33 Secret Symbols Hidden on Famous U.S. Landmarks
There’s a cartoon on the World War II memorial?!
U.S. landmarks, generally speaking, are pretty straightforward. In fact, you can usually gather all of what they’re about right from the name. (The Washington Monument celebrates George Washington, the Jefferson Memorial celebrates Thomas Jefferson, et cetera, et cetera.) But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that our country’s statues, monuments, and memorials are imbued with secret symbols.
For instance, did you know that our nation’s tallest tower has an exact height that’s steeped in history? Or that the highest court in the land has a hidden bust of a U.S. president on it? Or that Lady Liberty’s construction might be a reference to pirates? If those surprised you, you’ll love all these other secret symbols about our nation’s most famous landmarks. We assure you, the findings are nothing short of monumental.
The height of One World Trade Center is tied to a specific year in history.
Add up the height of every part of One World Trade Center—the building, the observation deck, and the antenna on the very top—and you’ll get a measurement of 1,776 feet. Remind you of anything? (For those who may have nodded off in history classes over the years, 1776 is the year our founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence.)
Other measurements for One World Trade Center are references to the Twin Towers.
The architects for One World Trade Center took into account everything that the structure replacing the Twin Towers after the devastating events of 9/11 stood for. With that in mind, the height of the building itself is exactly 1,362 feet, the height of the original South Tower, while the height of the building combined with the height of the observation deck stretches to 1,368 feet, the height of the original North Tower.
The constellations on the ceiling of Grand Central Station are painted backward on purpose.
Cornelius Vanderbilt, the ringleader of the staggeringly wealthy Vanderbilt family, who led the construction of Grand Central Station, was adamant that the constellations adorning the ceiling of the Main Concourse were intentionally painted backward. His explanation is that the ceiling was meant to be regarded “from a divine perspective,” and not a human one, according to the Grand Central website. Too bad there’s no divine intervention on congestion at the station!
There’s a star chart at the Hoover Dam.
In case every history book that ever references the Hoover Dam is irretrievably lost, the founding date never will be forgotten (so long as the dam still stands). The star map inlaid in the terrazzo floor at the base of the dedication monument is meant to communicate the exact date the dam was dedicated: September 30, 1935. Of course, if you want the info, you’ll still have to know how to read star charts.
There are remnants of war on the Washington Monument.
Yes, war is enmeshed in our nation’s most iconic obelisk—in the guise of graffiti, no less. Etchings on a wall of the Washington Monument spell out the name of David C. Hickey, one of the Union soldiers who used the monument-in-progress as a fort and training ground during the Civil War, according to the Washington Post. Today, you can see Hickey’s name in the area that is now the lobby of the monument.
There’s graffiti on the World War II memorial.
The phrase “Kilroy was here,” accompanied by a cartoonish figure of a man peering over a wall, is hidden in two separate places on the World War II memorial, as confirmed by the National Parks Service (NPS). The NPS explains that the cartoon was a popular piece of graffiti drawn by American troops in both the Atlantic and Pacific Theater. There’s no confirmation of where the cartoon stemmed from, but the NPS mentions the German conception that Kilroy was a talented super-spy who could infiltrate any enemy with ease.
The arms on Honest Abe’s chair at the Lincoln Memorial have ties to Ancient Rome.
Next time you’re strolling the National Mall, peer closely at President Abraham Lincoln’s chair. The thin rods that make up the bulkier arms of the chair are technically referred to as “fasces.” Fasces are an ancient Roman symbol of “power and authority,” as explained by the NPS. Other fasces appear at the base of the main stairs to the memorial, where you can see 13 rods (indicative of the 13 original colonies), and an axe bound in leather, with a bald eagle’s head perched atop it—a red-white-and-blue twist on the ancient Roman tradition.
The painting on the U.S. Capitol ceiling features telegraph cable.
If you’ve ever been inside the U.S. Capitol, you’re bound to have caught a glimpse of the ceiling of the Rotunda, which displays The Apotheosis of Washington, a fresco painted by artist Constantino Brumidi in 1865. While the art is inherently layered with symbolism, one of the more interesting elements in this painting, which features George Washington ascending to the heavens with various figures and Roman gods, is the fact that the goddess of love (Venus) is holding an armful of telegraph cable. Apparently, Brumidi was referencing the Transatlantic Cable, which was being laid at the time he was painting the fresco.
There was almost a museum behind Lincoln’s face at Mount Rushmore.
The sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, apparently envisioned the room inside the rock behind Lincoln’s face at Mount Rushmore to function as a sort of museum. Borglum’s “Hall of Records” would explain to future generations exactly what and whom he was preserving in the stone, according to the History Channel. His team began to work on carving out the space, but due to a series of complications, including Borglum’s death and the fact that the federal government was more interested in funding the carvings on the mountain face than carving the inside of the mountain, Borglum’s vision for the Hall of Records never came to fruition.
The Jefferson Memorial is (sort of) about American expansion.
