Words on Monuments - Problems in Architectural Design

Mistakes & Misquotes on Memorials and Statues

FDR Memorial in Washington, DC with images of FDR, a dog, and this inscription: They (who) seek to establish systems of government based on the regimentation of all human beings by a handful of individual rulers...call this a new order. It is not new and it is not order.
FDR Memorial in Washington, DC. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge Archive Photos/Getty Images (cropped)

Designing a building or memorial is hard enough. What happens when the work also includes words? Suddenly the focus shifts from visual to verbal as the artist and architect agonize over typography—making language visible. Words, quotations, and lists of names and dates must convey information and, ideally, flow seamlessly with the design. Hopefully the words will also be historically accurate.

How do architects grapple with the challenge? Do the words to be inscribed influence the overall design? Or, do the demands of the design alter the text? Here are some examples of this design challenge.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial:

The 1997 memorial dedicated to the life, times, and words of America's 32nd president incorporates over 20 quotes into its design. From March 15, 1941, inscribed in stone behind a seated FDR and his dog, Fala, are these words: "They (who) seek to establish systems of government based on the regimentation of all human beings by a handful of individual rulers...call this a new order. It is not new and it is not order." The inscription is accurate, although an English teacher may frown on using all capital letters and using parentheses when square brackets are more appropriate. Accurate inscriptions, however, did not save the FDR Memorial from sins of omission. Most noticeable, Roosevelt's disability from polio was initially disguised until a wheelchair was eventually added. Less noticeable, however, was the omission of one of FDR's most famous lines: 'Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date that will live in infamy...." is a line not found within the 7.5 acre park in Washington, DC.

Inscriptions at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial:

According to some critics, architect Dr. Ed Jackson, Jr. ran afoul of the truth when he helped design the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington, DC. The 2011 Memorial included words from Dr. King's 1968 sermon known as The Drum Major Instinct. Toward the end of that rousing sermon, King said:

"Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. (Amen) Say that I was a drum major for peace. (Yes) I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. (Amen!)."

However these were not the words engraved on one side of Dr. King's statue. The architect had agreed to shorten the quote so it would fit in the space that the sculptor had allotted. Dr. King's words became: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."

Poet Maya Angelou, who was a member of the Council of Historians for the Memorial, expressed outrage. She asked why the words of the slain civil rights leader had been paraphrased. Other critics joined her in saying that the the shortened quote alters its meaning and makes Martin Luther King appear arrogant.

Dr. Jackson argued that designing a beautiful monument required abbreviating some of King's words. For him, aesthetics trumped authenticity.

After some resistance, officials eventually decided to remove the historical inaccuracies from the Memorial. The National Park Service had sculptor Lei Yixin fix the disputed quote.

Inscriptions at the Jefferson Memorial:

Architects John Russell Pope, Daniel P. Higgins, and Otto R. Eggers faced a design challenge similar to the MLK Memorial. For the 1940s-era Jefferson Memorial, how could the prolific writings of Thomas Jefferson be fairly represented under one dome? Like the architects of other memorials, they opted to edit famous quotes from Jefferson.

Panel 3 of the Jefferson Memorial reads: "Commerce between master and slave is despotism." But, according to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.org, Jefferson originally wrote: "The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other."

Indeed, some of the inscriptions carved in stone at the Jefferson Memorial are composites created by patching different documents together.

Inscriptions at the Lincoln Memorial:

When architect Henry Bacon designed the 1922 Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, he combined a mammoth 19-foot statue by Chester French with historically accurate inscriptions of speeches written by Lincoln. Imagine, however, if Bacon had taken short cuts. What if Lincoln's famous words "With malice toward none, with charity for all" became, "With malice...for all"? Would the shortened version change our perception of Abraham Lincoln?

The opposite wall of the Memorial contains the entire, unedited text of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. If the architect had desired to save wall space, he might have shortened the speech to: "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not."

What story would the revised quote tell about the great leader?

Inscriptions at the US Supreme Court Building:

Supposing that architect Cass Gilbert had been cramped for space when he designed the 1935 U.S. Supreme Court building. Imagine if he wanted to avoid the wordy balance and scale metaphors. Couldn’t he simply remove the word "Equal" from "Equal Justice Under Law"? Does the meaning change by simply saying "Justice Under Law"?

Inscriptions at the 9/11 National Memorial:

The 2011 National 9/11 Memorial in New York City took nearly a decade to construct. The project might have been completed more quickly if the architects Michael Arad and Peter Walker hadn't spent so long on the arrangement of nearly 3,000 names around the fountain parapet. Could they have left out a few? Would editorializing change the memorial's meaning and impact?

Inscriptions at the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial:

Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial, felt that politics had eclipsed the veterans, their service, and their lives. She kept the memorial design elegantly simple so that attention could focus on the names of the men and women who died. Over fifty-eight thousand names are arranged in the chronological order of their deaths or MIA status from the Vietnam conflict. The height of the stone slowly rises and falls, as does any story of conflict. At first, few die. Then escalation. Then withdrawal. The story of the Vietnam conflict is gracefully and visually told in stone with room enough for each citizen soldier.

Questions For Designers:

Was poet Maya Angelo correct to condemn architect Ed Jackson, Jr.? Or, do architects and artists have the right to change the wording in historical documents? How important are written words in the language of architecture? Some would argue that architects who are inarticulate with words also might be inarticulate with design.