Memorials and Monuments That Tell a Story

Bronze Panels are Backlit to Illuminate the Names of Terror Victims
Bronze Panels are Backlit to Illuminate the Names of Terror Victims. Photo by Seth Wenig-Pool/Getty Images News/Getty Images (cropped)

What makes a memorial meaningful? Many of the memorials you'll see here are grand, but others are modest. Some rise to great heights, and others are sunken into the earth. Each expresses pride and solace in an original and unexpected way. Here are some of the most poignant memorials in architecture.

The National 9/11 Memorial

A square pool of flowing water, part of the National 9/11 Memorial in New York City
The South Reflecting Pool at the National 9/11 Memorial Commemorates the Terror Attacks of September 11, 2001. Photo by Allan Tannenbaum-Pool / Getty Images News / Getty Images

One of the most-viewed memorial is the public park that occupies the space of the fallen skyscrapers in New York City. Within this park are two reflecting pools in the footprint of the destroyed Twin Towers. Sheets of water tumble into the two shallow pools at what was once called Ground Zero.

The National 9-11 Memorial, once known as Reflecting Absence, honors those who died in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993. The memorial was designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker. Arad's design for the National 9/11 Memorial has been well-examined.

Pentagon Memorial in Arlington Virginia

September 11 Pentagon Memorial in Arlington, VA
The September 11 Memorial at the Pentagon September 11 Pentagon Memorial in Arlington, VA. Photo © Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Benches engraved with names honor those who died in the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. But the cantilevered benches are not placed without meaning. The architects symbolically arranged each to better identify and personalize the victim.

Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington DC
Slain Civil Rights Leader Honored by Washington DC Monument The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington DC. Photo © Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The controversial memorial to civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. sets on Washington DC's National Mall between the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. Soaring 30 feet high, the granite carving of Dr. King is the tallest sculpture on the Mall, more than 10 feet taller than Lincoln's statue. Dr. King's famous oratory inspired the design of this national memorial built in his honor.

The National Memorial opened to the public on August 22, 2011 and was officially dedicated on August 28, 2011, the 48th anniversary of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

Berlin Holocaust Memorial by Peter Eisenman

Berlin Holocaust Memorial by Peter Eisenman
Pictures of Monuments and Memorials: Berlin Holocaust Memorial Berlin Holocaust Memorial by Peter Eisenman. Photo (cc) cactusbones/

The Berlin Holocaust Memorial is a controversial Structuralist work by architect Peter Eisenman. The 2005 memorial honors the murdered Jews of Europe.

Bunker Hill Monument

Overhead photo of Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, Massachusetts, north of the Charles River and downtown Boston
Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, Massachusetts, north of the Charles River and downtown Boston. Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC / Corbis Historical /Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

A 221-foot granite obelisk outside the city of Boston, Massachusetts marks the site of one of the earliest battles of the American Revolutionary War. Managed today by the National Park Service, Monument Square in Charlestown in part of the Freedom Trail.


Monument of Light

Stainless steel spire slightly eclipsing the sun shining on a Dublin, Ireland city street
Pictures of Monuments and Memorials: Monument of Light The Monument of Light, also known as the Spire of Dublin, is a tapering tower constructed to herald a new Irish Millennium. Photo by Dave G Kelly/Moment Open Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

The Monument of Light, also known as the Spire of Dublin, is a tall, slender, stainless steel cone tower that is flexible enough to sway with the Irish breezes.

Ian Ritchie Architects won a competition to design a monument that would serve as a symbol of 21st century Dublin, Ireland. The monument was to be built for the year 2000 and was called Millennium Spire. However, the Monument of Light was surrounded by controversy and protests and was not completed until 2003.

