This is a short guide to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC, including tips on parking, public transport as well as a short guided tour.
We visit this on our National Mall & Tidal Basin Tour!
It’s only as you approach the memorial, that you can start to appreciate the immensity of the memorial and the details of the architecture.
This memorial is a fitting monument to a man who was a member of the Virginia Colonial Assembly, delegate to the 1st Continental Congress, Governor of Virginia, the country's 1st Secretary of State, 2nd Vice President, 3rd President.
Don't forget, Jefferson was also a farmer, an author, a scientist, an inventor, and an innovator, who invented a type of the plow and improved on a cipher machine, cloth hangers, and dumb waiters, just to name a few.
He was an amateur architect with two UNESCO World Heritage sites under his belt, including the Rotunda and the academic village at the University of Virginia as well as his home, Monticello.
PLAN YOUR VISIT
The Jefferson Memorial is open 24 hours a day, but the National Park Service Rangers are on duty from 9:30 a.m. till 11 p.m. daily, except for Christmas Day, to answer questions.
It is a beautiful memorial and well-lit at night. Though it is located relatively far away from other attractions it is still a safe area to visit at night.
Due to its distance, we do not visit it up close but talk about it from across the water on our Memorials and Moonlight tour.
The Thomas Jefferson Memorial is located at the southern tip of the Tidal Basin, just to the east of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and the George Mason Memorial (map).
Due to its location, you might find it beneficial to also plan to visit other memorials that are adjacent or nearby, such as:
- FDR Memorial
- MLK Memorial
- Lincoln Memorial
- Korean War Veterans Memorial
- Vietnam Veterans Memorial
- Holocaust Memorial and Museum
Parking can be found a 4-minute walk south away along Ohio Drive-in parking lots A, B, and C. Parking can be difficult on busy days in the busy season.
The nearest Metro subway station is the Smithsonian Metro Station and can be accessed by the BLUE, ORANGE OR SILVER Metro lines.
You will need to walk for approximately 15 minutes to reach the memorial.
Read our guide to mastering the DC Metro.
Alternatively, you could take either the inexpensive public Circulator Bus or one of the many hop-on-hop-off bus tours that all make stops at the memorial.
Guided Tours of the Jefferson Memorial
The Park Service conducts tours of the Jefferson Memorial on the hour from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m.
Be sure to check out our All-in-One National Mall and Tidal Basin Tour.
MEMORIAL DESIGN EXPLAINED
This classical revival memorial was designed by John Russell Pope, a noted architect who had already completed two major revival works in the District of Columbia when he was selected to create the Jefferson Memorial.
The two works were the National Archives and National Gallery of Art Buildings.
The memorial's exterior comes in two main parts, both consisting of Imperial Danby Marble, quarried from the state of Vermont.
The main exterior piece is the circular marble stairs that lead up to the interior. The main platform has an exterior colonnade rimming it.
The colonnade contains 26 ionic order columns, each measuring 43’, roughly 13 meters in height, all capped by an Indiana limestone dome, 100’, roughly 31 meters from ground level.
Attached to the circular section is a colonnaded portico containing 10 ionic columns matching the height of the columns found in the other section.
The portico contains a friezed piedmont. A grand marble staircase leads to the main entrance. This is a good spot to take a photo.
If this memorial reminds you of the Parthenon in Rome, it should come as no surprise that Pope (as so with Jefferson) was greatly influenced by this great classical structure.
Pope was also influenced by two of Jefferson’s designs, the Rotunda at the University of Virginia, the university that Jefferson founded as well as Jefferson’s home, which he called Monticello.
University of Virginia Rotunda
As you move to the face the front of the portico, you will see the statue of Jefferson standing inside the memorial. But first, take a look up at the frieze on the piedmont.
This sculptural piece, titled “the Drafting of the Declaration of Independence” was created by Adolph Weinman.
It depicts Thomas Jefferson standing front and center alongside the four other seated members of the 1st Continental Congress assigned to draft the official declaration.
Jefferson was actually not originally intended to represent Virginia at the 1st Continental Congress, but was rather a substitute and thus a junior member.
However, Jefferson’s writing talents were widely known and respected, so he received the assignment to write the Declaration with the others serving essentially as editors.
To Jefferson’s right sit Benjamin Franklin and John Adams and to his left sit Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston.
Now walk up the stairs until you reach the main platform, stopping in the center of the 10 column front and turn around 180 degrees. Across the Tidal Basin, your eyes will immediately fall upon the Washington Monument.
However, if you look directly across the Basin, you will see a section where the trees break. There you will see the South Portico of the White House.
Legend has it that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt has several cherry trees removed so that he could observe the construction of the Jefferson Memorial through binoculars from his White House office.
As you enter the main chamber, keep an eye out to your right.
This cornerstone was laid by President Roosevelt on November 15, 1939, as the war was waging in Europe and Asia.
