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Monumental Impact:
Lighting and History Intersect on the National Mall

Abby Hildebrand
AMST 180.10W
December 14, 2009

Pulitzer Prize winning writer Carl Sandburg published a collection of poetry in 1922, and

of the more than thirty poems, one, “Washington Monument by Night,” was highlighted in an

article. Sandburg, inspired by the nighttime view of one of the most famous landmarks in the

nation, writes:

The stone goes straight.

A lean swimmer dives into night sky,
Into half-moon mist

Two trees are coal black.

This is a great white ghost between.
It is cool to look at.
Strong men, strong women, come here.1

The massive structure, standing at 555 feet and 5 1/8 inch high and 55 feet wide, jets out of the

ground straight into the sky, a “lean swimmer” against the “night sky.” Although the monument

was not electrically lit quite yet, the color contrast of the bright white stone against the dark

expanse of sky overwhelms visitors of the Monument, a sentiment echoed in the use of “coal

black” trees and “great white ghost.” The “great white ghost” refers to the history behind the

monument, to the man and legend for which it is named. Sandburg successfully captures the

experience of viewing the Washington Monument on a clear night in this poem.

While sharing a visit to the monument is important, Sandburg’s decision to depict a

nighttime vista is telling. What was it about the nighttime images that inspired Sandburg? And

what is it that keeps people inspired by night skylines? Humans are drawn to the brightest spots

in our field of vision,2 so even though the Washington Monument was not lit when he wrote this

poem, its impact would still be striking—of course, even more so once the monument was lit.

There is something indescribable or inexplicable that gives an after dark visit meaning. Perhaps

“Washington Monument by Night.” Carl Sandburg in Current Opinion, Oct. 1, 1922. American
Periodicals Series Online, 526, (accessed November 27, 2009).
Christopher Cuttle, Lighting By Design (New York: Architectural Press, 2008), 74.

the serenity and quiet of the night allows for a better environment for introspection and

consideration of what is on display. Perhaps the nighttime makes us feel smaller somehow, or at

least insignificant in comparison to the grand structures at which we gaze in awe. There may be

no way to articulate the feelings of people as they stand in front of modern temples to fallen

soldiers or great men, but there is one thing that enhance to view such scenes: the electric light.

Electrification allowed for a complete transformation in American life at the turn of the

twentieth century. As technology progressed, it gave way to incredible uses of light, especially in

urban areas. The emergence of the electric displays at large fairs in urban America contributed to

electricity’s use in the creation of spectacles. These spectacles of large scale dazzling displays

attracted sightseers with their bright lights seen from great distances, in the same way lighted

skyscrapers were able to enhance the nighttime city skyline to draw tourists. Spectacles, as David

Nye argues, were also so attractive because they were able to transport Americans away from the

harsh living conditions of cities at the turn of the twentieth century and allow them to imagine a

bright future complete with electric lights.3

The Monuments on the National Mall, first with the Washington Monument, were turned

into spectacles as well, illuminated by bright, harsh lights. However, with the development of

new technology, the Washington Monument, Abraham Lincoln Memorial, and Thomas Jefferson

Memorial have used lighting to increase attention to detail, allowing for more stylistic lighting

schemes that have evolved alongside technology. People do not view grand displays of

electricity as spectacular in the same sense that they did in the late nineteenth and early twentieth

centuries, but people are still awed by the bright lights of the big city. The aforementioned

monuments fit as spectacles; however, instead of using light to transport people into the future,

the monuments use light to transport visitors back into history. When viewing bright lights
David Nye, Electrifying America (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), 4.

shining on the white marble of the Washington Monument, visitors think of the great man who

helped found our country and his story; the monument does not invoke thoughts of the next

century in the same way that visitors once associated the future with electric light. The idea that

a static stone memorial takes visitors on a historic journey is not a new idea; that is their purpose

—to keep history close as we are propelled into the future. Americans are attracted to their

history and past in the same way that the eye is drawn to the brightest spot, and like beacons

shining in the night sky, the lighting used on the monuments amplifies their visibility and

strengthens our history.

