Composed of circular marble steps, a portico, a circular colonnade of Ionic order columns, and a shallow dome, the building is open to the elements. Pope made references to the Roman Pantheon and Jefferson's own design for the Rotunda at the University of Virginia. It is situated in West Potomac Park, on the shore of the Tidal Basin of the Potomac River. The Jefferson Memorial and the White House located directly north, form one of the main anchor points in the area of the National Mall in D.C. The Washington Monument just east of the axis on the national Mall was intended to be located at the intersection of the White House and the site for the Jefferson Memorial to the south but soft swampy ground which defied nineteenth century engineering required it be sited to the east. The Jefferson Memorial is managed by the National Park Service under its National Mall and Memorial Parks division. In 2007, it was ranked fourth on the List of America's Favorite Architecture by the American Institute of Architects.
President Franklin Roosevelt thought that Thomas Jefferson also deserved a monument. On June 26, 1934, following his initiative, Congress passed a resolution to create a monument commemorating Jefferson.
The memorial was designed by John Russell Pope — also the architect of the original (west) building of the National Gallery of Art. The memorial's design reflects characteristics of buildings designed by Jefferson such as Monticello and the Rotunda, which reflect his fascination with Roman architecture. The architectural design of the Jefferson Memorial is modeled after the domed structure of the Pantheon in Rome.
The cornerstone was laid on November 15, 1939 — two years after Pope's death. Daniel P. Higgins and Otto R. Eggers took over construction of the memorial. The memorial was constructed with Danby Imperial marble (Vermont) for the exterior walls and columns, Tennessee pink marble for the interior floor, Georgian white marble for the interior wall panels, and Missouri gray marble for the pedestal. Indiana limestone was used in construction of the ceiling. The cost of construction was slightly more than $3 million.
The Jefferson Memorial was officially dedicated on April 13, 1943 — the 200th anniversary of Jefferson's birthday. One of the last American public monuments in the Beaux-Arts tradition, it was severely criticized even as it was being built, by those who adhered to the modernist argument that dressing 20th century buildings like Greek and Roman temples constituted a "tired architectural lie." More than 60 years ago, Pope responded with silence to critics who dismissed him as part of an enervated architectural elite practicing "styles that are safely dead". As a National Memorial it was administratively listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966.
The interior of the memorial has a 19-foot (5.8 m) tall, 10,000 pound (5 ton) bronze statue of Jefferson by sculptor Rudulph Evans, which was added four years after the dedication. The interior walls are engraved with passages from Jefferson's writings. Most prominent are the words which are inscribed in a frieze below the dome: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." This sentence is taken from a September 23, 1800, letter by Jefferson to Dr. Benjamin Rush.
On the panel of the southwest interior wall are excerpts from the Declaration of Independence, written in 1776:
We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men. We...solemnly publish and declare, that these colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states...And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour.
The excerpts chosen from the Declaration have been criticized because the first half alters Jefferson's prose (for the sake of saving space) and eliminates the right of revolution passage that Jefferson believed was the point of the Declaration, while much of the second half (from "solemnly publish" to "divine providence") was not written by Jefferson.
On the panel of the northwest interior wall is an excerpt from "A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, 1777", except for the last sentence, which is taken from a letter of August 28, 1789, to James Madison:
Almighty God hath created the mind free...All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens...are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion...No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion. I know but one code of morality for men whether acting singly or collectively.
The quotes from the panel of the northeast interior wall are from multiple sources. The first sentence, beginning "God who gave...", is from "A Summary View of the Rights of British America". The second, third and fourth sentences are from Notes on the State of Virginia. The fifth sentence, beginning "Nothing is more...", is from Jefferson's autobiography. Historian Garry Wills has said that this excerpt is "misleadingly truncated", because Jefferson's original sentence continued with the argument that free blacks and whites "cannot live in the same government. The the sixth sentence, beginning "Establish the law...", is from an August 13, 1790, letter to George Wythe. The final sentence is from a letter of January 4, 1786, to George Washington:
God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than these people are to be free. Establish the law for educating the common people. This it is the business of the state to effect and on a general plan.
The inscription on the panel of the southeast interior wall is redacted and excerpted from a letter July 12, 1816, to Samuel Kercheval:
I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
The Jefferson Memorial has a room filled with his accomplishments and a 5-foot tall bio inscribed in granite.