Hélène Lipstadt: Monument/Drawing/Memory
(S. 186 – 197)

On collective memory and the monument/memory-relation

Hélène Lipstadt

Reading a Sketch of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial by Franklin Delano Roosevelt for Kurt W. Forster

PDF, 12 Seiten

Historic Double Jeopardy and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial

Alois Riegl’s “Modern Cult of Monuments” (1903) is, as Kurt W. Forster wittily declared, a “touchstone” for those who wish to put the monument/memory relationship on a firm foundation. Even in our memorial-building age, we acknowledge the wisdom of Riegl’s observation that for all its look of rock-hard incorruptibility, the “intentional” or commemorative monument enjoys only a limited life span. As Riegl saw it, within one generation the intentional monument is exposed to what Forster called “historic double jeopardy: memory is all that sustains its meaning but its physical form will have to survive the vagaries of changing perceptions and values,” which include, but are hardly limited to, taste, those “ripples created by fashion.”

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., commemorating the man who was the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States, was designed by John Russell Pope between 1935 and 1937 and built by the federal government between 1938 and 1943. It is a monument that bears the indelible signs of this early exposure to the fluctuations of memory and the oscillations of taste. Although the political and architectural genesis of the Jefferson Memorial has been studied, the role played by memory in its history has gone unexplored. It is retraced here with the help of a new theorization of memory by and for historians, in the hope that this recording can be of aid for those who wish to grasp that most elusive of the historian’s terms, collective memory, and that most evanescent of relationships, monument/memory.

The history of the Jefferson Memorial is recalled here with the help of a previously unknown drawing made by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president who asked the Congress to create the memorial. The drawing is attributed to him by an anonymous hand, who entitled it the “Sketch of Tidal Basin and Jefferson Memorial by Franklin Delano Roosevelt—on his desk in his White House Office—When he asked Mr. Kent E. Keller—to take hold and put it over” and dated it May 7, 1938.

Not despite the fact, but because the drawing does not correspond to the project approved by Roosevelt in March 1938 and constructed from 1938 to 1943, it can be said to reveal the manner in which exposure to the double jeopardy of surging and receding memories and capricious aesthetic preferences shaped the Jefferson Memorial’s form and meaning from the outset. 


The 1930s were an auspicious time for Jefferson. Never had Jefferson’s star shone brighter or seemed closer; never had it been followed by so many, including the current president. In an epiphany that had left him “breathless,” Roosevelt had recently discovered Jefferson’s pertinence to his own times. Henceforth, Roosevelt spoke privately of Jefferson “as if he had been one of his grandfathers,” while publicly he unerringly sought and found every occasion when Jefferson could be cited or honored, celebrating Jefferson’s progressiveness and making him the patron saint of the liberal but nonetheless most un-Jeffersonian New Deal.

The commemoration of Jefferson could draw on a rich blend of what Merrill Peterson has called the “images of Jefferson.” The older image of Jefferson as the “Great Commoner” and champion “of the little man”—which could not fail to have a special resonance in the period of the Great Depression—and as American revolutionary were complemented by the newer one of Jefferson as an all-encompassing American, and, simultaneously, a uniquely genial cultural polymath. In the 1920s, as a result of the publication of his drawings, which demonstrated that he had been a full-fledged architect (which architects had doubted), and the subsequent discovery of his breadth of learning in all the arts, Jefferson had taken on the traits of an American Leonardo. The restoration of Monticello in 1926 strengthened the architectural part of this man of many parts, and a twinned and somewhat contradictory idea of the house and its architect was formed. Monticello came to be understood as the unequaled artistic work of a great classical and Palladian architect, and—because of Jefferson’s inventions of furniture and scientific instruments and his astute and functional programming of the house and its gardens—as the modern house of an ingeniously practical man.

With Roosevelt’s landslide election in 1932, conditions became propitious for the construction of the national monument that admirers of Jefferson had been demanding since the 1920s, and, in 1934, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission was created. No opposition might be expected from the Congress, where the Democratic Party, which honored Jefferson as the founder of their party, was now in the majority. A great, popular affection for Jefferson existed; the president was a true believer. Why, then, in May 1938 did the fate of the monument lie in the hands of a little-known congressman, Kent E. Keller? 

