The Jefferson Memorial illuminated in 2001.
Peter Aaron/OTTO The Jefferson Memorial illuminated in 2001.

The Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., on the south edge of the National Mall’s Tidal Basin, was designed and began construction in 1939 and opened to the public in 1943. The original design of the monument did not include any provisions for exterior lighting, and it was not until 1964 that an exterior lighting solution was implemented. That task fell to lighting designer Sylvan (Sy) Shemitz (1925–2007), whose design used a combination of high-wattage incandescent and high-pressure sodium lamps with a combination of colored key and fill light to model the architectural surfaces. When the project was completed in 1973, the statue of Thomas Jefferson was the first to use an asymmetric reflector system.

The Jefferson Memorial lighting scheme in the early 1970s.
Peter Aaron/OTTO The Jefferson Memorial lighting scheme in the early 1970s.

In 2001, to mark the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Jefferson’s presidential inauguration—which also happened to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Sylvania Lighting—lighting designer David Mintz of the Mintz Lighting Group was asked to devise a new lighting scheme for the memorial. The fixtures and sources used for the 1973 design, while appropriate at the time, no longer met the energy and maintenance requirements. Mintz and his team developed a new scheme that incorporated a combination of metal halide, ceramic metal halide, and induction lamp technologies that allowed for close to 80 percent energy savings.

In addition to the technical achievement of illuminating the 129-foot-tall monument while maximizing energy use is the design achievement of using light to provide a greater grounding of the structure to the site. The steps leading up from the Tidal Basin to the rotunda had never been illuminated. In the new scheme, floodlights placed at the northeast and northwest edges of the basin accomplish that task. David Mintz recalls how everything looked the time when they were doing on-site mock-ups to show the Fine Arts Commission and the National Park Service: The minute they turned the floodlighting on for the steps, people began to gather and sit, drawn to the welcoming nature of the new illumination.

Explore all 30 Moments in Lighting from our 30th Anniversary Issue here.