History of Electrification

Before addressing the monuments, it is integral to understand the history of electricity in

the United States as well as the emergence of spectacles. The historical background of

electrification will be helpful for the later discussion of the evolution of lighting schemes for the

different monuments.

Edison first demonstrated his light in 1879 in Menlo Park, New Jersey, and four months

later, the little town of Wabash, Indiana lit up its streets. One of the first spectacles was simple

lighting of shop windows and streetlights. Wabash welcomed trainloads of visitors who were

“overwhelmed with awe, as if in the presence of the supernatural” when the lights turned on.4

Residents of another small Indiana town, Muncie, similarly felt this experience when one

resident installed a coal-burning Edison plant and lit several stores. To these residents,

illumination in its most basic form “was ideally suited to staging a spectacle.”5 The spectacle

created by lighting only continued to amaze people as electrification of cities progressed.

Wabash Plain Dealer, Feb. 7, 14, 21, 28, 1880, quoted in David Nye, Electrifying America
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), 2-3.
Nye, 4.

As David Nye contends, while lighting does have functional purposes, like safety and

visibility, it also performs “symbolic expression”—that is, that the use of lighting went well

beyond necessity and became spectacle. An early instance of such grand displays was the first

lighting of the Statue of Liberty in 1886, which placed incendiaries with the power of eight

thousand candles at the bottom of the statue.6 That display must have been especially grand since

the Statue of Liberty, located on Liberty Island, would be visible for miles around. Also in New

York City, the headquarters for the Edison Company celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of

the inauguration of George Washington in 1889. They covered the building in fabric and placed

several stars made out of light bulbs on it.7 Since Edison conducted much of his work in New

Jersey and his headquarters were in New York, it seems logical that numerous demonstrations

took place there. Those events occurred in a time when electric lights not only were scattered in

New York, but also throughout the rest of the country.

Once fairs became popular starting with the 1894 Chicago World’s Fair and continuing

until San Francisco in 1915, the spectacles became bigger and brighter. “Electricity buildings”

were among the main attractions that allowed those in attendance to escape their daily lives and

imagine a totally industrialized and electrified future. The dazzling lights lured many Americans,

and as Nye finds, about “one-third of the population of the United States saw the electrical

displays” at the Chicago, Buffalo and St. Louis fairs between 1894 and 1904.8 These staggering

numbers are a testament to the draw electric spectacles possessed. It also supports one of Nye’s

major points that people needed an escape from the world around them. Before the turn of the

century, America was in a turbulent period, full of corrupt politicians, plagued by strikes and

unfair labor laws that allowed for rapid industrialization, as well as massively expanding cities
Nye, 32.
Nye, 33.
Nye, 33-34.

thanks to large amounts of Southern European immigrants. For many Americans, escape from

their difficult lives came in the form of these electric spectacles.

The fair’s use of electric lighting leads to another important development: specialists who

could use their skills to plan light attractions with theatricality and employ other special effects,

like colored light. These specialists are the ancestors of modern lighting designers and

technicians. While technology limited the scope of their expression, the lighting specialists of the

early twentieth century were able to create spectacles at fairs that awed Americans. The types of

lights, like arc lights, which lack the dimming capabilities of their more modern counterparts,

were not as easily controlled as later models.

In more recent times, electric lighting has been used to stylize neighborhoods. In their

examination of urban planning and design history, Eran Ben-Joseph and Terry S. Szold maintain

that decorative lighting, along with other factors like public art and street furniture that “upgrade

the streetscape,” help to beautify an area undergoing the process of gentrification9. While the

National Mall is not a neighborhood, the lighting here is used in the same way cities utilize

lighting to revitalize areas. Both the lighting of the monuments and lighting of gentrified

neighborhoods enhance the beauty of the areas to draw new visitors to their respective

attractions. Light is used to emphasize select stories or moments in our past and disregard others,

in the same way that street lights placed in certain neighborhoods allows cities to call attention to

some areas and ignore others.

