donations.
A design contest attracted more than 1,400 proposals. The winning design was submitted by Maya Lin, a 21-year-old Yale University architecture student. Employing a simple, subtle design, Lin hoped that someday the “names would become the memorial.”
The wall is composed of two wings—one of which points toward the Lincoln Memorial while the other stretches toward the Washington Monument. The wings gradually grow in height and eventually converge to form a “V.” The wall blends into its natural surroundings to symbolize the healing process it was to represent. As Lin explained: “Take a knife and cut open the earth and with time the grass would heal it.”
As visitors pass along the list of names, the polished, shiny granite reflects their visages, enabling veterans and civilians alike to see themselves within the sea of the war’s casualties.
The design was immediately met with controversy. Some were moved by the poignant simplicity of the memorial, while others bristled at the dark, morose granite. In order to placate the dissenters, artist Frederick E. Hart was commissioned to create a sculpture to give the memorial a stronger human element. The resulting Three Servicemen statue depicts young soldiers of different races gazing at the wall with weariness, pride, and valor.
Visitors are encouraged to make rubbings of names, using graphite pencils and commemorative paper supplied by park rangers. The names are listed in chronological order from 1959 to 1975, and are listed alphabetically on each day of action. Beside each name, a symbol denotes the status of the soldier: diamonds mark those who were killed in action, crosses denote those who are missing or classified as prisoners of war. If a soldier marked with a cross were to return home, a circle would be inscribed around the cross. If the soldier were to return dead, the cross would be modified to a diamond.
U.S. Navy Memorial and Naval Heritage Center
(701 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; Dedicated: 1990; Architect: Conklin Rossant; Sculptor: Stanley Bleifeld)
Washington, D.C. city designer Pierre L’Enfant included a Navy Memorial in his original plans for the city, but no actions were taken on L’Enfant’s intent until 1977, when the Navy Memorial Foundation was established.
A seven-foot tall bronze statue entitled “Lone Soldier”stands at the entrance to the U.S. Navy Memorial, representing all past, present and future Navy servicemen and women. The statue is cast in bronze mixed with artifacts from eight historic vessels.
The memorial is an amphitheater-like construction featuring a 100-foot, 108-ton granite map—the largest in the world. The map is framed by two sculpture walls with 22 bronze reliefs that honor aspects of naval service. At the time of the memorial’s dedication, the fountains in the center of the memorial plaza were filled with water from each of the world’s major bodies of water. The memorial also maintains a computerized list of individuals who have served in the Navy, and visitors can add their names and the names of their loved ones to this searchable registry.
Vietnam Women’s Memorial
(East of Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 21st St. and Constitution Ave., NW; Dedicated: 1993; Architect: Glenna Goodacre)
When the Vietnam Veterans Memorial opened in 1982, the women who served in the conflict felt slighted by their virtual exclusion from the design. In 1984, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial was founded so that a tribute to the servicewomen and field hospital nurses could complement the new memorial. The Women’s Memorial was dedicated on Veteran’s Day 1993.
Paralleling the Three Servicemen statue at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the memorial depicts three field-hospital nurses caring for wounded soldiers. Eight yellowwood trees surround the statue in tribute to the eight women who were killed in action during the war.
Korean War Veterans Memorial
(West Potomac Park, Independence Ave., beside the Lincoln Memorial; Dedicated: 1995; Architect: Cooper & Lecky; Sculptors: Frank Gaylord and Louis Nelson)
Dedicated in 1995 on the 42nd anniversary of the armistice that ended the war, the Korean War Veterans Memorial features a polished wall engraved with the faces of soldiers, nurses, chaplains and even a dog, honoring those who served. A bronze sculpture group of platoon soldiers inching through a field forms the focal point of the memorial.
After feeling slighted by the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the momentum to erect a World War II Memorial, veterans formed the Korean War Veterans Association in 1985. The site was selected and approved in 1986, but construction was delayed following a controversy over the chosen design.
Sculptor Frank Gaylord created the 19 statues of the soldiers, whose moving, weary expressions reflect the harsh circumstances of the war. The polished granite wall reflects the images of the soldiers and doubles the platoon’s size to 38— a metaphor for the 38th parallel, the border between North and South Korea.
African-American Civil War Memorial
(13th and U Sts., NW; Dedicated: 1998; Architect: Devereaux & Purnell; Sculptor: Ed Hamilton; Designer: Edward D. Dunson)
One of Washington, D.C.’s most historic African-American neighborhoods is home to one of the nation’s few tributes to the African-American veterans of the Civil War. The memorial includes a granite-paved plaza encircled by walls that bear the names of the 209,145 men who served in the United States Troops of Color during the war. At the center of the plaza, a ten-foot statue bears the likenesses of uniformed black soldiers and a sailor ready to leave home. Women, children and senior citizens huddle on the inner surface. The statue was the first major piece of art by an African-American sculptor to be placed on federal land in the District.
