Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol and Nicolas Cage’s National Treasure have sparked major interest in the secrets of US landmarks. What’s hidden behind Washington’s eyes at Mt. Rushmore? (Nothing!) Which Illuminati symbols are carved into the Golden Gate Bridge? (None!) Which Islamic symbols did Obama sneak into the design of the new White House fence? (He totally didn’t do that!)
All jokes aside, there are some cool symbols in US landmarks that are hidden or relatively obscure. Man-made American landmarks are full of imagery from the Greeks and Romans, who were known for imbuing their art with lots of symbolism. There are also some major landmarks built in the 20th century with sneaky little “Easter eggs” included. Read on for some cool examples of hidden symbols in US landmarks that are totally for real.
There Are Fasces All Over the Lincoln Memorial
A subtle symbolic detail hidden in the Lincoln Memorial is a smattering of fasces, an ancient Roman symbol of power and authority. Look closely at the statue of Lincoln: the Great Emancipator is knuckle-deep in fasces, which are actually the column-like “arms” for his massive stone La-Z-Boy.
Fasces, according to the National Park Service, are a bundle of wooden rods bound by a leather strap that sometimes feature an axe sticking out of them. It’s a Roman symbol of power and authority: the rods “suggest” beating and the axe “suggests” beheading. Lincoln’s statue is axe-less, suggesting more unity and less punishment. (Upon further investigation, you’ll notice that architect Henry Bacon also put fasces—this time with axes—all over a wall at the base of the stairs leading up to the statue.)
The fasces in this context represent strength through unity, which is why Lincoln’s fasces feature thirteen rods for the thirteen original states. The memorial as a whole can also be thought of as a massive fasces, with the 36 columns replacing the rods and representing the 36 states Lincoln fought to preserve. Fasces is also, you might have guessed, the root word of fascism, but as the NPS points out, “the Italian fascists identified with the power and brutality” that’s also inherent in the fasces’ meaning, while the Americans identified more with the whole “strength through unity” bit.
(BONUS FASCES-FREE FACT: The initials “EBL” can be found hidden in the north wall. They stand for Evelyn Beatrice Longman, the artist who carved the ornamental border.)
‘Praise Be to God’ Is Hidden on the Washington Monument
The Latin phrase “LAUS DEO”—”Praise be to God” or “God be praised”—is literally hidden on the Washington Monument’s aluminum tip. It’s not an atheist conspiracy: the engraved phrase was visible (but way too small to see from the ground) on the East face of the pyramidal tip when it was installed in 1885, along with details about the construction and the names of those involved.
But sometime between 1885 and 1934, the monument’s lightning protection system or lightning “collar” damaged and “hid” the engravings, as seen in the picture above. A 1934 restoration kept the phrase—and all other obscured engravings—hidden, but added a new one. So what’s left up there? This mess: “JOINT COMMISSION AT SETTING OF CAPSTONE … JOHN NEWTON. Act of August 2, 1876. CORNER STONE LAID ON … CAPSTONE SET DECEMBER 6, 1884. CHIEF ENGINEER AND ARCHITECT, THOS LINCOLN CASEY, … Repaired, 1934, National Park Service Department of the Interior.” During the 2013-2014 earthquake damage repairs, the obscured engravings were once again left as-is.
The Hoover Dam Features a Cryptic Star Map
According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, many visitors to the Hoover Dam are confused by the Art Deco sculptures and architectural details created by Norwegian-born, naturalized American Oskar J.W. Hansen. There are these half-man, half-eagle dudes, for example, that are meant to symbolize “the readiness for defense of our institutions and keeping of our spiritual eagles ever ready to be on the wing.” Sure! Another unusual feature is this awesome-looking inlaid star map, labeled with the star Alcyone, that shows nearby stars “as they would appear to the naked eye at a distance of about 190 trillion miles from Earth.”
What does it mean, exactly? It’s a timestamp: “In this celestial map, the bodies of the solar system are placed so exactly that those versed in astronomy could calculate the precession (progressively earlier occurrence) of the Pole Star for approximately the next 14,000 years. Conversely, future generations could look upon this monument and determine, if no other means were available, the exact date on which Hoover Dam was dedicated.” Cool!