Like the lighting used in spectacles, the lighting used on the monumental core was not a

necessity. As Sarah Pressey Noreen explains, the lighting used on the monuments “is intended to

distort, to raise the luminosity of a surface beyond that of its surroundings.” She continues,

Eran Ben-Joseph & Terry S. Szold, Regulating Place Standards and the Shaping of Urban
America. (New York: Routledge, 2004), 154.

writing that “the cherished monuments” become more visible than the “distracting details of the

city,” and that in eliminating “the contrasts obvious in the daytime city,”10 the monuments at

night are given that air of serenity and tranquility that we see in Sandburg’s poem. This

environment created by the lighting is reminiscent of the same environment created by the

spectacles. The visitor is fixed upon the lighted objects or the lights themselves and not on the

rest of their surroundings. For visitors to the monuments, they focus on the brightly light marble

structures and the histories behind them, just as visitors to fairs viewed the grand electric

displays and thought of the distant future.

The Washington Monument

The lighting history of the Washington Monument, like that of America, has spanned

much of the twentieth century. The monument, like a spectacle, was brightly lit to attract visitors.

According to the National Park Service Historic Structure Report, the Powhatan Hotel “shone

search lights on the monument during the summer of 1925—a first—done for entertainment.”11

The Report indicates that in 1931 that lighting changed from the search lights to on-site

floodlights in 1931. The first mentions of lighting and the Washington Monument by the

Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) was from 1955. Established by an act of Congress in 1910, the

Commission approves any proposed changes to lighting, or any aesthetic or design aspect, of

buildings, streets, or parks in Washington DC. That means if there had been no mention of

lighting from 1925 to 1955, there had been no significant attempts to change the previous

lighting, or at least attempts serious enough to warrant approval by the Commission.

Sarah Pressey Norton, “Public Street Illumination in Washington, D.C.: An Illustrated
History,” GW Washington Studies, (Washington D.C.: The George Washington University1974)
Vol. 2.
“Historic Structure Report-Final Report,” National Park Service, June 2004.

The Washington Monument, like other large-scale displays of bright light before it,

certainly created a spectacle like that of the electricity buildings. Although unlike previous

displays of light, the Washington Monument did not need darkness to appear spectacular; it

could awe any American during the day just as much as the night. However, as we see from Carl

Sandburg’s poem, the nighttime view of this monument evokes inspiration, and a return to

history. This continuation of the introductory poem delves into the history of the man who

inspired the monument.

The poet is transported back to one of Washington’s most challenging and famous

moments as general of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War when he writes,

“The wind bit hard at Valley Forge one Christmas.” 12 Clearly, the nighttime view of the

Washington Monument evoked thoughts of the winter nights Washington spent with his troops;

Sandburg connects the present to the past in the lines “red footprints wrote on the snow” and

“stone shoots into stars here.” He also ties this verse to the first one by repeating the phrase “half-

moon mist.” The imagery of the man standing alone also fits with the imagery of the monument

standing alone against the night sky, “shoot[ing] into stars.” The bright white stone of the

monument leaves visitors inspired and wrapped up in the history of George Washington, just as

visitors to fairs viewed elaborate electric light displays to imagine the industrialized future.

While Sandburg was writing at a time when the Washington Monument was unlit, his view of

the monument at night is still valuable because it shows the historical value of the monument.

His view of the marble obelisk gives an early perspective of the monument at night that would

have been enhanced by light. The white stone would look whiter and brighter, and while there is

no way to know if his poem would be the same had there been lights shining on the monument in

“Washington Monument by Night.” Carl Sandburg in Current Opinion, Oct. 1, 1922.
American Periodicals Series Online, 526, (accessed November 27, 2009).

1922, his view of history inspired by the Washington Monument would still contrast the view

created more recently by the most recent renovation.