Contained inside the cornerstone is:
- a copy of the Declaration of Independence
- a copy of the U.S. Constitution
- writing from Thomas Jefferson, including The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, better known as the Jefferson Bible
- a copy of the 1939 annual report of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission
- copies of the 4 leading Washington, DC newspapers of the day
Jefferson Memorial Statue and Interior
Now enter the memorial's main chamber. As you are walking from the outside, take notice of how the marble changes.
While the outside section of the memorial uses marble quarried in Vermont, the interior walls and columns use Georgia White Marble.
There is symbolism here as Vermont and Georgia represent the northern and southern boundaries of the original 13 colonies.
The floor is made with Tennessee Pink Marble, the ceiling is made with Indiana limestone. Jefferson’s statue stands on a pedestal of Minnesota Black Granite which is skirted with Missouri Gray Marble.
All locations are reminders of lands included in the Louisiana Purchased, authorized by Mr. Jefferson, which doubled the land of the United States.
The chamber measures 82’, roughly 25 meters in diameter, and reaches a height of just over 91’, roughly 28 meters in height, to the highest point of the dome.
The chamber has four entrances marking the cardinal directions, north, south, east, and west, each containing 4 ionic columns of roughly 39’ or 12 meters, slightly smaller than those found rimming the exterior of the memorial.
Between each opening are memorial walls, four in all.
Standing in the center is the bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson, designed by Rudolph Evans.
Evans was tasked with depicting Jefferson addressing the Continental Congress, emphasizing his strength of character.
Jefferson is wearing a cloak given to him by his dear friend Polish freedom fighter Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a veteran of the American Revolutionary War while holding the Declaration of Independence in his left hand.
Jefferson is posing heroically while looking north out onto the Washington Monument and the White House.
The statue itself measures 19’, just a tad under 6 meters tall and weighs 10.000 lbs, or 4,536 kg. The pedestal is 6’, almost 2 meters tall, bringing the entire height to 25’ or 8.5 meters.
Take a walk behind the statue.
Evans included two capitals, one made of tobacco plants and the other made of corn plants. The capital design was created by Jefferson himself.
This is a reminder to the visitor of Jefferson’s connection to and love of the land and his belief in an agrarian nation.
An interesting story about the statue concerns the date of the dedication of this memorial.
The memorial was officially dedicated on April 13, 1943, the 200th anniversary of Jefferson’s birth. It just so happened to be in the middle of the US involvement in World War 2.
Bronze is made of copper and tin and both were being rationed during the war.
The statue before you would not be installed until 1947 when restrictions on both metals were loosened.
The plaster mold used to mold the bronze statue was itself painted a bronze color and served as a substitute until this statute arrived.
Between each opening is a memorial wall, four in total.
On the southwest wall, the first wall that most visitors lay eyes on, and the most recognizable, is comprised of a famous excerpt from the Declaration of Independence.
And it’s the writing on this wall, along with the statue of Jefferson, that reminds the visitor that this memorial is also a memorial to the revolutionary spirit that led Americans to the break with Great Britain.
The northwest wall comes from two separate documents. This wall deals with Jefferson on religion.
The bulk of the inscription comes from excerpts from the Statue of Virginia for Religious Freedom, which Jefferson authored, and which influenced the 1st Amendment to the Constitution.
The last sentence comes from a letter Jefferson wrote to James Madison from Paris.
The northeast wall comes from several documents, most notably Jefferson’s A Summary View of the Rights of British America, his Notes on the State of Virginia and his autobiography.
This wall deals with, among other things, slavery and the importance of public education for preserving an educated and free citizenry.
The southeast wall is an excerpt from a letter that Jefferson wrote to Samuel Kerchival, in which Jefferson refers to the need to institutions to change and evolve along with society.
As a product of the Enlightenment, Jefferson was acutely aware of the potential of a free people to change their world.
Last but not least is the main quote that requires the visitor to make a complete 360 degree turn to read.
“I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility over every form of tyranny of the mind of man”.
This excerpt came from a letter that Jefferson wrote to his friend Dr. Benjamin Rush defending the constitutional prohibition of the state establishing a state religion, something Jefferson had to fight against in Virginia, which originally established the Anglican Church as the official state church.
Now, walk out of the west entrance until you reach the stairs.
If you come at sunset, there are few better places to take the sunset in than over the Jefferson Memorial, especially at the start of summer, when the sun is setting over the horizon directly in front of your view.
If you look past the Tidal Basin, you will see the Potomac River, and to your right, on the hill, is Arlington House in Arlington National Cemetery.
Finally, take the elevator or stairs down underneath the statue chamber.
There you will find restrooms, a gift shop, a bookstore, and a small museum with an exhibit titled 'Light and Liberty' detailing Thomas Jefferson’s life, qualities, beliefs as well as a few of his inventions and innovations.