The fact that the memorial to our third president is made of multiple types of stone is no mistake. According to the NPS, the monolith was specially constructed to reference the growing geographic reach of the United States during the time of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. Symbolizing the stretch from the Northeast to the South, the exterior of the memorial is formed with Vermont Imperial Danby marble, while the inside is constructed of white Georgia marble. The memorial also includes stone from Tennessee, Indiana, Minnesota, and Missouri.
There’s a column for every state at the Lincoln Memorial.
Take a lap around the Lincoln Memorial and pay attention to the number of columns that constitute the colonnade around President Lincoln’s memorial chamber. The NPS confirms that there are 36 columns encircling the chamber—one for each of the states in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s assassination.
The Statue of Liberty’s stance symbolizes freedom, too.
People often miss the details around the hem of her dress, because they’re a little less visible than her impressive torch and crown. That said, there are important details there, like the fact that she is standing amid broken shackles—and more importantly, that her right foot is raised, to indicate her movement away from oppression.
One of America’s presidents appears on the Supreme Court Building.
Before anyone gets up in arms about the importance of checks and balances and the separation of the three branches of government, here’s a pop quiz: Do you know which former president also served as a Supreme Court Justice? William Howard Taft served a term as president from 1909 to 1913 and then went on to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1921 to 1930.
In tribute to Taft’s contributions, his likeness is included on the pediment above the entrance to the Supreme Court Building. Though the sculptor intended for the figures to be allegorical, he also wanted them to be based upon people who had positively impacted the court, so Taft represents “Research Present,” and is depicted as a student at Yale University.
“Praise be to God” is inscribed on the Washington Monument.
Though the Washington Monument is inscribed with a religious phrase, it isn’t etched anywhere you can feasibly read or notice it from the ground. Even if you could make it out all the way to the eastern side of the cap at the top of the monument, you’d need a grasp of Latin to translate the words “Laus Deo” to English: “Praise be to God.”
Lady Liberty’s crown might be a pirate reference.
You know those seven points that jut out from the Statue of Liberty’s crown. It turns out that the sculptor envisioned those rays to be separate from the crown—in fact, they’re meant to form a sort of halo, known as an aureole. Also, the fact there are seven of these rays is definitely significant: while no one is in complete agreement, some think the seven rays represent the seven continents and the seven seas, according to USA Today.
“Pass and Stow” on the Liberty Bell is a reference, not a set of directions.
It’s no secret that the Liberty Bell itself is one of America’s most recognized icons of, well, liberty. But the meaning of the words engraved into the bell might be less clear. The words “Pass and Stow” are etched onto the side of the bell, and while the phrase might seem like instructions for the item’s safekeeping, the words are actually a reference to the artisans, John Pass and John Stow (John was a popular name back then), who crafted today’s version of the bell in the 1750s after the initial version cracked.
The Roman numerals on the Statue of Liberty’s tablet refer to a major day in U.S. history.
If you peer closely at the tablet held in Lady Liberty’s left hand, you’ll find the inscription “July IV MDCCLXXVI.” For those who never learned the Roman numerals beyond the 12 listed on a clock face, we’ll save you the legwork: the numbers translate to July 4, 1776, or the day the United States of America declared its independence from Britain.
The rejoining of the North and South is depicted in the Lincoln Memorial.
The representation of the North and South is far from overt in the Lincoln Memorial, but it can be found in a close study of the North Mural. An image entitled “Unity” is painted above the inscription of Lincoln’s second inaugural address. In the mural, an angel joins the hands of two figures, which are symbolic of the North and South, according to the NPS. Clustered on either side of the North and South figures are other figures representing Painting, Philosophy, Music, Architecture, Chemistry, Literature, and Sculpture.
The Resolute Desk is a representation of the United States’ relationship with England.
The actual wood of the POTUS desk (formally: the Resolute Desk) is crafted from the remnants of a British ship, the HMS Resolute. When an American ship discovered the abandoned Resolute, the United States took charge of returning the vessel to the Queen of England. As a sign of her thanks, Queen Victoria requested upon the ship’s retirement that part of its timbers be made into a desk. She presented it to President Rutherford Hayes in 1880.
The trees lining the 9/11 memorial were carefully selected—based on geography.
Careful cultivation went into the trees that are planted around the 9/11 Memorial. The trees selected included only species of trees that could be found within a 500-mile radius of the original Twin Towers, as well as species of trees near the areas in Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., that were affected by 9/11.
And there’s one specific tree at the 9/11 memorial that predates 2001.
Nicknamed the “Survivor Tree,” a Callery pear tree that was discovered in the rubble of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers is now planted at the site of the memorial. Though the tree’s roots were snapped and its branches were burnt, it was nursed back to health by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Now replanted, with new limbs growing, the website for the 911 Memorial describes the Survivor Tree as a “living reminder of resilience, survival, and rebirth.”
Star Wars is referenced in a part of the National Cathedral.