Early lighting, according to the CFA assessment, was “inadequate” and “spotty,” possibly

not even fully light from top to bottom.13 The lighting was probably very dim and yellowish in

color, with sizeable gaps since there were limited fixtures in use. In 1955, the CFA proposed a

new plan for the monument that would gradually increase the candlelight power to be four times

the previous lights’ strength and also suggested using hydraulic lamps that could be in the

ground during the day and risen at night. With this, we see a prime example of how new

technology impacted the lighting of the monuments; early lighting could not have allowed for the

brightness and coverage the Commission found desirable. The Monument originally inspired

Carl Sandburg to recall Washington’s troubled nights at Valley Forge, but shifts in the lighting

would inspire visitors to recall another part of history associated with the Washington


More recently, lighting designers decided to take the connection of the Washington

Monument to the past further and create a more visible link between the viewer and history.

Between the initial renovations of the lighting in 1955 and the next restoration in 1986, there

were few, if any, changes made. The lighting of the monument was decided to be “increasingly

spotty” and “unsatisfactory in several other respects” by the CFA in 1986.14 The fixtures that had

been installed in 1957 were no longer functioning properly and the Commission came up with a

three light system so that light fixtures would block no view. This new system would also

include illumination on the east and west sides of the monument as to increase the three-

Commission of Fine Arts meeting minutes, April 13, 1955, p. 13. Commission of Fine Arts,
Washington DC.
Commission of Fine Arts meeting minutes, January 15, 1986, p. 3. Commission of Fine Arts,
Washington DC.

dimensional look of the obelisk.15 The new design when installed in 1988 also coordinated the

color and intensity of the lighting of the Capitol Building, Lincoln Memorial and Washington

Monument. Before this time, the three buildings would have had slightly different levels of

brightness and even color. This coordination is often taken into consideration by the CFA, which

speaks to its significance. The lighting of the Capitol, Lincoln and Washington coordinates for

practical purposes most likely, as these three monuments line up directly with each other down

the extent of the lawn of the Mall. In the 1973, the Commission debated about whether or not to

add lighting to the American flags around the base of the monument and ended up using a soft

illumination since the law required the lighting of the flags. Advances in technology and style,

like the development of smaller but stronger fixtures, as well as positioning lights to enhance the

monument’s shape, helped to create a better lighting scheme for the Washington Monument that

would continue to inspire Americans.

The most recent lighting renovations on the Washington Monument took place in 2004.

In a presentation to the CFA, landscape architect Laurie Olin told the Commission he wanted to

“make clear how the obelisk was built, its material, and the phases of construction.”16 As

opposed to the history of the man behind the monument, Olin wanted to highlight the history of

the monument itself. It was built in two stages, first between 1848 and 1856, interrupted by a

lack of funds and the uncertainty of the nation’s future due to the Civil War, and then completed

in 1884.17 During these two periods, different types of stone, Maryland and Massachusetts white

marble, were used and a visible line about one hundred and fifty feet up the monument delineates

the shift. Olin also wanted to use uplighting on the monument to control the shadows to enhance
Commission of Fine Arts meeting minutes, November 18, 2004, Commission of Fine Arts,
Washington DC.
“Washington Monument.” National Parks Service. (accessed November 22, 2009)

“the details of the stone construction.”18 These techniques that enhance the features of the

monument bring an additional history to light.

This use of light to promote the history of the monument brings into question the

motivations for this technique. Olin’s motivations may have simply been to show visitors the

disparity in the stone color so they may question it and learn about the history of the monument.

His technique certainly enriches the history behind the monument by adding another layer of

which many visitors are unaware. This technique becomes significant when considering that

people think of certain histories when viewing the monument; for Sandburg, it was Valley Forge.

