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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: Honoring Abraham Lincoln: The Man and the Myth

Designers had to keep several factors in mind when they began to plan the memorial. One of those factors was the high esteem people had of Lincoln. By the beginning of the 20th century, his image as a hero was established. He was the Preserver of the Union, the Great Emancipator, the author of the Gettysburg Address, the Martyred President. All things associated with his life took on great significance. Anything attached to Lincoln was a possible memorial. Lincoln often referred to his Indiana home site as the “very spot where grew the bread that formed my bones.” Adding great importance to this site was Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s grave. Lincoln spoke very highly of his “angel mother” therefore preserving her gravesite properly was a priority. It was a guiding source in the development of the memorial site. 

First Phase of Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial

The first order of business in building a memorial was to clean up Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s gravesite. Colonel Richard Lieber, the director of the Department of Conservation, and the Indiana Lincoln Union (ILU) beautified the site (cleaned up branches, made the land look nice). The ILU was a group of private citizens. Their goal was to, “propose that the people of the state, in mighty unison, rear a national shrine which…will express both our deathless devotion as well as our indefinite gratitude to the soul of the great departed and his Mother.”

Once Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s gravesite was cleaned up, Colonel Lieber and the ILU hired landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. to prepare a design for Abe Lincoln’s memorial. Like his famous father, Olmsted had experience working on a number of city park systems. He visited the site in March 1927 to get some ideas. In May, he returned to present his design to the board. Recognizing that Indiana was an important part of forming who Lincoln became, Olmsted believed that the memorial should reflect the importance of the site. As a first step, he set guidelines for simplifying the area surrounding the grave and the cabin site. He called these areas “the Sanctuary.” He declared that it “should be freed of every petty, distracting, alien, self-asserting object.” The goal was to make “it easy and natural for…people...to be stimulated to their own inspiring thoughts and emotions about Lincoln.”

To help commemorate Lincoln’s experience in Indiana, designers created a cabin site memorial. Instead of building a replica of Lincoln’s cabin, the state hired architect Thomas Hibben, a native of Indiana, to design a suitable monument to mark the site. Hibben planned a bronze casting in the shape of the historic cabin sill (a shelf or slab of stone, wood, or metal at the foot of a window or doorway) and hearth (the floor of a fireplace). The sill and hearth would be surrounded by a stone wall. The area was to be formally landscaped. 

While the cabin site memorial was being constructed, J.I. Holcomb, president of the Indiana Lincoln Union suggested another major design feature.  Holcomb wanted to install a series of twelve stones, gathered from places associated with Lincoln, as miniature shrines along a wooded trail to interpret Lincoln’s life. A promotional piece described the trail by stating, “Each shrine will be especially landscaped to emphasize its historical significance.” Although the Trail of Twelve Stones was not part of the original plan, it provided a physical and figurative link between the cabin and gravesite. The connection of Lincoln’s childhood home to his mother’s grave with an allée (a walkway through a park or landscape), created a sort of pilgrimage for visitors. As they walk through the site, they learn about and reflect upon the different stages of Lincoln’s life. The trail also represented the sad story of Lincoln’s childhood: the passage from innocence into maturity upon the death of his mother and his eventual sacrifice for the nation. 

In 1934, a Civilian Conservation Corps crew (a federal program during the Great Depression, also called the CCC) located and excavated the historic hearthstones. The CCC constructed a stone wall and landscaped the grounds. The bronze casting was finally placed on the site in July of 1935. This casting completed the first phase of the memorial’s development.

Second Phase of Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial

The second phase of the memorial was to construct a memorial building. This building sits to the south of the gravesite and cabin. Its placement allows the gravesite and cabin site to be the focus for visitors. From the memorial building, visitors are lead towards Nancy's grave and then on to the cabin site.

For the design of the building, Lieber looked to the National Park Service for inspiration. Lieber chose Richard E. Bishop to design the memorial building. Bishop designed a structure with two square buildings joined by a semicircular cloister (a covered walkway). One building was for Nancy and the other was for Abraham. Memorial planners liked Bishop's plan and he was hired to draw up more. In his design for the cloister, Bishop included five sculptured panels separated by four large openings. Each panel represented Lincoln's life in Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and Washington, DC. The fifth panel represented the deceased president's significance to all Americans. Above the doorways, passages from Lincoln's speeches would be carved in stone.

An important part of Bishop's design was the materials used. Bishop wanted materials from 19th century Indiana to be used for the building as much as possible. The ILU gave out the money to begin construction in late 1940. Hand-cut limestone came from Bloomington, Indiana. The Department of Conservation provided native timber and finished lumber. The cherry table, chairs, benches, and pews were custom made.

Work on the sculptured panels began in 1941. The ILU hired Elmer H. Daniels as the sculptor. Daniels set up a studio in nearby Jasper in September of that year. He began preparing pencil sketches followed by 16 x 27-inch clay models.When an oversight committee approved of these, Daniels prepared half-scale clay models of each panel. Those clay models became plaster casts. Five limestone panels weighing 10 tons and measuring 8 feet tall by 13 ½ feet wide were cut. By the spring of 1942, stone carvers hired by the Department of Conservation had completed the panels and in 1944 the building was finished and opened up to the public. A caretaker lived on the property to maintain the site.


Questions for Reading 3

1. Who was the first landscape architect assigned to design the memorial site? What type of environment did he want to create?

2. What is the Trail of Twelve Stones? What does it represent at this site?

3. What are the three units of the memorial building? How many panels are there and what do they represent? Why do you think it was important to use building materials from the state of Indiana?

4. What are some the names Lincoln is remembered by? How does this affect sites that are associated with him? What do you think of the process of remembering a person through a place? Do you think that is a good model?

Reading 3 was adapted from The Lincoln Notebook, prepared by the staff of Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial.

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