About the Monument:

Location: O'Connell Street, Dublin, Ireland
Height: 120 meters (394 feet)
Diameter: From 3 meters (10 feet) at the base, gradually becoming more slender at the top, rising to a diameter of only 15 centimeters (6 inches)
Weight: 126 tons
Sway: Maximum of 1.5 meters (about 5 feet movement in extreme wind); the top 12 meters (about 39 feet at the top) has 11,884 holes drilled through the metal. These perforations, each 15 millimeter (about 1/2 inch) in diameter, allows wind to pass through the structure.
Construction Materials and Design: Hollow, stainless steel cone. Up to approximately 10 meters (33 feet) from the base, the surface is polished and with a design. The tube is generally highly reflective with a light beacon on top. A concrete foundation has 9 piles to anchor the structure.
Bolts: 204 hold together stainless steel plates
Thickness: The cone is hollow, but the steel is from 35 to 10 millimeters thick (from 1.4 inches thick at the base to 1/2 inch thick at the top)
Architect: Ian Ritchie

In the Words of the Architect:

"It has its roots in the ground and its light in the sky. The bronze base is flush with the surrounding paving, allowing individuals and groups to stand on the base and touch the spire surface. The base incorporates a spiral alluding to the continuity of Ireland’s history and an expanding future. The historical role of bronze in the development of Irish art is continued into the future as the base acquires both the patina from the Irish climate and the golden polish of human contact."

Sources: The Spire, Visit Dublin; Ian Ritchie Architecture Projects [accessed November 10, 2014]

The Saint Louis Gateway Arch

The St. Louis Gateway Arch by architect Eero Saarinen opened on October 28, 1965
Door to the American West The St. Louis Gateway Arch by architect Eero Saarinen opened on October 28, 1965. Photo by Agnieszka Szymczak/E+ Collection/Getty Images

Located on the banks of the Mississippi River in St. Louis, Missouri, the Gateway Arch commemorates Thomas Jefferson and symbolizes the expansion of the American frontier.

Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen originally studied sculpture, and this influence is apparent in his design of the soaring Saint Louis Gateway Arch.

Plated with stainless steel, the arch is an inverted catenary curve that rises 630 feet high and spans 630 feet from end to end. A passenger train climbs the wall of the arch to an observation deck, which provides panoramic views to the east and west.

Designed for storm-readiness, the arch was made to sway in the high winds. Deep concrete foundations, sinking 60 feet below the ground, stabilizes the enormous arch in St. Louis, a port city and gateway to the American West.

Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Virginia

Three curved spires in silhouette against the sky
The Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. Photo by Ken Cedeno / Corbis Historical / Getty Images

The Air Force Memorial near Washington, DC honors Air Force veterans and pays tribute to the technological wonders of USA air power.

The Air Force Memorial sits on a hill overlooking the Pentagon building. Three curved spires made of stainless steel with concrete reinforcement suggest the bomb-burst jet stream pattern of the famous Thunderbird demonstration flights. The three spires are 270 feet, 231 feet, and 201 feet tall.

The Air Force Memorial was designed by James Ingo Freed of Pei, Cobb, Freed & Partners.

World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Aerial view of the World War II Memorial, designed by Friedrich St. Florian, in Washington, DC
Celebrating the Greatest Generation Aerial view of the World War II Memorial, designed by Friedrich St. Florian, in Washington, DC. Crop ID LC-DIG-highsm-04465 by Carol M. Highsmith's America, LOC Prints and Photographs Division

The WWII Memorial on the National Mall is located opposite the Lincoln Memorial, overlooking the Reflecting Pool.

The world was in turmoil between 1939 and 1945. The United States resisted entering this world of war until 1941 when Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was bombed by the Japanese. America became involved not only defending its Pacific territories, but also its Atlantic allies in Europe. Architect Friedrich St.Florian working out of Providence, Rhode Island memorialized both war operations with two dominating forty-three foot tall pavilions — Atlantic and Pacific.

The USS Arizona Memorial

Bright white USS Arizona National Memorial over the sunken hull of the Battleship Arizona, c. 1962
World War II Memorial at Pearl Harbor Aerial view of USS Arizona National Memorial, c. 1962, spanning the sunken hull of the battleship. Photo by MPI / Archive Photos / Getty Images (cropped)

Designed by architect Austrian Alfred Preis, the USS Arizona Memorial appears to float in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, over the remains of the sunken battleship.

When Japan bombed the Territory of Hawaii on Sunday, December 7, 1941, the USS Arizona sank in 9 minutes and burned for over two days. The battleship went down with 1.4 million gallons of fuel and 1,177 sailors—nearly half of the total casualties of that day. The sacred spot is the final resting place for those crew members—and to this day, about two quarts of fuel continue to leak from the vessel.