For another visitor it may be when that during the tumultuous time of the Civil War, Washington

served as a symbol of unity. Yet, when the lighting purposely promotes the history of the

monument instead of the man it commemorates, the visitor’s perception of the monument may

change. We are naturally drawn to the brightest object we can see, and in this case, the line

where the color shifts becomes central. Appreciating the architecture and structure becomes the

central focus of the viewer’s eyes, as opposed to the symbols the structure represents.

Technology has changed the way in which the monuments are perceived by allowing more

attention to fall on the details of the monument, thus, adding to and altering the history that

people connect with the Washington Monument.

The Lincoln Memorial

Like the Washington Monument, nighttime views of the Lincoln Memorial have also

inspired poetry. Langston Hughes wrote “Lincoln Monument: Washington,” released on

recording in 1955, after a visit to the Lincoln Memorial. Hughes remarks that Lincoln sits

Commission of Fine Arts meeting minutes, November 18, 2004, Commission of Fine Arts,
Washington DC

“lonely in the marble and the moonlight,” 19 which speaks to the serenity found in a visit to the

monument at night. He also makes the Lincoln Memorial seem ancient, “quiet for ten thousand

centuries, old Abe. / Quiet for a million, million years.”20 The quiet could be in reference to the

many years of slavery and oppression that African Americans continued to experience at that

time. He also calls it “timeless,” speaking to Lincoln’s wisdom and strength that has been

commemorated in this memorial. Hughes uses a contradiction in the poem, saying that Abe is

quiet but also “a voice forever/Against the/Timeless walls/Of time.”21 He assesses the Lincoln as

a somber place where Lincoln’s voice is always ringing out against the injustices in the world,

which is probably in reference to Lincoln’s famous speeches printed on the walls. It seems fitting

that Hughes decided to write about Lincoln under the moonlight in 1955 since the Civil Rights

Movement was still relatively young. The moonlight connotes a dark time, as opposed to a sunny

or happier time. The loneliness may also refer to the social conditions of the day, or perhaps it

refers to Lincoln’s position as the only president memorialized who fought for equal rights for

African Americans. Hughes, like Sandburg, was inspired by a nighttime view of a monument

and the history behind it.

Finished in 1922, the Lincoln Memorial was temporarily lit in a trial shortly after its

completion, but architect Henry Bacon disapproved.22 The Memorial’s ceiling above the statue is

like a giant sky light, with a covering of translucent panels to allow light in. During the day, this

type of lighting “bounced off the marble and uplit the statue,” which gave the effect of “holding

a flashlight under Lincoln’s chin, giving him a surprised look” according to lighting specialist

“Lincoln Monument: Washington by Langston Hughes” Old Poetry.
Commission of Fine Arts meeting minutes, Sept. 22, 1921 & Nov. 11, 1922, Commission of
Fine Arts, Washington DC.

Dan Zuczek who surveyed the lighting of the Memorial in 1998.23 Sculptor Daniel Chester

French was disappointed with the effects of the natural light, so he lobbied to have artificial

lights installed,24 and in 1927, “quiet and subdued”25 illumination of the Lincoln Memorial

began. That lighting remained unchanged until 1962, when the CFA reassessed the Lincoln

Memorial. The Commission decided that there needed to be less light in the general area around

the memorial so that the lights of the memorial would stand out. They wanted to “enhance [the

monument’s] value as focal points after dark in the city.”26 The Commission’s desire to create a

nighttime destination for Washington DC tourists is significant in a variety ways. First, we see

that part of the Commission’s motivation is to draw as many people to the monuments as

possible, perhaps for economic reasons or perhaps to expose the most people to the history

contained there. Secondly, lighting the monuments with greater precision to create focal points

for the city maintains the idea that the Commission wishes to create spectacles out of the