The actions of Fiske Kimball, the architect-historian of Jefferson’s architecture, who dominated the Memorial Commission, are certainly a cause. Believing that Jefferson deserved a site of the “first magnitude and importance,” he sought the remaining choice spot on the plan drawn up by the McMillan Commission in 1902 governing the capital’s future development and restoring Pierre L’Enfant’s original design for the city. This location on the empty “fifth point” of a cross—about a mile south of the White House, on an axis that intersects the East-West axis formed by the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial at the Washington Monument—put the Jefferson Memorial on the southeast shore of the Tidal Basin, a man-made lagoon of the Potomac fringed with Japanese cherry trees and nationally admired as the most beautiful natural place in the capital. Kimball chose the Roman Pantheon as the classical model best suited for the memorial, given the preference for Roman architecture in general, and for the Pantheon in particular, that Jefferson had displayed in his writings and buildings.

Finally, he chose John Russell Pope as the architect with the best sense of monumentality and as the “last great figure” of the “classical style founded by Jefferson and […] practiced in Washington,” the one which was now “under tremendous attack,” even “dying out.” Since for Kimball, it went almost without saying that a building modeled on Jefferson’s much admired Pantheon was ipso facto Jeffersonian, he gave little thought to the possibility that the memorial might be seen differently by the public. Indeed, he gave little thought to public response at all.

Pope’s design, approved by the president in February 1937, joined two distinct classical models, the domed and pedimented Pantheon and the columnar circular tholos, in a construction that would dramatically alter the streetscape and landscape of Washington. In this first design, the enormous structure, much larger than the nearby Lincoln Memorial (1922), was to stand at the center of an island in the middle of a rectangular reflecting pool created by eliminating the irregular edges of the Tidal Basin and its famed border of cherry trees. Two major rerouted thoroughfares were to crisscross the reshaped body of water. The commission expected no objections from the two federal review boards with authority over building in Washington and from the Congress. 

Instead, Pope’s project was engulfed by “a tempest of denunciation probably unprecedented in American architecture.” Attempting to take action before the “forces opposed to the monumentality and formality gain the upper hand,” Kimball had, in fact, stirred them up. Modernist architects formed the highly public vanguard of the assault, but they were not alone. They were followed by the local and national press, by many citizens of Washington and the nation, and, decisively, by members of Congress, who, though of the party of Jefferson and President Roosevelt, voted in spring 1937 to deny financing to the monument. Some called the protests the “battle of the century.”

Site and form were scrutinized and found wanting. The monument’s location was at the very center of the furor, as local and national indignation about the destruction of the Tidal Basin, especially its cherry trees, flared up in letters to the press and to the government. Modernist architects, while the most vociferous critics, were far from the only ones to point out that the imperial model, traditional monumentality, and formal site planning were incongruous in these years of financial and social crisis. Finally, the very idea of a monument was held up to ridicule: for a few advanced thinkers, it appeared that “the day of the ‘monument’ is over.”

The meaning of the projected monument, too, was widely questioned. The memorial that was supposed to honor the cultural hero in the symbolic language and historical forms of what was presumed to be his own culture, classical architecture, had actually exposed a divide in the image of Jefferson. There were two perceived sides to Jefferson, the classicist and the gadgeteer, the exceptional American and the quintessential one, the aesthete and the functionalist, the Leonardo and the “Great Commoner.” In architecture, the letter of Jefferson the eighteenth-century Virginian may have been classical, but the spirit of the man had been modern, and, for many, a classical memorial spoke only to the latter.

In June 1937 the review board with jurisdiction over planning in Washington discreetly made a well-reasoned case to the Memorial Commission for an “informal” treatment and for transferring the proposed monument from the planned island to the existing shore of the Tidal Basin. This solution, which was accepted immediately, left the contour of the basin—and thus, as the Memorial Commission recognized, the cherry trees—intact, while still placing the memorial on axis with the White House.

