Accessible ramp at Lincoln Memorial: an elaborate accommodation becomes a visual blight. Or is it?

The principle of Occam’s Razor likely applies in design just as often as it would in philosophy, physics, criminology, or military strategy.  But that doesn’t mean designers will necessarily abide by it: that is, designers do not always elect for the simplest solution.  Popular architectural movements such as Baroque and Art Nouveau deliberately eschewed the most straightforward path from conception to completion, instead endowing every edifice with an elaborate array of aesthetic gestures that deliver more ornamentation than structural support.  Time and spatial constraints may also push a designer toward a less simplistic solution: if the available land is limited or the fabrication must serve a short-term or temporary need, it is likely that simplicity will take a back seat.  Then again, those who subsist on Occam’s Razor as a heuristic might argue that those constraints are intrinsic to the conception; in other words, the experts still choose the simplest path available to them, when facing down certain unavoidable hurdles.  (And every feat of architecture and engineering has at least some hurdles, if the inception casts a wide enough net.)  I suspect spatial and temporal constraints help explain the design solution for the handicapped ramp currently serving the immense crowds who visit the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. Sure, I cannot confirm that this Lincoln Memorial accessible ramp is, in fact, a complicated solution; it may be the easiest available.  But it sure doesn’t look simple.

Lincoln Memorial with temporary accessible ramp

It’s a massive solution to get wheelchairs up that big flight of a stairs, which the National Park Service (NPS) installed just a few weeks ago.  Hot on the heels of a multi-year renovation of the interpretive space at the Jefferson Memorial (which I covered recently), the NPS has recently begun a similar multi-year effort to add an immersive museum to the undercroft of the Lincoln Memorial.  As the webpage indicates, this $69 million project will create 15,000 square feet of improved exhibit space, new restrooms, a larger bookstore, and a refurbished elevator, all slated to be complete in 2026, just in time for a celebration of the nation’s 250th year of independence.  Throughout this construction, the Memorial’s primary chamber—featuring the statue of a seated Lincoln that attracts 8 million visitors per year—will remain open.

Lincoln Memorial with temporary accessible ramp

Despite efforts to minimize disruptions, the construction staging for this renovation work has yielded unsightly scaffolding on the primary monumental stairwell linking the Reflecting Pool to the Lincoln Memorial for well over a year.  But renovations to the undercroft only began this past spring, and the undercroft has long provided the necessary lifts to allow wheelchairs access to the primary chamber.  With that section closed, disabled individuals have no option; the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) stipulates that public facilities must make “reasonable accommodations” to ensure that persons with mobility impairments can enjoy structures emblematic of American heritage.  “Reasonable” is a word redolent with subjectivity, which immerses it in murky legal waters.  For that reason, NPS had to consider a variety of alternatives to ensure individuals in wheelchairs could still access the Memorial over the next two years of renovations.  But did it have to look like this?

temporary accessible ramp at Lincoln Memorial

Yes and no.  According to the National Capital Planning Commission’s (NCPC) review of preliminary and final site design plans for the Lincoln Memorial accessible ramp, the initial intent was to install two temporary mechanical lifts and complementary platforms in an unobtrusive location.  It would have consumed considerably less space, and the temporary nature of the lifts would almost certainly encourage modular construction—a real winner if Occam’s Razor is the prism for judgment.   However, the NPS’s previous negative experience with such a device at the Jefferson Memorial convinced leadership that these lifts would break down frequently, depriving any individuals with access and functional needs of a reliable means of alighting those stairs.  So no temporary lifts.  The NPS determined that temporary accessible ramps for wheelchairs would be necessary, no matter how expansive (and expensive) they must be to get wheelchairs up that flight of stairs without deploying a grade change deemed prohibitively steep.

ADA’s standards for accessible grades allow a rise over run of 1:12—that is, for every one inch of vertical gain, the ramp must accommodate 12 inches in horizontal reach.  Any shorter distance, such as 1:10, is too sharp of an incline.  Several of the design alternatives involved even longer ramps than the one visible in these photos.  One dismissed alternative recommended a ramp providing access to the Memorial chamber from the south side of the structure—a radical departure from the customary approach, which has always come from the stairwell on the east side of the building, facing the Reflecting Pool, the National Mall, and much further in the distance, the US Capitol Building.  The south side of the Lincoln Memorial has more room and would require less encroachment on the existing stairwell, and with that extra room, the slope could be gentler than the ADA minimum: a ratio of 1:16 to cover the 35 feet from sidewalk to the chamber.  It would also create considerably less visual impact from eastern viewsheds, where a majority of people peer onto the Lincoln Memorial, from such sights as the Washington Monument or the World War II Memorial.  But the ramp would also require a bridge feature over the southern construction yard, and maintaining such a slope along with the bridge feature would require an inordinately long ramp of 745 feet—more than the length of two football fields.  Even if the slope were gentle, that length would not appeal to many visitors.