Monuments. The history behind the Lincoln Memorial, that of the man who “saved the Union”

as the inscription above the statue says, also becomes more striking as the structure that

represents that history becomes more central to the skyline. The lighting of the monuments was,

and is, used to attract tourists in the same way that the “electricity buildings” were used at fairs

to draw in visitors. These changes were implemented in 1963, but in 1969, the Commission

found that there was “too much” light on the Lincoln and added light to the Ellipse to balance out
Charles Linn. “Study Finds Lincoln Looks Best Basking in Incandescent Glow,” Architectural
Record, vol. 186, no. 2 [February 1998],
3850&docNo=10 [Accessed November 13, 2009]
Wayne Craven, Sculpture in America (Newark DE: University of Delaware Press, 1984), 405.
Commission of Fine Arts meeting minutes, Feb. 17, 1927, Commission of Fine Arts,
Washington DC.
Commission of Fine Arts meeting minutes, September 18, 1962, Commission of Fine Arts,
Washington DC.

the overall view of the Mall. This speaks to concerns of highlighting one monument too much

over another. The CFA may have been wary of making the Lincoln Memorial too bright to keep

the Lincoln, Washington and Capitol Building coordinated in their lighting. When aligned, those

three structures create one of the most picturesque views in Washington, making it important for

their lighting to match in intensity and color.

This idea became especially significant during the early 1970s as Washington DC

prepared for its Bicentennial celebration. In a letter from J. Carter Brown, the Chairman of the

Commission of Fine Arts, to a special consultant to the President, Brown writes of the

advantages of nighttime tourism. “The impression that [nighttime] visitors carry away with them

of this symbolic town will be largely influenced by how it looks at night.”27 Brown clearly places

importance on the aesthetics of Washington DC, something to which lighting contributes. For

Brown, the appearance of the monuments affects the symbols that characterize the city. For

visitors during the Bicentennial, viewing the monuments on the National Mall would conjure the

history of the founding of our nation, and for the Lincoln Memorial, visitors would think of the

man who saved the nation in its darkest hours. This history becomes enhanced by lighting

because, as the monuments become the focus of the city, visitors think of the history associated

with the Mall and the Bicentennial as opposed to the city itself. Brown also wanted to

differentiate the day from the night by using lighting techniques. He wanted the columns on the

Lincoln Memorial to provide a “silhouette like a decorative cosmetic screen rather than

presenting the building as it is seen by day, with its outer dimensions defined by the columns and

attic projecting above.”28 Brown’s specific desires for the appearance of the Lincoln at night

again show the weight he places on the lighting scheme. This lighting can affect the impression
Brown to Leaonard Garment, Special Consultant to the President. October 11, 1973,
Commission of Fine Arts. Washington, DC.

of history, and for the Bicentennial celebration in Washington DC, the “symbolic expression” of

the lighting became of the utmost importance to the CFA.

In recent years, the Commission called for renovation in 1998, a process that would not

be completed for several years. In 2003, the CFA debated about the inscription on the stairs of

the memorial that commemorates Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous 1963 speech. The inscription,

added in August 2003 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington,

remained unlit since the Commission decided to leave it as “something to come upon.”29 The

result of the debate once again shows how light can be used to highlight certain events. While the

store inside the memorial contains materials about Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights

Movement, and Marian Anderson (who sang the national anthem on the steps after being denied

from performing at DAR Constitution Hall because of her race), the decision to leave the

commemorative inscription unlit means that the history associated with the Civil Rights

Movement is not as important as Lincoln’s history—that of the great emancipator. It is also

important to note that the Commission began debating this topic because of the fortieth

anniversary of the March on Washington that year. The inscription, and the movement it honors,

has been regarded by the CFA as just something to stumble over, as opposed to a piece of history

that deserves recognition of its own. The visitor is not able to experience the history of the Civil

Rights Movement if visiting the memorial at night, unless of course they already know the

inscription’s location. While Lincoln’s story should be the dominant history at his memorial, the

lighting limits the experience of the memorial by hiding a piece of history that speaks to the

continuation of his legacy.

The final result of this most recent renovation was a more dramatic view of the statue.

Commission of Fine Arts meeting minutes, October 16, 2003, Commission of Fine Arts,
Washington DC.