Pope died before he could revise the project, and another review board, the powerful Commission of Fine Arts, demanded that an entirely new memorial be designed. Under the chairmanship of Gilmore D. Clarke, a well-known landscape architect, it argued that the scale of the White House required “an open and freer treatment”—in fact, a landscape solution. It therefore rejected the Memorial Commission’s proposal for a reduced-size Pantheon on an unaltered Tidal Basin prepared for them by Pope’s successors, Otto Eggers and Daniel Higgins. Eggers and Higgins then readied a new design that matched those criteria, which the Memorial Commission reluctantly accepted.

However, when the members of the commission discovered that the supposedly new design was merely a “reduced and bona fide version” of Pope’s 1926 project for a memorial to President Theodore Roosevelt, they declared it an undesirable “rehash,” and, not waiting for the Commission of Fine Arts’ opinion, reselected the design for the reduced-size Pantheon, a choice that the president approved in March 1938. 

The “battle” was immediately reignited in Congress and in the press, with modernist architects taking the lead in the latter. The traditionalist Commission of Fine Arts also did its part by publicly denouncing the Pantheon as a model for the memorial, protesting that Jefferson required a design of “greater freshness” than the domed form that Pope had also used for the National Gallery of Art, and announced what this counterproject should be: “more open in character, possessing in silhouette relatively long, low horizontal lines, […] with the principal axis kept open or at least partly so,” in the form of “double semi-circular colonnades.” Apparently, only a “landscape” solution in the shape of a garden exedra or colonnade would satisfy the Commission of Fine Arts.

Representative Keller, who, as the chair of the congressional committee with oversight of legislation for the memorial, was in a position to make Congress consider bills that could undermine the Memorial Commission’s authority, proposed a law that did just that. He called for a “national collaborative competition” among “architects, sculptors, painters, and landscape architects” for a new memorial, to be prepared with the help of the Commission of Fine Arts. As the memorial was engulfed by a “tidal wave” of opposition in the press and Keller informed the press that he was requesting a meeting with the president, the controversy became what Fiske Kimball called a “war to the knife.”


The drawing that President Roosevelt appears to have sketched as this controversy raged is puzzling, for four of its elements are open to conjecture: the hand that wrote the inscription is anonymous; the date is uncertain, for Roosevelt was not in Washington on May 7, 1938; the image is unlike the memorial it is said to represent; and the words “put it over” are ambiguous. However, there is no doubt that Franklin Delano Roosevelt is its author, as the inscription claims. He was a serious amateur of architecture, who often chose programs, sites, forms, and materials himself, both for his estate and for federal architecture in Washington. Regarding himself and allowing himself to be regarded as an architect, Roosevelt was much given to sketching plans, “hastily […] on the backs of discarded memos or envelopes.” The hand that made this sketch is consistent with that of his other published drawings.

The fact that the drawing was discovered in the House of Representatives’ official records for Keller’s bill makes a persuasive case for attributing the inscription to the Committee’s legislative clerk or its secretary, whose participation in preparing the file is attested to by other documents, and for interpreting the date as the day on which the drawing was added to the bill’s file, sometime after Keller’s meeting with the president. That leaves the problems of the meaning of the inscription “to take hold and put it over,” and the meaning of the image, which certainly does not represent the project that Roosevelt had approved.

If we accept that the drawing was a visual aid for a discussion between the president and Keller, the author of a bill which, if made into law, would inhibit the construction of the design approved by the president, then the inscription can be interpreted in the sense of one of the definitions of “put over” given by the Oxford English Dictionary. The meaning of “to defer, to postpone,” even though labeled archaic, makes the most sense, since the phrase was used to describe the deferring of a case from one court session to another. This, however, raises the additional question of which “it” was to be “put over.”

Understanding the drawing as a representation of a semicircular colonnade on a plinth that is set axially on a body of water with a statue of Thomas Jefferson at its center resolves both remaining questions. If that is so, then the drawing corresponds most closely to a simplified version of the Commission of Fine Art’s word picture of the memorial that it desired, the partially open colonnade. And if the drawing is interpreted as an open colonnade, the problem of the inscription is also solved. 

