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The Newcomer's Guide To Washington: Lincoln, Memorialized

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Some say that in the sculpture of Abraham Lincoln his hair hides the sculpted-in profile of Robert E. Lee.
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Some say that in the sculpture of Abraham Lincoln his hair hides the sculpted-in profile of Robert E. Lee.

We're saying goodbye to a WAMU standby today. Since December, Rebecca Sheir has been debunking myths and solving mysteries about D.C., in our series, The Newcomers Guide To Washington. In the final installment, we take on the myths and legends surrounding the Lincoln Memorial

Toward the end of the 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, there's this pivotal scene; maybe you remember it:

Senator Jefferson Smith, played by the irresistible Jimmy Stewart, has been duped by his longtime hero, Senator Joseph Paine, and the media magnate, Jim Taylor.

Feeling completely demoralized, Mr. Smith packs his bags, ready to skip town but not before making one last stop. In the hush of the D.C. evening, Clarissa Saunders, the sassy secretary played by Jean Arthur, happens upon Mr. Smith

SAUNDERS: You know, I had a hunch I'd find you here.

Inside the Lincoln Memorial.

SMITH: Well, what do you expect me to do? An honorary stooge like me against the Taylors and Paines and machines and lies.

SAUNDERS: Your friend, Mr. Lincoln, had his Taylors and Paines. So did every other man who ever tried to lift his thought up off the ground. All the good that ever came into this world came from fools with faith like that. You know that, Jeff.

And sure enough, beneath the steady gaze of Honest Abe himself, Mr. Smith realizes that by golly, he does know. And gosh darn it, he's gonna stick around and fight. So, giving Abe one last salute, Smith dashes off to ensure Frank Capra's movie has an appropriately happy ending.

In a way, it makes perfect sense for Capra to choose the Lincoln Memorial for the scene. As tour guide Tim Krepp points out on the steps leading up to Henry Bacon's neoclassical building, and Daniel Chester French's marble sculpture, the Memorial has been a Washington icon ever since opening to the public in 1922.

"It's the one thing that probably every tourist that comes to Washington D.C. insists upon coming to. And I would, frankly, should lose my license if I don't take a group here!," says Krepp.

But here's the thing: Krepp finds that many of these groups, well let's just say when it comes to the Lincoln Memorial, they've heard things.

"There's any number of stories that people can swear are true, that they heard on their last trip to D.C., that their tour guide told them, and then some that are actually repeated in print.

The most famous one, Krepp says, involves Lincoln's hands.

"His hands form what appears to be an American Sign Language A and an L," he says.

And Krepp says actually, of all the legends surrounding the Memorial

"It comes the closest to being possibly true."

And here's why. In 1889, Daniel Chester French created a piece for the worlds only four-year college for the deaf: D.C.'s Gallaudet University.

"He did a sculpture of Reverend Gallaudet, the person that the institution is named after, teaching American Sign Language to the very first student. And in that sculpture, he is signing to the young girl an A and she is repeating an A. So French, three decades before the Lincoln Memorial was built, had carved an A into a statue," says Krepp.

French's daughter later denied the claim as does the National Park Service.

"But I don't think the evidence is there to categorically deny it. I don't think the evidence is there to say its true, but it falls into that nether-region that legend and folklore fill in the mix between," he says.

On the other hand, Krepp says, some stories are so far-out, they don't even approach that nether-region.

"My favorite straight-up wrong story is the Robert E. Lee carved in the back of the head."

Robert E. Lee was, of course, the commanding general of the Confederate army in the Civil War. And legend has it that if you look closely at the back of Lincoln's head you can see Lee's profile.

"Like so many urban legends, you dig into it and there's this back story of Daniel Chester French was a closet clan member or something like that. Highly unlikely: this was a guy that was born and raised in New England, an old-school Yankee. He was ten years old when the Civil War started, certainly would have no sympathy with the Southern cause," responds Krepp.

The Park Service denies this one, too. To quote their website: "No such carving was done intentionally, visitors claim to find all sorts of profiles within the tufts of Lincoln's hair."

"I'd never heard the story about Robert E. Lee. That's interesting! But I certainly do hear lots of myths about architecture and design in Washington."

And architecture and design is practically this guys middle name.

"I'm Martin Moeller, senior vice-president and curator at the National Building Museum."

The Museum, located in downtown D.C., has a long-term exhibit called Washington: Symbol and City.

"And in conjunction with that exhibition, we have elements that talk about the Lincoln Memorial," says Moeller.

Including its role in the composition of the National Mall. Which brings us to a whole other tale about the Memorial. Back in 1901, the Senate Park Improvement Commission of the District of Columbia decided to extend the Mall, west of the Washington Monument.

"And one of the aspects of their plan was that at the end of that axis, the Capital to the Washington Monument, should be a memorial to Abraham Lincoln: the great president who had saved the nation," he says.

There was just one little hitch:

"The Lincoln Memorial was built on an area that had been really part of the river; that area was a tidal marsh," says Moeller.

And therefore anything but ideal for erecting a marble, granite and limestone monument. So they built these massive, cave-like foundations.

"And at one point in the past, it was possible to go into the spaces under the Lincoln Memorial and see some of these concrete foundation structures that helped to support the structure. I don't know if those are still open to the public," he considers.

Um, they're not. Nor are they open to public-radio reporters; I tried. But one of the cool things about the caverns is what you'd find if you did go down there.

Apparently, over the years, due to water coming through, there are now, like, stalactites and stalagmites.

"That's right. You know, the waters getting through and collecting the salts and minerals and creating stalactites as would happen in a natural cave," responds Moeller.

But as D.C. tour guide Tim Krepp points out, theres' something very important you wont find in those crypt-like caves.

"When I took the D.C. License, one of the questions was a picture of the Lincoln Memorial, and it says: Who's buried here? And I'm like, I, I don't know! I don't think anyone is buried here! I know for a fact Lincolns not here!"

It's true: Lincoln is buried in Springfield, Illinois, alongside his wife, and three of their four sons.

But, says Krepp, that doesn't detract from the Memorials ultimate power. He sees the Memorial's emotional voltage in action every day. Adults stop and stare, some with tears in their eyes. Teenagers, who have been talking and texting all day, put down their cell phones and fall silent.

"This is where you go for inspiration. Where you go to talk things over with yourself and try to commune with Lincoln in a way that you don't really do with Washington. Maybe with Jefferson there's some ways to make that more alive. But you don't feel that pull that you do when you come here to see Abraham Lincoln," says Krepp.

So, going back to Mr. Smith it's no wonder our hero chooses the Lincoln Memorial in the midst of his personal crisis.

SAUNDERS: Remember the first day you got here? Remember what you said about Mr. Lincoln? You said he was sitting up there waiting for someone to come along. You were right! He was waiting for a man who could see his job and sail into it. That's what he was waiting for. A man who could tear into the Taylors and root 'em out into the open. I think he was waiting for you, Jeff.

And its no wonder he's inspired to overcome that crisis, in the presence of this legendary, if humble, figure who changed the course of history.

SMITH: Clarissa, where can we get a drink?

SAUNDERS: Now you're talking! Come on over to my place!

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