A memorial to the deceased took many years to become a reality. Design specifications from the Navy mandated that the memorial should be a bridge, spanning the sunken ship, but without touching it. The memorial structure straddles the hull of the sunken Arizona.

About the USS Arizona Memorial:

Dedicated: Memorial Day, May 30, 1962
Architect: Alfred Preis of Johnson, Perkins, and Preis
Length: 184 feet (56 meters) long, spans the mid-portion of the sunken battleship, USS Arizona
End Dimensions: 36 feet wide and 21 feet high at the ends
Center Dimension: 27 feet wide and 14 feet high
Stability: appears to float, but it does not; two 250-ton steel girders and 36 concrete pilings driven into bedrock support the Memorial
Design: Three sections: (1) entry room, (2) open central assembly room and observation area, the (3) shrine room, with names of the deceased carved in a marble wall
Accessibility: Accessible by boat
Significance: Constructed to honor all American service members who lost their lives during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941

"Upon this sacred spot, we honor the specific heroes who surrendered their lives....While they were in full bloom, so that we could have our full share of tomorrow."—Olin F. Teague, Chairman, Veterans Affairs Committee

In the Words of Alfred Preis, Architect:

"Wherein the structure sags in the center but stands strong and vigorous at the ends, expresses initial defeat and ultimate victory....The overall effect is one of serenity. Overtones of sadness have been omitted to permit the individual to contemplate his own personal responses...his innermost feelings."

About the Architect, Alfred Preis:

Born: 1911, Vienna, Austria
Educated: Vienna University of Technology
Refugee: Fled German occupied Austria in 1939; immigrated to the peaceful Territory of Hawaii
Prewar: Dahl and Conrad Architects of Honolulu, 1939-1941
WWII years, 1941-1943: Internment for 3 months in Honolulu after December 7, 1941 attack; small projects for a private contractor; advocate for "the social responsibilities of architecture and the ways in which architecture could improve the world after the war" (Sakamoto and Britton)
Postwar: Advocate for freedom, democracy, the arts, and cultural education; 1959 commission to design the Memorial
Died: March 29, 1993, Hawaii

Sources: Frequently Asked Questions and History & Culture, World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, National Park Service; "Proclamation Presented in Recognition of Alfred Preis and the USS Arizona Memorial," May 30, 2012 at; USS Arizona Memorial Discovery Packet, The Legacy of Pearl Harbor (PDF), USS Arizona Memorial, National Park Service [accessed December 6, 2013]; Hawaiian Modern: The Architecture of Vladimir Ossipoff by Dean Sakamoto and Karla Britton, Yale University Press, 2008, p. 55

Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta, Georgia

Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta, Martin Luther King Tomb surrounded by Reflecting Pool
Crypt of Civil Rights Leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta, Georgia with the Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King Tomb at the center of a reflecting pool. Photo by Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives Collection/Getty Images

A reflecting pool surrounds the tomb of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) and his wife Coretta Scott King (1927-2006) in Atlanta, Georgia.

Shortly after Dr. King was assassinated, Mrs. King established The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, known simply as The King Center. The King Foundation and Mrs. King asked noted African-American architect J. Max Bond, Jr. (1935-2009) to design the area that would adjoin King's birthplace and his home church, Ebenezer Baptist.

The space is both a traditional memorial—both Dr. and Mrs. King are buried here—and a cultural centerpiece of peace and the history of civil rights. The Center has been called a "living memorial."

The King Center was dedicated on January 15, 1982.

Bond's design combines several elements within the King Center:

  • The Kings' tomb, constructed of Georgian marble. Dr. King's remains were moved to the site in 1970 and Mrs. King joined her husband upon her death in 2006.
  • An eternal flame, similar to the steadfast remembrance at the grave of the assassinated President John F. Kennedy
  • Freedom Hall, made of local brick and constructed by local workers, provides visitors with a place to gather and learn from lectures and exhibits
  • An Archives and Administration Building containing Dr. King's paper and other materials that document the Civil Rights movement
  • Freedom Walk, a "barrel-vaulted colonnade" covering a common brick walkway beside the reflecting pool and the Kings' tomb
  • Updating the Chapel of All Faiths

Architect J. Max Bond, Jr., FAIA of the firm Davis Brody Bond is also known for his role in developing plans for the National 9/11 Museum in New York City.

