The National Mall

The National Mall in Washington, DC, is a wonderful place to visit and photograph.  The Mall, which extends from the Lincoln Memorial (on the west end) to the Capitol Building (on the east end), is about two miles long.  The last of these three buildings to go into place was the Lincoln Memorial in 1922.  Greek and Roman architecture inspired many of the buildings and memorials within Washington, DC.  The Capitol building and Lincoln Memorial are two of them.  Egyptian architecture inspired others, such as the Washington Monument.

My favorite location in the area is not actually part of the National Mall.  It is at the Netherlands Carillon in Arlington, Virginia.  The Carillon sits atop a small hill overlooking the Mall from across the Potomac River and near the Iwo Jima Memorial (formerly called the United States Marine Corp Memorial).  From this vantage point is an amazing view (seen in the photograph above).  The Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and Capitol Building all in a line and slightly offset from each other.  These buildings appear adjacent to each other, even though two miles separate the Lincoln Memorial from the Capitol Building.

The Dutch gave us the Carillon for our support during World War II.  Fifty bells (representing each of our states), weighing 30 tons, are in a 127-foot tower.  The chimes play daily.  A platform on the Carillon provides another very nice vantage point to see the Mall.

Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Virginia (Doug Oglesby)

Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington, DC


Washington Monument

The Washington Monument, standing 555 feet and 5 1/8 inches tall, was the tallest building in the world when it was completed in 1884.  In the late 18th century plans were made to honor our first president with a statue.  However, due to a lack of funds, nothing much came of it until the 1830s when John Marshall, then the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, and James Madison, then our fourth president, created the Washington National Monument Society.  The monument’s design was modeled after Egyptian obelisks, which are massive pillars with a wide base that gradually tapers to a point.

In 1848, construction began but in 1854 it stalled again due to a lack of funding and political turmoil.  The Civil War further delayed construction.  In 1877, after a 23-year hiatus, the second phase of construction started, and in 1888 construction was finished.  It took nearly 100 years after the initial plans were first developed.  As a result of the long construction delay, the marble used for the first 150 feet of the monument was no longer available.  A new supplier provided slightly different color marble.  As a result, the transition point is clearly evident.

Washington Monument in the National Mall in Washington, DC (Doug Oglesby)

Washington Monument at sunrise

Lincoln Memorial

In 1911, President Taft signed into law a bill to create the Lincoln Memorial and construction started in 1914.  World War I delayed completion until 1922.  We now had our marvelous view from Arlington of the National Mall’s Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building.

Designed after the Greek Parthenon in Athens Greece (the birthplace of democracy), the Lincoln Memorial has 36 44-foot Greek Doric-style marble columns symbolizing the 36 states in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death. Each state’s name is inscribed on the frieze above the columns.

Carved into the limestone walls in the north and south chambers of the memorial are Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and his second Inaugural Address.  The marble statue of Lincoln is 19 feet tall and dominates the interior.  The statue’s architect, Daniel Chester French, clenched Lincoln’s left hand into a fist to symbolize Lincoln’s resolute strength and determination.(1)  It is appropriate that the Gettysburg Address is on this side of the memorial as Lincoln was steadfast during many difficult times during the Civil War.  Lincoln’s right hand is unclenched and relaxed, perhaps representing Lincoln’s desire for reconciliation.  The south chamber, on Lincoln’s right, commemorates the second inaugural address, a speech focused on reunification.(2)

Lincoln Memorial in the National Mall in Washington, DC (Doug Oglesby)

Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC

Lincoln Memorial in the National Mall in Washington, DC (Doug Oglesby)

Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC

Capitol Building

The Capitol Building opened in 1826 but has gone through several expansions.  The 1850s expansion added the recognizable dome that is in place today.  The eight million pound cast iron dome cost more than $1 million.  In typical fashion, members of Congress grossly underestimated the cost, believing it would cost only $100,000.

President Washington put the cornerstone of the building in place in 1793 and construction was largely complete by 1811.  Then the War of 1812 happened and the British nearly destroyed it.  It was in a “magnificent ruin” according to the architect in charge of construction at the time.(3)  In 1815, restoration of the Capitol Building began.  Construction completed in 1826.

The building’s architecture is based on ancient Greek and Roman work.  Unlike the Lincoln Memorial, the number of exterior columns do not hold any significance.  Inside, the building has an impressive collection of artwork and statues, including a 15,000 pound 10 foot statue of King Kamehameha I, donated by Hawaii to commemorate its statehood.  The Apotheosis of Washington is another impressive piece.  It’s a painting on the eye of the rotunda on the underside of the dome.  Italian artist Constantino Brumidi painted the Apotheosis in 1865, finishing it in 1866.  The painting depicts Washington rising to the heavens, surrounded by female figures symbolizing liberty and victory, and 13 maidens representing our original 13 colonies.  Brumidi was famous for his work in Italy, including paintings in the Vatican and for the official portrait of Pope Pius IX.

Placed in 1863, the 15,000 pound Statue of Freedom is the bronze statue that sits atop the dome.  The female figure is wearing a military helmet and a Greek toga.  One of her hands is touching a sheathed sword, and the other is holding a laurel wreath.  It could be said that the sheathed sword represents power and the wreath independence.(4)

Apotheosis of washington in the Capitol Building in the National Mall

Apotheosis of Washington on the underside of the Capitol Building dome (image courtesy of Shutterstock)

Fulfilling the Original Vision

Originally, our government planned for the Mall to be a “Grand Avenue” or boulevard that would run from the location of the Washington Monument to the Capitol Building.  The plan was very slow to materialize, hampered by a lack of funding, occasional political infighting and several wars.

The National Mall began to slowly take shape starting with construction of the Washington Monument in 1848.  While interest in the Mall picked up, it didn’t gain steam until the early 1900s.  The government drafted new plans, influenced by European landscape architecture and the original “Grand Avenue” plans from the 1790s.  The 1901 Mall plan established the future locations of the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials and the reflecting pool on the western end of the Mall.  Things had started to pick up.

In 1910 we built the National Museum of American History.  By 1922 and 1938 the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials opened, respectively.  Over the rest of the 20th century other buildings and memorials began popping up – the Vietnam Veterans Memorial opened in 1982, the Korean War Memorial in 1993 and the World War II Memorial in 2004.

It took nearly 200 years to fulfill the original 1791 and 1901 plans.  More than 24 million people stroll the National Mall’s grounds each year, appreciating the beautiful landscape, visiting the wonderful museums and paying respect at the various memorials to our war veterans.  But, in my opinion, nothing beats the view from the Netherlands Carillon.

Vietnam War Memorial in the National Mall; Washington, D.C. (Doug Oglesby)

Vietnam War Memorial at sunrise with a reflecting Washington Monument.

See more images here.

End notes:
(1)  National Park Service, Lincoln Memorial & Design.  Retrieved from
(2) Ibid.
(3)  US Senate, Burning of Washington, 1814.  Retrieved from
(4)   History Revived, Symbolism and the Statue of Freedom.  Retrieved from

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