National World War II Memorial
(East end of the Reflecting Pool, between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument; Dedication: May 29, 2004; Architect: Friedrich St. Florian)
Dedicated on Memorial Day weekend 2004, the National World War II Memorial pays tribute to the 16 million Americans who served in uniform, the more than 400,000 who lost their lives and the millions more who sacrificed on the home front. The memorial’s north and south entrances are marked by two 43-foot pavilions, and two 70-foot flagpoles frame the ceremonial entrance at 17th Street. Within the pavilions, American Eagles perched atop bronze columns hold a suspended victory laurel. The WWII victory medal is inlaid on the floor of the pavilions, surrounded by the words “Victory on Land,” “Victory at Sea,” “Victory in the Air,” and the years "1941-1945." Curvilinear ramps allow easy access for disabled visitors.
Twenty-four bas relief panels along the ceremonial entrance depict Americans at war at home and overseas, and 56 granite pillars represent the states, territories and District of Columbia that constituted the United States during the war; collectively, the pillars symbolize national unity. A field of 4,000 sculpted gold stars on a Freedom Wall honors the 400,000 Americans who gave their lives for freedom. The center of the memorial is marked by the restored Rainbow Pool. Other waterworks include semi-circular fountains at the base of the pavilions and waterfalls that flank the Freedom Wall.
Arlington National Cemetery
(Located in Arlington, VA about .4 miles over the Potomac River. designated officially as a military cemetery on June 15, 1864)
More than four million visitors each year come to visit our nation’s most treasured burial ground, home to more than 300,000 honored soldiers and distinguished citizens.Arlington National Cemetery was established by Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, who commanded the Garrison at Arlington House during the Civil War and appropriated the grounds for use as a military cemetery. The official designation was granted on June 15, 1864, by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.
The Memorial Amphitheater was dedicated on May 15, 1920. While numerous wreath-laying and other memorial ceremonies are conducted throughout the country, many consider the services at Arlington's Memorial Amphitheater to be the nation's official ceremonies to honor servicemen and women.
Additional Monuments and Memorials
Beyond its most famous patriotic symbols, the nation’s capital pays tribute to many other world leaders and historic events in memorials placed throughout the city. As you explore Washington, D.C., look for these treasures:
- 101st Army Airborne Division Memorial (Arlington National Cemetery)
- Benjamin Banneker Park (Maine Ave., SW, South of L’Enfant Plaza Promenade)
- Mary McLeod Bethune Monument (Lincoln Park, E. Capitol St. between 11th and 12th Sts., NW)
- Black Revolutionary War Patriots Memorial (currently under development) (Constitution Gardens, Constitution Ave. and 17th St., NW)
- Boy Scout Memorial (15th St. and Constitution Ave. on the White House Ellipse)
- Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd, Jr. Memorial (Arlington National Cemetery)
- Challenger Memorial (Arlington National Cemetery)
- Confederate Monument (Arlington National Cemetery)
- Constitution Gardens (Constitution Ave. and 17th St., NW)
- D.C. War Memorial (East of the Reflecting Pool, north of Independence Ave.)
- Albert Einstein Memorial (2101 Constitution Ave., NW)
- Emancipation Monument (Lincoln Park, E. Capitol St. between 11th and 12th Sts., NW)
- John Ericsson Monument (Independence Ave. and Ohio Dr.)
- First Infantry Division Monument (17th St. and State Pl., NW)
- Ulysses S. Grant Memorial (Maryland Ave. and 1st St., NW)
- Iran Rescue Memorial (Arlington National Cemetery)
- Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove (Boundary Channel Drive, near Pentagon North Parking Lot)
- Commodore John Paul Jones Memorial (17th St., South of Independence Ave., NW)
- Journalists Memorial (Freedom Park, on the overpass between 1100 and 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA)
- Francis Scott Key Park (M St., NW, at the Key Bridge)
- Robert E. Lee Memorial (Arlington House) (Arlington National Cemetery)
- George Mason National Memorial (Tidal Basin, between Jefferson and FDR Memorials)
- Andrew W. Mellon Memorial Fountain (Pennsylvania and Constitution Aves. at 6th St., NW)
- Memorial to Pan Am Flight 103 (Arlington National Cemetery)
- National Guard Memorial (1 Massachusetts Ave., NW)
- National Japanese American Memorial (New Jersey and Lousiana Avenues at D St., NW)
- National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial (F St. between 4th and 5th Sts., NW)
- Nurses Memorial (Arlington National Cemetery)
- Peace Monument (1st St. and Pennsylvania Ave., NW)
- John Joseph Pershing Park (Pennsylvania Ave., between 14th and 15th Streets)
- John Aaron Rawlins Park (18th and E Sts., NW)
- Second Division Memorial (Constitution Ave. at the White House Ellipse)
- Settlers of the District of Columbia Memorial (Constitution Ave. at the White House Ellipse)
- William Tecumseh Sherman Park (North Ellipse at Hamilton Pl. and E St., NW)
- Robert A. Taft Memorial (1st St. and Constitution Ave., NW)
- USS Maine Memorial (Arlington National Cemetery)
- George Washington Masonic National Memorial (Alexandria, VA, near King Street Metro Station)
- Women in Military Service for America Memorial (Arlington National Cemetery)
- Women’s Titanic Memorial (Water St., SW, near Washington Channel Park)