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Discovering little known secrets of the Lincoln Memorial

In a city filled with icons, the Lincoln Memorial is a particularly special place to visit in Washington, D.C. This homage to Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States who guided the country through the Civil War, invites visitors to reflect on America’s history of slavery as well as the importance of national unity.

The Lincoln Memorial’s symbolism has endured and been renewed through the years—particularly during the civil rights movement, from singer Marion Anderson’s defiant concert to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But while the Lincoln Memorial is one of America’s best-known landmarks, there’s still more to learn. Here, Andrews Rawls, owner and founder of Fiat Luxe Tours, helps illuminate the secrets behind the Lincoln Memorial.

It’s not the first memorial to Lincoln in D.C.

More than a half century before Daniel Chester French unveiled his famous seated figure of Abraham Lincoln, Washingtonians commemorated their 16th president with a more modest statue. As Rawls explains, local residents raised $25,000 to commission this standing likeness of Lincoln by sculptor Lot Flannery because they didn’t want to waste any time in preserving the president’s legacy.

The Smithsonian notes that the statue was erected on April 15, 1868 — the third anniversary of Lincoln’s death — on the steps of what was then City Hall and is now the Superior of the Court District of Columbia. It was rededicated in 2009 after being briefly removed for renovations to Judiciary Square.

Four score and seven steps lead up to the Memorial chamber

It’s an impressive climb up the staircase to the chamber of the Lincoln Memorial, but perhaps you didn’t know that it’s also a very fitting climb. Rawls says that the ascent from the lip of the Reflecting Pool into the temple itself clocks in at exactly 87 steps.

In other words, four score and seven steps, reminiscent of the celebrated start of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. (The National Park Service says the number of steps wasn’t intentionally significant, though.) Examine these steps closely as you climb; halfway up the staircase there’s a marked stone where Martin Luther King, Jr. stood while delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech.

The Memorial briefly bore a pretty embarrassing typo

Speaking of well-known speeches, both the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address are carved on the walls of either side of the chamber. But for a very brief time, the Second Inaugural on the north wall of the chamber contained a typo: an engraver accidentally carved the letter “E” instead of the second “F” in the phrase “high hope for the future.” Rawls says the letter was recarved immediately, though, so don’t expect to find it on the wall today.

It looks out over the home of Lincoln’s Southern foe

Behind the Lincoln Memorial, the scenic Arlington Memorial Bridge stretches across the Potomac River — but it’s more meaningful than just a mode to cross the river. The National Park Service points out that the bridge “symbolically links North and South in its alignment” between the Lincoln Memorial and the Arlington House, the former home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Yes, Abraham Lincoln’s back is technically turned to the home of his Civil War enemy. Rawls says there’s also a popular myth — which NPS says is false — that Lee’s face was carved into the back of Lincoln’s head. Either way, the connection is officially meant to symbolize reconciliation and reunification.

It could have been a pyramid

It’s not exactly a secret, but one of the more intriguing facts about the planning of the Lincoln Memorial is that it might have been an Egyptian-style pyramid. Rawls says the Lincoln Memorial Commission considered several architects and design proposals for the memorial before settling on the existing neoclassical structure that evokes the Parthenon of Ancient Greece.

John Russell Pope was one of the architects in contention (along with Henry Bacon, who ultimately won the commission) and he had a number of grandiose ideas. The National Archives notes that Pope, who also designed the Jefferson Memorial and the National Archives itself, submitted designs in both pyramid and ziggurat styles.