The thing to be “put over,” or postponed, could be, interchangeably, either Keller’s legislation (the reason for the visit) or the Commission of Fine Arts’s counterproject (the object represented). Because postponing a bill in the Congress is, ipso facto, to kill it, a request to “put it over” was tantamount to a plea for the congressman to put aside his objections. Deferring the counterproject of his allies on the Commission of Fine Arts amounted to the same thing.

Why would the president choose to draw this particular design? His intentions are not recorded and cannot be known. Roosevelt was a wily politician, and a false promise to support a memorial in the form shown if the legislation were to be dropped is not out of the question. But it may be that this former frequent visitor to the gardens of the great English country houses had understood the implications of building the counterproject, the landscape solution. He had depicted something that was more garden fabrique than sacred symbol, more pleasure place than temple of patriotism, more ornament than shrine—something that would be unacceptable to any admirer of Jefferson, which both Keller and the president were. By drawing the counterproject Roosevelt showed it for what it was, a vehicle for relandscaping the Mall that was utterly lacking in commemorative purpose, symbolism, and meaning. 

On the face of it, the president’s efforts came to nothing, since the favorable report issued that spring by Keller’s Committee on the competition legislation allowed the bill to be sent to the House. Formidable forces had formed there against the opponents of the memorial, and parliamentary moves prevented Keller’s legislation from coming to a vote. The memorial was funded, and, after a November 1938 demonstration by women’s groups of Washington trying to save the few cherry trees slated for destruction failed to move the president—who dismissed the so-called cherry tree uprising as “flim-flam”—construction began on the reduced-size Pantheon-type edifice that we see today.


What role did memory play? To answer these questions, that chameleon of a word memory must first be pinned down. These days, memory may be “constantly on our lips,” as Pierre Nora has written, but there has been no meeting of the minds on what the term denotes when describing the memory alternately called “social,” “cultural,” or “collective.” The recent efforts made by historians Jay Winter and Emmanuel Sivan to distinguish between collective memory and what they call “collective remembrance” are therefore an invaluable addition to the historian’s armory. Collective memory is defined by Winter as “the repository of images and notions common to a social class or a national society as a whole,” which Winter believes is one that can be “choreographed by social and political leaders.” In contrast, “collective remembrance” is “public recollection, […] the act of gathering bits and pieces of the past, and joining them together in public […] in a group constructed for the purpose of commemoration,” by those who have “com[e] together to recall the past,” and who are part of civil society, led by members of a secondary or tertiary elite. The test of collective remembrance’s existence is agency—“activity, […] creativity”—for it is not a “vague wave of associations which supposedly come over an entire population when a set of past events is mentioned,” but action taken in groups on behalf of a remembered past, by civil society. Monument-building is one of its processes, but not all memorials qualify. A state-sponsored memorial, for example, is likely to be a prop in what Winter calls the “national theater of collective memory.” 

Even if it is clear that war remembrance is a special case that cannot automatically serve as a litmus test for all other types of remembering by groups, these definitions are generally useful. How, then, do we categorize the ideas about Jefferson expressed by the letter writers? While there was much talking in public about Jefferson, there were no organized groups formed for that purpose, and the expression of memory had neither the scale nor the complementarity characteristic of collective remembrance. It is more likely that collective memory was at work, for the recollections of Jefferson that were shared comprised a highly selective portrait produced by political leaders and others carefully manipulating a particular “image of Jefferson” over several decades. Yet, in a configuration unaddressed by Winter, collective memory did not inhibit individuals from proposing an alternative choreography to that desired by the state, another way of memorializing. We might need to consider the possibility that in times of national crisis like the Great Depression, when historical traditions were highly cherished and populism was merged with patriotism, collective memory took on some of the traits of collective remembrance. 

Conclusion: Monument/Drawing/Memory

The Jefferson Memorial never possessed the perfect synergy of meaning and form that Riegl thought intentional monuments must have for the generations that erect them. Yet collective memory and taste played a role in shaping the monument, for it acquired what meaning it does have from their absence. 