Sources: About the King Center and Plan Your Visit on the King Center website; Plan Your Visit to the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site, on the National Park Service website; Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change project on the Davis Brody Bond website [accessed January 12, 2015]

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall

Section of engraved stone set into the curved earth, a memorial to Vietnam War veterans
Maya Lin Designed Memorial for Veterans of the War in Vietnam in Washington, DC. Photo by Brooks Kraft / Corbis Historical / Getty Images

When she was still an architecture student at Yale University, Maya Lin entered a public competition to design a memorial for Vietnam veterans. The V-shaped memorial wall that Maya Lin designed was selected out of 1,421 entries. Her initial submission was evocative but abstract, so contest officials asked architect and artist Paul Stevenson Oles to prepare some additional sketches.

Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial is made of polished black granite. The 250-foot long walls are ten feet tall at their apex and gradually slope down to ground level. Viewers see their own reflections in the stone as they read the 58,000 names inscribed there.

Critics of Lin's memorial wanted a more traditional approach. To reach a compromise and move the project forward, a bronze Vietnam Veterans Statue was placed nearby. This more traditional statue depicts three servicemen and a flag.

In the Words of Maya Ying Lin, Architect

"The memorial is analogous to a book in many ways. Note that on the right-hand panels the pages are set ragged right and on the left they are set ragged left, creating a spine at the apex as in a book. Another issue was scale; the text type is the smallest that we had come across, less than half an inch, which is unheard of in monument type sizing. What it does is create a very intimate reading in a very public space, the difference in intimacy between reading a billboard and reading a book."—Making the Memorial, The New York Review of Books, November 2, 2000

Books About the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC:

Boundaries, by Maya Ying Lin
The architect describes her creative process and discusses what happened after her controversial design was chosen for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The Wall, by Eve Bunting
Children's author Eve Bunting describes a poignant visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Civil Rights Memorial, Montgomery, Alabama

Fountain inscribed with names of martyrs and major events of modern Civil Rights Movement at Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama
Civil Rights Memorial Designed in Granite by Maya Lin, Montgomery, Alabama. Photo by Stephen Saks / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images

After her great success with the design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial,architect Maya Lin received many offers to create other inscribed memorials in black granite. One of the few she accepted was for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama.

Lin's 1989 design for the Civil Rights Memorial is based on a well-known adage used by Dr. Martin Luther King: "We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." This inspiration is carved into a 40 foot black granite wall, 10 feet high.

Water rolls across a circular granite water table—an 11.5 foot timetable, really—carved with the names of people and events from the Civil Rights movement, from Brown v. Board of Education to the death of MLK.

Source: The Civil Rights Memorial, Project, BattttMemorials, Maya Lin Studio [accessed October 1, 2016]

Indian Memorial at Little Bighorn

The 2003 Indian Memorial, Carved into the Montana Prairie
The Indian Memorial Commemorates Native American Deaths at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Photo by Steven Clevenger / Corbis News / Getty Images (cropped)

On June 25 and 26 in 1876 Americans of all colors, Native and European, fought, bled, and died in the gently sloping hills of Montana. The Battle of Little Bighorn took the lives of 263 soldiers, including Lt. Col. George A. Custer in what iconically became known as "Custer's Last Stand." A monument was erected in 1871 to honor the U.S. Cavalrymen who died, but nothing ever honored the victory and deaths of the Sioux, Cheyenne, and other Plains Indians.

The National Park Service runs the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana, which was previously called Custer Battlefield National Monument. A 1991 law changed the name of the National Park and established the design, construction and maintenance of "a living memorial to the Plains Indian women, children, and men who took part in the battle and whose spirit and culture survive." John R. Collins and Alison J. Towers won the competition in 1997, and the Indian Memorial was completed in 2003.

Source: Little Bighorn Battlefield, National Park Service [accessed December 6, 2016]