The Commission wanted the “area around the statue slightly darker” so that “the figure would

emerge from a very deep, dark space and would be considered more powerful.”30 To make

Lincoln a stronger presence not only enhances the experience of visiting the memorial at night,

but also intensifies the reading of the viewer. Lincoln, while an incredibly important figure in

American history, becomes a more powerful authority when his sculpture emerges from the

darkness, like a beacon in a black sky. The size of the statue, which is nineteen feet high, also

contributes to the commanding presence of Lincoln in his memorial. The backlighting and use of

shadow to create a more powerful experience deepens the connection between the visitor and

history by making Lincoln seem even more larger than life. By making Lincoln the brightest

part of the interior, the statue becomes the focus, and in turn Lincoln’s history becomes the

focus, as opposed to other stories of the structure, like that of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Jefferson Memorial

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial, completed in 1943, was not permanently lighted until a

Congressman became personally involved. California Congressman Clyde Doyle wrote “to the

Secretary of the Interior, urging that the Thomas Jefferson Memorial be permanently illuminated

at night.”31 During the inaugural week of 1949, January 19 to 23, the memorial was temporarily

lit but the south side was “displeasing” and the National Park Service could not attain a

floodlight to fix the situation. An Assistant Superintendent of National Capital Parks, Harry T.

Thompson, “was advised that the Commission of Fine Arts have deprecated the floodlighting of

monuments and memorial statues in the National Capital over a period of many years. An

Commission of Fine Arts meeting minutes, March 18, 2004, Commission of Fine Arts,
Washington DC.
Memorandum from Irving C. Root, Superintendent National Capital Parks, to H.P.
Craemmerer, Commissioner, February 11, 1949, p.5-6, Commission of Fine Arts, Washington

exception has been made in the case of the Washington Monument to protect it from airplanes.”32

The difficulties in securing permanent lighting did not stop there. The Memorial’s interior and

exterior were lit in 1949, but over a decade later, the steps remained unlit. Concerns of safety

brought this matter to the Commission’s attention in 1963, but they felt as long as there were

railings, “illumination of the steps by any source of light in the railings would disrupt the

appearance of the approaches to the [Thomas Jefferson Memorial] at night and could not be

recommended.”33 The Commission, rather than ensuring the safety of visitors by lighting the

handrails, they place more importance on the look of the Memorial. The aesthetics of the

monument trumped concern for visitor safety in that the CFA, out of fear that the memorial’s

appearance would be ruined by extra light, decided not to add lighting to the railings. Perhaps

worried tourists would not find the change agreeable or that Washingtonians would protest to the

scene, CFA did not add lights to the handrails.

In 1963, the CFA began the process of updating the lighting. After determining that

“accent lights on the periphery and some additional lighting of the interior and on the Jefferson

statue would produce a desirable total effect,” the CFA decided that they wanted the lighting

structures hidden. This created significant problems, as this type of light would be costly. They

wanted the lights to be screened by the trees around the memorial and would not “any scheme

involving towers.”34 In 1972, the Commission took a walk through the Jefferson Memorial to

evaluate the lighting but in 1973 “temporary measures [were] investigated for [it] while

financial” problems were being assessed. Since it was so close the Bicentennial Celebration, the

Commission of Fine Arts meeting minutes, February 11,1949, page 6, Commission of Fine
Arts, Washington DC.
Commission of Fine Arts meeting minutes, April 16, 1963, Commission of Fine Arts,
Washington DC.
Commission of Fine Arts meeting minutes, July 8,1971 Commission of Fine Arts, Washington

CFA had to keep the Jefferson Memorial lit in some capacity. During this point it remained lit,

with little changes to the original lighting standards. In 2001, the CFA approved lighting the

steps for the first time and to “change the color of the light to be more compatible with the

Washington Monument and Capital dome.”35 Jefferson’s status as inconsequential compared to

Washington and Lincoln, whose memorials were coordinated starting in 1988, is evident in the

lighting. Even though it was built last, the Jefferson Memorial was not lit permanently lit for six

years, whereas the Lincoln and Washington were lit more than two decades earlier. The CFA

limited the nighttime experience of visitors by keeping the Jefferson dark for so long, and only

during special events, like the 1949 Inaugural Week or Bicentennial Celebration, did they pay

attention to it.