Changing taste certainly did its work. The Memorial Commission might not have agreed to reduce the almost monstrously monumental 1937 design and to override Kimball’s unquestioning faith in Pope’s superior sense of monumentality with such alacrity had members of Congress and the public not been so vociferous in their dislike of the design. Turnabouts in values and perception therefore led to the modification of the scale and size of the monument. The letters written by individuals who treasured the memory of the cherry trees in blossom may have made the Commission see the alteration of the site as a necessity. And memory of place, of the Tidal Basin, was one of the prime motivations for those who did take action in the “cherry tree revolt.”

The gap between the memorial’s design and the collective memory of Jefferson that we have identified was never bridged. Dedicated in 1943 during the celebration of the bicentennial of Jefferson’s birth and among affirmations of his enduring vitality, the memorial excited almost no positive comment. To the contrary, as some commentators reasoned, it would be a national monument only because its spirit was the very opposite of its form: its “neoclassical lines […] are out of tune with the times. From afar, it appears compact, forbidding, lonely as a mausoleum. From hard by, it is too huge, too white, too coldly monotonous. Yet it will stand as a great national monument, for inside is the spirit of a great man.” Insofar as the monument was inhabitable by memory, it was so despite itself.

More fundamentally, argued Jefferson scholar Peterson, the dedication in 1943 completed yet another sea change in attitudes toward Jefferson. It was “the most important thing to happen to Jefferson” since his death on the eerily appropriate day of the American Revolution’s jubilee, July 4, 1826, because “monuments of this majestic pomp are […] built […] to the dead.” Apotheosis came, he proposes, only because and after every trace of usable political substance in the Jeffersonian position had been effaced from his image. He had become—like the “inalienable right” to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” that he announced in the Declaration of Independence—something about which everyone in America could agree.

The changes brought on in part by the resistance to the memorial fundamentally altered its monumentality, even as it created a relationship to its environs that would make it an icon of the capital city. Because it is set picturesquely in a curve of the Tidal Basin and can only be approached by walking along the basin’s shores, the monument possesses neither the authority nor the gravity of the full-blown Beaux-Arts monument. In fact, it “functions as a garden pavilion within the greater landscape of the Mall,” as Pamela Scott and Antoinette J. Lee have persuasively argued. Resembling a classical pavilion in an eighteenth-century picturesque garden, it is therefore best experienced as such a garden pavilion is, from afar. Equally lacking is the strict axiality—that axiality possessed by the counterproposal—that would have made legible its status as one of the cardinal points of the city’s historic axis. For anyone standing at the Jefferson Memorial, its position in the “cross” laid out by the McMillan Plan is not immediately apparent. Only those with a truly privileged gaze (including the inhabitants of the White House), see the memorial’s axial relationship to the plan clearly. Viewed from elsewhere, it functions as a view catcher, but does not generate or control views, increasing its subservience to the landscape and thus profoundly affecting its meaning. The accommodation to nature has fundamentally denatured the monument, for of what value is a memorial that does not stand on its own? 

Collective memory of Jefferson survives, even thrives, as the 250th anniversary of his birth showed in 1993, but surely one should look to Jefferson’s home of Monticello for its expression more than to the memorial, as is in fact traditionally done. For, as revisionist scholarly investigations into what is called the “darker side” of the Enlightenment icon percolate into journalism and popular writing, and as the confirmation of Jefferson’s paternity of the children of his African-American slave Sally Hemings are incorporated into contemporary views of him, it is to Monticello that Americans direct their questions. It was also at Monticello that the African-American descendants of Sally Hemings made their claim to membership in the Monticello Association of Jefferson descendents in 1999. We should not expect the “mausoleum”-like memorial to register these seismic upheavals of Jefferson’s reputation, not least because an intentional monument conceived in a “dying” style and with no regard for the public’s views of Jefferson most invitingly exposed itself to “double jeopardy.” 

Postscriptum, 2009

In the years since the initial submission of this essay, scholarly discussion among historians of the usefulness and even the validity of the notion of collective memory, on the one hand, and of new forms of commemoration, on the other, has continued unabated. One pertinent example is Andreas Huyssen, Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003). Forthcoming, and therefore not consulted by the author, is Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the National Landscape (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

In contrast, Jefferson and Hemings’s relationship appears to be a settled question. The state of archival knowledge of Jefferson’s relationship to Hemings and of her place in his household was summarized in 2000 in The Report of the Research Committee on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, commissioned by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the owners of Monticello ( Their view of the claim that Jefferson fathered children with Hemings is summarized at The Foundation’s position that the records reveal no evidence of a relationship, however, has been widely contested by scholars and genealogists. At the time of this writing in 2009, the consensual view is that, despite the lack of conclusive archival or DNA evidence, there is a good likelihood that the story is true.

