Thomas Jefferson Memorial

The Jefferson Memorial landscape is situated on flat land and fill created from river dredging, just south of the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC. The landscape forms the southern end of the kite-shaped design plan for the city proposed by the McMillan Commission in 1902. While its focal point might be the neo-classical white marble memorial, modeled after the Roman Pantheon, the landscape is particularly notable for the ring of cherry trees that encircles the Tidal Basin.

"From the Washington Monument grounds the Jefferson Memorial will be seen across the Tidal Basin, which will retain its irregular outline and natural beauty and in which the memorial and the cherry trees flanking it will be mirrored." From Report of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission to 75th Congress 3rd Session House of Representatives, May 31, 1938

Aerial view of the round memorial surrounded the Tidal Basin and other landscape features.
Aerial view of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial landscape, with the Washington Monument in the distance.

Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The landscape's period of historic significance spans the years from 1934 to 1943. During this period, the design for the memorial and landscape was developed, the memorial was constructed, and the landscape was installed. The period ends with the dedication of the memorial on April 13, 1943, on the 200th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson's birth. 

The planting within the encircling roadway, which is now solely used by pedestrians, is predominantly evergreen with some small flowering trees and shrubs. Beyond the roadway, there are tall shade trees and cherry trees that are part of the ring of flowering trees that lines the Tidal Basin.

A circular diagram shows planting locations around the Jefferson Memorial
A 1995 plan shows existing plantings within the circular roadway that are in historically correct positions as per the Olmsted design, although they are not all original specimens.

NPS Thomas Jefferson Memorial Cultural Landscape Inventory

The McMillan Commission's plan that defined the layout of the Mall, thirty years prior, was significant in determining the selection for the Jefferson Memorial site.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commision was established by Congress in 1934, "for the purpose of considering and formulating plans for designing and constructing a permanent memorial in the city of Washington, District of Columbia..." (73rd Congress Public Resolution - No. 49 H.J. Res 371). Locations under consideration included a site in front of the National Archives Building and the creation of an island in the middle of the Tidal Basin.

Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. wrote a report to the commission concerning the importance of the visual relationship with other axial compositions, such as the connections between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol and between the White House and the Washington Monument grounds. His report detailed the importance of maintaining a 150-foot-wide axis between the White House porch to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. 

In a July 1935 report to the National Capital  Park and Planning Commission, Olmsted wrote:

"Any monument of great national importance placed on the axis of the White House south of the Washington Monument grounds will have great aesthetic significance and impressiveness only if it is visually related, in an aesthetically satisfactory way, and very strongly and obviously, to the two great axial compositions already largely developed..."

Drawing of the Jefferson Memorial at the edge of the Tidal Basin with arrows indicating vistas.
1995 analysis of the existing views and vistas at the Jefferson Memorial

NPS Thomas Jefferson Memorial Cultural Landscape Inventory

In order for the Thomas Jefferson Memorial to be constructed on the north-south axis, aligned with the White House and located on the water's edge, it was necessary to fill in a section of the Tidal Basin and slightly realign the sea wall.

Architect John Russell Pope's design combined classical prototypical forms, inspired by Thomas Jefferson's architectural writings and designs such as Monticello and the University of Virginia.

Aerial perspective drawing of the Jefferson Memorial and landscape on the edge of the Tidal Basin.
Pope's perspective of the Jefferson Memorial, ca. 1938

NPS Thomas Jefferson Memorial Cultural Landscape Inventory

Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. was appointed landscape architect for the project. He had served on the McMillan Commission in 1901, and continued as a consultant on projects on the mall throughout much of his life. The planting plan that was finally approved was a simpler design that the previously proposed gardenesque schemes, which included many species and would had required more maintenance.

Because it has been used continuously as a memorial site since the period of significance (1934-1943), the current appearance generally reflects the historic landscape. Most of the views, natural systems, spatial organization, land use, topography, and structures of the site have been retained. Its relationship to the monumental core of the Federal city, the Tidal Basin, and the Potomac River also reflects the historic period.

Quick Facts

  • Cultural Landscape Type: Designed
  • National Register Significance Level: National
  • National Register Significance Criteria: A,C
  • Period of Significance: 1934-1943

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