The Thomas Jefferson Memorial shines brighter after a GWWO-led restoration

Spit, Polish, and Lasers

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial shines brighter after a GWWO-led restoration

The Jefferson Memorial prior to restoration work, including the removal of biofilm from its dome and roof repairs. (Andy Ellis/Flickr)/CC BY 2.0)

Baltimore-based GWWO Architects has completed its meticulous restoration and rehabilitation of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial at West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C. Erasing decades of wear, tear, and weathering from the nearly 80-year-old neoclassical landmark while executing long-needed structural repairs, the exhaustive sprucing-up is the first of a two-phase modernization effort spearheaded by the National Park Service (NPS). The second phase will focus on improving the visitor experience through a revamp of the Jefferson Memorial’s lower-level exhibition area along with accessibility-centered upgrades that will bring all public areas at the open-air monument into compliance with current Architectural Barriers Act Accessibility Standards.

An estimated three million people visit the John Russell Pope-designed memorial on the shore of the Potomac River Tidal Basin each year, making it one of the most visited sites in Washington. (Pope had died by the time construction commenced in 1938 amid a firestorm of controversy and his surviving partners, Daniel P. Higgins and Otto R. Eggers, assumed the role of project architects during the building phase.)

“Our work at the Jefferson Memorial was highly nuanced and extremely precise with respect and in deference to the original architecture,” said GWWO principal John Gregg in a press statement. “Our design will make this beloved and iconic American memorial much more accessible and enjoyable for millions of visitors a year.”

swan boats on the tidal basin with the jefferson memorial in the background
Biofilm removal in progress at the Jefferson Memorial. (NPS/Victoria Stauffenberg)

As detailed by the firm, it was first contracted by the NPS in 2016, at which point a larger project team including Building Conservation Associates was assembled to take on the formidable task at hand. Work commenced with extensive surveying and the documentation of existing conditions at the memorial including its flat and portico roofs. Also examined were “structural, plumbing, electrical, and conservation issues at those same locations.” The team then developed a construction plan to replace 10,000 square feet of non-historic flat roofing; carefully repairing the historic, marble portico roof; and stabilizing, repairing, and cleaning, marble elements associated with the roofing system as well as the limestone at the portico and colonnade ceilings. Plumbing repairs and other structural fixes relating to the roofs were also carried out as part of the $14.5 million overhaul.

Visitors will also notice that the structure is now shining much brighter thanks to extensive laser cleaning efforts that eradicated a thick layer of black biofilm covering the structure’s iconic marble dome. (Last October, the Washington Post published a thorough scientific explainer of the biofilm removal process.)

Phase two of the makeover will be more public-facing and involve “removing all barriers to access and improving the visitor experience at the memorial by following universal design principles, with the goal of improving both physical and programmatic accessibility throughout the site while considering implications to the historic cultural landscape,” according to GWWO. As part of this phase, the site will gain sloped walkways flanking the main stairs on the east and west meant to help shorten the travel time from the front of the memorial to the lower chamber. A new elevator transporting visitors from ground-level to the chamber will also be installed. Thanks to the largesse of D.C. billionaire David Rubenstein, the 2,500-square-foot lower-level will also be fully renovated and feature a new-and-improved gift shop, enhanced visitor support spaces like restrooms, and improved circulation. Per the firm, it is also “currently collaborating to provide new and expanded barrier-free, fully accessible exhibits within the lower level that will provide additional perspectives on Thomas Jefferson’s multi-faceted story.”

jefferson memorial as seen from west potomac park
The Jefferson Memorial and its fully biofilm-free marble dome. (Building Conservation Associates)

“While Thomas Jefferson is not without some things that we can question today, clearly he did some great things for our country, including being the author of the Declaration of Independence, creating the University of Virginia, and as president, he bought the land that we call the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of our country,” said Rubenstein, who serves as co-founder and co-chairman of the Carlyle Group, in October 2019 when his $10 million gift for an underground overhaul of the memorial complex was first announced.

Rubenstein has also gifted millions in funding for restoration/renovation projects across the capital region including at the Washington Memorial, the Arlington House at Arlington National Cemetery, the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument. (Recently completed phase one restoration work at the Jefferson Memorial was funded by the federal government.) In the time since Rubenstein first announced his gift for the phase two museum space, Jefferson’s complicated legacy has come into sharper focus among the public. At least one tribute to the polymathic third U.S. President, who was also an architect in addition to lawyer and politician, has been removed/relocated outside of Washington D.C.: a 7-foot-tall plaster model of the bronze Jefferson statue at the United States Capitol Rotunda that presided over New York City Council chambers for more than a century. Although initially unclear where it would go after its removal, that statue ultimately found a new home within the New-York Historical Society as part of a 10-year loan agreement.

Phase two work at the Jefferson Memorial kicked off last month and is expected to wrap up by 2023. The memorial will remain open to visitors throughout construction.