Transformed from the America’s hero into her “sphinx” (see note 40), Jefferson now inspires a correspondingly complex form of commemoration. For example, in 2008, then Senator Barack Obama captured Jefferson’s contradictions in some of his most significant campaign speeches. In February, speaking in Virginia on Jefferson-Jackson Day (which is a kind of holy day feast for the Democratic party), he enjoined Democrats to “heed Jefferson’s words that all are created equal” ( In his March speech on race in America, Obama wished that the Founders’ “improbable dream of democracy” were a “little less stained” ( Jefferson’s inconsistencies did not, however, impede him from accepting the imagery of Eero Saarinen’s Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri, more familiarly known as Saarinen’s Arch. Speaking to the largest crowd assembled to hear him in the United States, Obama called the monument to Jefferson’s enabling of the expansion of the United States to the Pacific in 1804 “magnificent” and declared it a symbol of the kind of hope for better lives for future generations that had motivated settlers to venture into the new territories. This, he said, was the “hope” that the 2008 presidential election was “all about” (unprepared remarks recorded on site, 18 October 2008).

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Hélène Lipstadt

ist Architektin. Derzeit ist sie Program Committee Chair für die VIIIth DOCOMOMO International Conference (New York, September 2004) und Direktorin des DOCOMOMO US.

Nanni Baltzer (Hg.), Jacqueline Burckhardt (Hg.), ...: Art History on the Move

Das Thema »On the Move« ist in vielschichtiger Weise mit Kurt W. Forster verbunden, dem dieser Band gewidmet ist. Es charakterisiert die Geistes- und Lebenshaltung dieses Architektur- und Kunsthistorikers, der über epochale, mediale und disziplinäre Grenzen hinweg forscht: Mit Leichtigkeit bewegt er sich zwischen Pontormo und John Armleder, Giulio Romano und Frank Gehry, K. F. Schinkel und Mies van der Rohe, Aby Warburg und W. G. Sebald, W. H. Fox Talbot und Andreas Gursky. Er interessiert sich für den Zusammenhang von Musik und Architektur wie für den Schaffensprozess von Architekten. »On the Move« beschreibt ferner die biographische Situation Forsters, der an der Stanford University, dem MIT, der ETH Zürich oder der Bauhaus Universität Weimar unterrichtete und aktuell an der Yale School of Architecture tätig ist. Als Lehrer hat er Generationen von Studierenden für die uneingeschränkte curiositas begeistert, als Direktor des Schweizer Instituts in Rom, des Getty Research Center in Los Angeles oder des Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal den Austausch unter Forschenden gefördert. Zudem kuratierte er prägende Ausstellungen wie die Architekturbiennale 2004 in Venedig.

Die unterschiedlichen Beiträge des Bandes sind ein Spiegel von Forsters jahrzehntelanger Tätigkeit: Architekturthemen erstrecken sich von den Anfängen des Markusdoms in Venedig über Charles De Waillys Pariser Panthéon-Projekt, das Thomas Jefferson Memorial, den Barcelona-Pavillon Mies van der Rohes oder die Architekturfotografie im faschistischen Italien bis zu Achsen und ihren Brüchen in Paris und Berlin. Analysen im Bereich der Bildkünste behandeln Momente kollektiven Erinnerns in Fra Angelicos Fresken ebenso wie Pipilotti Rists elektronische Urhütte oder Laurie Andersons »Dal Vivo«. Literarische Auseinandersetzungen umfassen etwa Nietzsches Venedig-Gedichte, verschollene Briefe von Nabokov oder die Hauptstädte Walter Benjamins. Zudem enthält der Band zahlreiche persönliche Erinnerungen sowie architektonisch-künstlerische Interventionen.