In a galaxy not so far away, a popular science-fiction series has made its mark, even in the unlikeliest of places. A gargoyle with the head of Darth Vader adorns one of the west towers of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Vader became a gargoyle via a children’s design-a-carving competition the Cathedral staff conducted in the 1980s, when the western towers were being constructed. The Cathedral website encourages bringing binoculars if you intend to go hunting for the Star Wars figure—he can be difficult to find with the naked eye.
The Capitol is located smack in the middle of the capital.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the Capitol’s location at the center of Washington, D.C., is nothing short of deliberate. Though it is no longer the actual heart of the city, the building serves as the origin point for the street numbering system and the four quadrants of the city, representing its fundamental importance to the functioning of our nation. (Some urban planners suggest that Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the man who designed the city’s basic layout, planned the streets and quadrants off mathematical formulas.)
The floor plan of the Harriet Tubman Visitor Center is designed to symbolize Tubman’s escape to the North.
Opened in 2017, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center in Maryland pays tribute to the woman behind the famous Underground Railroad, a system of safehouses to help slaves escape to the North during the Civil War. According to the Dorchester Star, the architects for the visitor center described the vision behind their design, saying that the entrance to the museum was narrower and more tightly confined, but as visitors travel through more and more of the exhibits, the floor plan opens up more and more, as a reference to Tubman’s escape from the constrictions of slavery to freedom in the North.
The naked lightbulbs in Grand Central Station are a symbol of wealth.
Back in the early 1900s, when the Vanderbilt family constructed New York City’s infamous railway station, electricity was a rare and coveted commodity. In fact, the station became one of the world’s first all-electric buildings, according to the History Channel. The Vanderbilts chose to flaunt their immense wealth by installing exposed lightbulbs throughout Grand Central Station. In the twenty-first century, commuters have come to expect electricity, but the bulbs remain exposed in tribute to the family’s fortune.
The Justice of the Peace tombstone has a recurring stain—and it supposedly represents death.
Passersby are often keen to point out the oddly-shaped mark, resembling a leg, that stains the tomb of this former Justice of the Peace. That’s because, as rumor has it, Colonel Jonathan Buck ordered a young woman be put to death for practicing witchcraft. Allegedly, her leg rolled out of the fiery blaze, and, in retaliation, the witch put an eternal curse on Buck’s final resting place in Bucksport, Maine.
The Statue of Liberty has a literally maternal face.
It’s not just that she kindly shepherded thousands of immigrants into their new home in the United States. According to the History Channel, Lady Liberty’s face was actually thought to be modeled after the sculptor’s mother’s face.
The Golden Gate Bridge is painted red to symbolize magnificence.
With its bright, cheery hue, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is certainly a sight to behold. However, the architect didn’t always envision the bridge would become the beacon it is today—it wasn’t until a red-orange primer was applied to the bridge that its architect Irving Morrow began advocating for the bridge (then the longest suspension bridge in the world) to be painted a color that drew attention to its magnificence.
As reported by NPR, Morrow wrote in a 29-page report that as “one of the greatest monuments of all time,” the bridge called “unique and unconventional treatment from every point of view.” That’s how the bridge received its eye-catching color, which is officially known as “International Orange.”
The initials carved into the Lincoln Memorial is just a reference to the sculptor.
Visitors to the Lincoln Memorial are sometimes puzzled by the faint inscription of “EBL” that can just be made out on the north wall of the memorial. Before you start wracking your brain to figure out what those letters could stand for in relation to Honest Abe, you should know that CNN reported that EBL are the initials of the woman, Evelyn Beatrice Longman, who carved the decorative border around the memorial.
There’s a time capsule hidden in the keystone at the top of the St. Louis Gateway Arch.
Yes, there’s a time capsule on top of the 630-foot structure, which contains the signatures of more than 760,000 citizens of St. Louis. The idea, according to St. Louis Magazine, was that in the decades after the time capsule was welded to the arch in 1965, people would be able to point to the top of the arch and declare that their names were up there—perhaps as a way to make the arch feel more like it belonged to the city. There are no specific instructions on when the capsule is supposed to be opened, so for now, it remains welded shut.
There are a set of trees in Central Park that represent the five boroughs.
If you find yourself in the part of Central Park near the east side of 105th street, keep an eye out for a granite bench dedicated to Andrew Haswell Green, a man who was fundamental to the creation of the park. Planted in a cluster around Green’s bench are five maple trees—one to represent each of the Big Apple’s five boroughs, according to the Central Park Conservancy.
There’s a flower carved into the White House columns that pays tribute to Scotland.
According to the NPS, the roses inscribed along the columns, walls, and porticos of the White House are specifically a Double Scottish Rose. The design was specially chosen by the Scottish stonemasons who helped to create the carvings for the White House in the 1790s.
The National Archives is guarded by mythological creatures.
Okay, actual mythological creatures don’t guard the National Archives. (They don’t exist!) Even so, the stone griffins carved into each corner of the north pediment of the building still look pretty menacing. The sculptor, Adolph Alexander Weinman, fondly referred to the griffins as the “Guardians of the Secrets of the Archives,” according to the National Archives blog.
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