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The Lincoln Memorial could have been a pyramid. See all the forgotten proposals.

A proposed pyramid for the Lincoln Memorial.
A proposed pyramid for the Lincoln Memorial.
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

One hundred years ago, on February 12, 1915, workers laid the cornerstone for the Lincoln Memorial. The Potomac Park site was transformed from undeveloped field into a national meeting place, and on May 30, 1922, William Howard Taft dedicated the monument. Since then, it's become an enduring national symbol. But if a few things had turned out differently, the memorial could have been a giant pyramid.

A young designer's brainstorms almost became the Lincoln Memorial

John Russell Pope remains a legendary architect today — he designed the Jefferson Memorial, the National Archives, and the West building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. But in the 1910s, he was part of the mix for an even more iconic new building: the Lincoln Memorial.

As the freshly created Lincoln Memorial Commission later reported, they kicked around a bunch of ideas for the monument. Even the location was up for grabs: there were "suggestions that the memorial take the form of a bridge across the Potomac and of a road to Gettysburg."

Eventually, the commission settled on a traditional memorial near the Washington Monument, and they held a competition to decide the design. The budget — later set at an unprecedented $2 million — was a prize worth winning, and many different designers submitted their best ideas. The list was eventually whittled down to two: Henry Bacon and John Russell Pope.

When the dust settled, Henry Bacon was chosen as architect and Daniel Chester French sculpted Lincoln. Though some thought Bacon's design was too showy (critics preferred a simple log cabin), his plan went forward. The Lincoln Memorial & American Life says the deck was stacked in Bacon's favor from the beginning, but Pope almost played spoiler to the winning designer.

In addition to the pyramid seen above, Pope had other bizarre, beautiful, and bold proposals for the national "temple" to Lincoln. He drew up a ziggurat, a Mayan temple, and an expansive Greek monument. His original designs show that iconic landmarks aren't born — they're made. And sometimes, very different ones could have been built.

Pope and Bacon's early Lincoln Memorial Designs

-John Russell Pope on the difficulty of competing with the Washington Monument

Pope and Bacon's early Lincoln Memorial Designs

-John Russell Pope on his design philosophy

Pope and Bacon's early Lincoln Memorial Designs

-John Russell Pope on how the Lincoln Memorial could make an impact in the shadow of the Washington Monument

Pope and Bacon's early Lincoln Memorial Designs

The committee briefly considered another location on DC's Meridian Hill, but it was abandoned in favor of Potomac Park. Still, Pope's proposal is striking. You can see the Washington Monument in the distant background.

Pope and Bacon's early Lincoln Memorial Designs

Bacon scrapped early designs as well, like the one below, which shows an open air monument.

Pope and Bacon's early Lincoln Memorial Designs

-John Hay, one of Lincoln's secretaries. Both men said they drew inspiration from Hay's words.

Ultimately, the committee settled on one of Bacon's options. As Bacon wrote (calling the reflecting pool a "lagoon"): "To the east of the Memorial, extending toward the Washington Monument, is proposed a large lagoon, which will introduce into the landscape an element of repose and beauty, and in its waters the reflection of the Memorial will add to its tranquility and retirement."

It took seven years to finish the Lincoln Memorial. It's hard not to wonder how long a pyramid would have taken instead. But by February 12, 1915, work on Bacon's iconic design had already begun.

Placing the Lincoln Memorial Cornerstone

Images of John Russell Pope and Henry Bacon's drawings courtesy of the National Archives.
Image of the Lincoln Memorial cornerstone courtesy of Buyenlarge/Getty Images.

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