Screenshot: Source NCPC.gov

Ultimately the NPS approved an alternative on the eastern stairs—the same approach by which able-bodied people access the Memorial.  This Lincoln Memorial accessible ramp still maintains a desirable grade of 1:16 but uses a 554-foot ramp, with all portions measuring 72 inches wide to allow multiple users to pass one another without creating bottlenecks.  This design encroaches heavily on the stairwell, but it is still possible to appreciate the monumentality of the edifice without capturing too much of this strange ramp of many switchbacks, as my photos prove.

Yes, the ramp is hulking and impossible to miss, but the appropriately colored panels hide the ramp’s cladding and prevent it from looking like some heavy-industry leviathan.  In fact, from the foot of the stairs, the Lincoln Memorial accessible ramp looks novel.  Pretty neat.

temporary accessible ramp at Lincoln Memorial

The end result offers four turn platforms between the five switchbacks.  ADA normally requires a zero-grade point of rest—the turn platforms—for every 30 feet of ramp.  However, most of the ramp segments at Lincoln Memorial are between 92 and 103 feet long.  My suspicion is that NPS—in collaboration with NCPC, the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO), and the Commission for Fine Arts (CFA)—requested and achieved a variance on those 30-foot maxima for ramp lengths.  After all, if the ramps were that short, they’d require around eighteen switchbacks and platforms, which would make the entire effort so wide that it blocks the regular stairs entirely.  This design also benefits from giving wheelchairs and walkers the approximate same point of entry to the Lincoln Memorial, which is more intuitive.  With the entrance on the south side of the Memorial, individuals in wheelchairs would have to travel hundreds of feet out of the way.

Perhaps most important of all—even if this looks borderline silly for all the space it consumes compared to an elevator—it seems that visitors have embraced it.  It’s easy for many people to use it simultaneously, including those who, though not in wheelchairs, find the ascent of all those stairs exhausting.  Kids especially seem to love it.

To be fair, once at the top and viewing outward, the vista is still remarkable, with the Washington Monument in the far distance.  But all the construction devices enhance the visual framing.

Under the best of conditions, the top of the stairs to the Lincoln Memorial offers a signature view: the Reflecting Pool stretching toward the horizon, punctuated by the Washington Monument, its obelisk massing duplicated through the pool’s water, symmetrical against the horizon line.  And, though barely visible in this photo, the US Capitol peeps out in the distance behind the Washington Monument, its breadth flanking the base of the obelisk.  These days, with all this renovation work, the foreground is comparatively cluttered: construction scaffolding on the steps in the left of the photo, while the Lincoln Memorial accessible ramp protrudes out onto the stairs on the right, almost like a pier over water.  But the decision to paint all these temporary superstructures in the same color as the Memorial’s limestone makes everything less obtrusive.  While it doesn’t fit most people’s definition of “beautiful”, it generates an energy through a series of parallel lines all perpendicular to the stairs.  And it entices people to use the accessible ramp, even if they aren’t in a wheelchair.  The designers wisely kept the ramp corridors wide enough that any number of people can use them.

The quantity of switchbacks is greater than most people typically encounter when it comes to accessible ramps.  Such iteration probably means the design appears more complicated than it actually is, but it teases the eye like an M.C. Escher drawing.  Stepping out onto the accessible ramp from the top of the stairs yields a remarkable visual effect:

It’s almost like walking to the edge of a diving board, ready to build up speed through its length and hurtle one’s self of the edge, into the Reflecting Pool.  (Not recommended.)  But as I descended using the accessible ramp, I noticed that visitors were taking far more photographs than they typically would while standing on the enormous stairs.  The ramps offer a chance to linger at the axial view far more than they otherwise would, and from different vantage points depending on where they’re staying amidst the exit ramps and platforms.  I’m not claiming that this enormous contraption is an improvement over the traditional view, or an improvement over the restored elevators that will be available in the undercroft once the upgrades are complete.  But it offers a temporary spectacle likely to burn itself into the memories of the millions of Americans who come out to Washington DC for one big trip in their lifetimes.  Sure, they’re not getting the traditional postcard imagery.  But they’re witnessing the Lincoln Memorial in a period of transition that is interesting in its own right.