The 2001 renovation also included lighting the inside of the dome for the first time. The

side of the Memorial that faces the White House was also never lit until after 2001. All in all, the

new design “illuminated about 30% more of the Memorial.”36 This includes the dome ceiling and

bronze statue that were once dimly lit due to the columns blocking the light. There is also a line

of text around the interior of the dome that had previously never been lighted because of

technological constraints. But, with the development of LED lights that are small enough to fit

under the text, it has finally been lit for the first time since the monument’s completion. The only

part of the monument still unlit is the very top of the dome because the only way to do so would

mean using a light on a very high pole (129 feet), “which would visually alter and degrade the

presentation of the memorial.”37 The new additions to the Jefferson Memorial enhance the
Commission of Fine Arts meeting minutes, March 15, 2001, Commission of Fine Arts,
Washington DC.
Amy L. Slingerland, “A Capital Idea: The Jefferson Memorial Gets a Glamorous Yet Energy-
Efficient Facelift,” Live Design. May 2, 2002.
U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Federal Energy
Management Program, “The Jefferson Memorial,” July 2008,

visitors experience and also call attention to new aspects of the memorial previously left dark.

The quote from Thomas Jefferson on the interior of the dome reads, “I have sworn upon the altar

of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” The line speaks to

the commitment to democracy Jefferson embodied throughout his life, as well as the

commitment to his values that comes through in his memorial. In lighting this phrase, the

designers have added emphasis to the words and visitors can now contemplate its significance

more so than when it was left dark.


The spectacle created by the Washington Monument has drawn visitors since 1925 but

the new renovations in the monument’s lighting have emphasized the history of the monument’s

construction, more specifically the role of the Civil War in monument’s completion. The

highlighting of this aspect also highlights a different history than had previously been associated

with the monument. The Lincoln’s picturesque nighttime views have enchanted visitors since

shortly after its dedication. The Commission of Fine Arts’ decision to leave the commemorative

inscription for Martin Luther King, Jr. shows how light can truly impact which stories we

envision upon our visits to the National Mall. In the same respect, the Jefferson Memorial finally

properly lit the interior dome and text below it, adding another element to a visitor’s experience.

The quote, while not integral to the monument, supplies another example of Jefferson’s

dedication to democracy. Additionally, the lack of coordination among Jefferson and the other

monuments shows that perhaps the CFA does not regard Jefferson in the same manner that it

considers the Washington Monument or Lincoln Memorial.

The examination of the history and current lighting of the presidential monuments has

answered and uprooted a number of questions. We see that in some instances, the lighting, or

lack thereof, can dictate or influence which history a visitor contemplates while visiting a

monument or memorial, but there are several other monuments that have been left unexplored.

The newly completed World War II Memorial has a similar feel as those examined in this paper.

While this memorial and the Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson light up the Washington D.C.

skyline, the Vietnam Veterans and the Korean War Memorials reside below those massive white

structures and in both design and lighting offer an anti-spectacle to the grandeur of the

presidential structures. This contrast has been written about, especially in regards to the styles of

their designs. The different lighting schemes have not been explored extensively and a study of

these contrasts could be a valuable addition to writings about lighting and public spaces.

Perhaps Sandburg said it best when he wrote, “strong men, strong women, come here.”

The National Mall calls out to us at night, drawing us into the bright lights. The calm of the dark

and the peaceful white marble symbols of history tower over us and, allow for an escape from

the technological future that people once imagined when they viewed the bright lights of

electrical displays a century before. Our eyes may be more accustomed to the brilliant displays of

illumination but we are just as intrigued by them as we were when they first took us out of the



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