Then + Now: The Lincoln Memorial

Four score and 11 years ago…the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. It was a fitting date — Memorial Day.

While all men may be created equal, not all memorials measure up.

Though the marble edifice hasn’t changed much in the 91 years since its completion (artificial lights were unveiled in 1929, and an elevator was added in the mid-1970s), the nation Lincoln helped preserve is virtually unrecognizable.

The fight to eradicate racial prejudice may not have ended with the Emancipation Proclamation — a fact Martin Luther King, Jr., highlighted a century later in his “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered from the steps of the memorial — but the great man who issued the proclamation continues to humble and inspire.

I’m fortunate to live a short bike ride away from the national shrine, and I find myself returning to it again and again to reflect on Lincoln’s example and gain strength from his words.

To echo and paraphrase what the Great Emancipator said in his “Gettysburg Address,” it is for us the living to be dedicated to the unfinished work that has been so nobly advanced.

Here’s what the Lincoln Memorial looked like in its early days, and what it looks like today:


(Photograph courtesy Library of Congress)
The Lincoln Memorial took more than seven years to complete. Here it is, mid-build, in 1916. (Photograph courtesy Library of Congress)


(Photograph by Jonathan Irish)
The memorial has 36 columns, one for each state in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death. (Photograph by Jonathan Irish)

Fun fact: What’s in the cornerstone of the Lincoln Memorial?

Answer: When the cornerstone was laid — on Lincoln’s birthday (February 12) in 1915 — a box containing three copies of National Geographic magazine was placed inside. It was one of only two magazines to be so honored (the other being World’s Work). Daily newspapers, maps, and a document bearing the signatures of the president, the entire Cabinet, Senate, and Supreme Court, and nearly the entire House of Representatives, were also included in the box.


(Photograph courtesy Library of Congress)
The statue of Lincoln was carved out of Georgia marble over a period of four years and weighs 175 tons. (Photograph courtesy Library of Congress)


(Photograph by Jonathan Irish)
The epitaph above Lincoln’s head reads: “In this temple as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” (Photograph by Jonathan Irish)

Jonathan Irish is a professional photographer and a program director at National Geographic Adventures. Follow his story on Twitter @MagnumJI and on his website,



  1. Mark S
    July 3, 2013, 2:46 pm

    Cool historical photomerge of the Lincoln Memorial here:

  2. Stefanie Payne
    United States
    June 1, 2013, 3:08 pm

    This is a really cool idea – then+now. An especially good read for us traveling freaks who love history. :)

  3. Ian Faulds
    Bellingham, Washington, United States
    May 31, 2013, 8:50 pm

    I visited DC and the Lincoln Memorial way back around 2004ish when I was 13 and thought the monuments had been around forever, so it’s neat seeing it under construction in the old photos and remembering my childhood trip. I think they did a great job with the landscaping around it personally.

    Ian Faulds

  4. Subhradeep
    May 31, 2013, 3:49 am

    Hey as I love to travel and also fond of writing blogs releted to travel I like this article so much great posting ,hope someday I can visit this place