Besides, maybe the Lincoln Memorial accessible ramp really does pass the Occam’s Razor sniff test.  Massive though it may be, it consists of a succession of inclined planes—one of the six simple machines that intend to change the direction or magnitude of force.  Then again, doesn’t the Lincoln Memorial’s proposed (and dismissed) design alternative—a lift platform—operate using another one of the six simple machines: the pulley?

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12 thoughts on “Accessible ramp at Lincoln Memorial: an elaborate accommodation becomes a visual blight. Or is it?

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      So they say… While the NPS is renovating the lower level exhibition space, the elevator that people customarily use is unavailable. Presumably all these improvements will be finish in time for the Semiquincentennial (a word I didn’t know existed until I put this article together).

      Enjoy it while you can; it actually looks pretty cool. Kids love it.

      Reply
  1. Chris B

    Though I’m not an architect or engineer, my first reaction to the long runs between platforms in the photos was “that can’t be legal”.

    And my second reaction: I wonder how this looks in the “Vista view” from the foot of the Washington Monument or from the end of the Reflecting Pool?

    it does seem as if it would offend the stately City Beautiful symmetry of The Mall.

    NPS in decades past managed to rehab the Washington Monument (by enshrouding it in scaffolding and translucent plastic wrap) without destroying its shape or prominence. Wonder how practicality overcame the visual prerogative here? The cynical voice in my head suggests that ADA consierations trumped design, as you imply.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Yes, I’d say ADA was the priority. Given that it IS temporary, I can’t complain too much.

      That said, I didn’t imagine the visuals suffer too much compromise when viewed from a distance like the Washington Monument. Sure, those of us who stand from that vantage point regularly will notice all those ramps, and it certainly would detract from the “postcard-perfect” views. But the multi-year scrubbing of the Jefferson Memorial–and your appropriate reference to the renovations of the Washington Monument–both did the same thing. Temporary visual incursions make people very tolerant. Then again, the temporary nature acts as a disincentive for people who might otherwise choose renovations that are more aesthetically sensitive.

      As for the long runs to the ramps, I think Jeffrey makes a very good point in his separate comment.

      Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      That’s a design solution that didn’t occur to me. I’ll admit I wasn’t aware that it was available, so I didn’t notice it when I was at these ramps taking these photos, and can’t recall if these ramps even have such zero-grade sections at midpoints during a switchback.

      It’s very tricky to tell from any of my photos, but I think the sixth image within this essay might show subtly reveal some level areas: zero-grade resting points. Do you know if this is typical? If these zero-grade portions do not actually exist, is it possible that the NPS pursued a variance? It wouldn’t be unheard of for the federal government to exempt itself from its own prescriptions.

      Reply
    2. Chris B

      Agreed…level sections do not require a turn in direction. I found this online: “A ramp with a slope between 1:12 and 1:16 can have a maximum horizontal length of 30′ (9.14 m) without a landing”. The photos above where length can be gauged do seem to show about 30 feet between the visible level sections but without seeing the whole thing, it’s tough to tell whether they are consistently included.

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        Probably the same site that I found and cited in this article. Or another site that prescribes the same thing, as drawn from ADA. I think these ramps had landings.

        Reply
      2. AmericanDirt Post author

        I revisited the ramps the other day, and, yes, they do have landings every 30″ or so where there is zero grade change. It’s not conspicuous at all, mainly because the grade change is so slight throughout the entire effort. If you aren’t looking for the landings, it is unlikely you would ever notice them.

        All in all, I still think this contraption is more extensive than it needed to be: i.e., it could have saved space and still met the acceptable threshold of 1:12. And, by requiring less cladding, it might have cost less and certainly wouldn’t have seemed so gargantuan. But it’s a very, very nicely set temporary ramp. When operating with a near-unlimited budget, the design team can go whole hog.

        Also, here’s the view of Lincoln Memorial from the base of Washington Monument, with the Reflecting Pool and World War II Memorial in the foreground. https://snipboard.io/dqZRzC.jpg As this image shows, it definitely compromises the appearance, but probably not enough that most people will complain. After all, it’s the monument itself that monopolizes attention; not the stairs leading to it.

        Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      In other contexts I would harp on all the people using the ramp out of sheer laziness, since they’re able bodied enough to use the stairs. But this ramp is so wide that it really doesn’t restrict anyone. And it’s so long, that people are getting just as much exercise, because they’re walking so many extra steps.

      Besides, kids think ramps are cool.

      Reply

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