There’s an Axe Head and Broken Chains at the Feet of Lady Liberty
This one is more hard-to-see than hidden, but it’s a subtle symbol, regardless: there are broken shackles and a giant axe head at the feet of Lady Liberty, representing “the throwing off of tyranny and oppression.” Scholars say the broken chains are a substitute for the broken jug—an ancient “symbol of confinement now ended”—that often appears alongside depictions of Libertas, the Roman goddess of liberty. The chains and axe head are tough to see unless you’re looking down at Lady Liberty’s 35-foot-long sandals. A neat little additional detail is that her right foot is lifted, slightly, off the ground, implying that she’s moving away from the chains, fleeing her captors.
The Stone Holds Secrets at the Jefferson Memorial
The stone used to build the Jefferson Memorial has a hidden symbolic meaning, according to the National Park Service. On the FAQ site for the memorial, the NPS—after letting everyone know that the number of steps leading to the chamber is meaningless, okay?—says the real secret of the memorial is in the sourcing of the stone. From the outside in, the stone starts in Vermont (“Vermont Imperial Danby marble”) and heads to Georgia (“white Georgia marble”). This symbolizes “the geographic extremes of the original thirteen states from New England to the Deep South.”
Inside the memorial, the stone comes “from an expanding Union”: the floor is marble from Tennessee, while the “inner dome” comes from Indiana. The statue of Jefferson, finally, stands on stone from two states acquired in his Louisiana Purchase: Minnesota granite with a “gray Missouri marble ring.”
‘Kilroy’ Is Hidden in Two Places at the World War II Memorial
The World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. has two hidden “KILROY WAS HERE” engravings. (Yes, like the Styx album.) In graffiti form, the “KILROY WAS HERE” phrase, accompanied by a big-nosed cartoon guy peeking over a wall, was a popular way for US troops to indicate that they’ve been through an area. Why? That part’s murky: the National Park Service says it “most likely come[s] from a British cartoon and the name of an American shipyard inspector” and that “myths surrounding it are numerous and often center on a German belief that Kilroy was some kind of superspy who could go anywhere he pleased.” Where are the WWII Memorial Kilroys? Behind two golden gates: one next to the Pennsylvania pillar and one next to the Delaware pillar.
Central Park Lampposts Feature Secret Navigational Codes
An unadvertised feature of the lampposts in New York City’s famous Central Park is a code that lets you know, roughly, where you are in relation to rest of the city. They’re cross street indicators, essentially, embossed on metal plaques. Gothamist explains: “If a lamppost is numbered 7304, it is located between 73rd and 74th streets. The ‘4’ designates that the post is the fourth post in from Fifth Avenue. In the upper reaches of the park, where street numbers are 100 and higher, the ‘1’ is omitted; for example, a post numbered 0500 is between 105th and 106th.”
The Goddess of Love Is Laying Telegraph Cable Inside the US Capitol Building
There’s an epic painting on the ceiling of the dome of the United States Capitol Building called The Apotheosis of Washington. Painted in 1865 by Greek-Italian artist Constantino Brumidi, it shows George Washington chilling out in heaven, surrounded by goddesses and maidens. It’s quite a scene. There’s also a lot of hidden symbolism. Perhaps the most unusual symbolic element is Venus, the famous goddess of love, schlepping cable like a common engineer. Why? Shouldn’t she be doing something more romantic or sexy? Since she was born from the sea, she’s depicted here helping Neptune, the god of the sea, lay the transatlantic cable of 1858 that connected North America to Europe via telegraph. Who knew that the goddess of love was also the goddess of telegraphs?
A Young, Skinny President Taft Is ‘Hidden’ on the Supreme Court Building
Known widely as our widest President, William Howard Taft appears young and svelte—and “reclining”—on the west pediment of the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. At a glance, the pediment appears to feature ancient figures, but they are actually relatively modern allegorical figures “influential in the creation of the Court’s new home.” Taft (on the far left) appears as Chief Justice William Howard Taft “portrayed as a student at Yale University” symbolizing the idea of “Research Present.” The SCOTUS website notes that “many people were surprised” at the unveiling in 1933 that the figures weren’t ancient or mythological.
The White House Has Roses Hidden in Its Columns
The White House is undoubtedly one of the most famous buildings in the world. But most people don’t realize that the columns on the south portico’s Truman Balcony have large white roses tucked away near the capitals. They blend into the all-white building at a distance, but they’re striking at close range. It’s a neat contrast to the acanthus typically featured on classical columns, plus they pair nicely with the White House Rose Garden on the building’s west side. What do the roses mean? In masonry, roses are often associated with rebirth, a suitable symbol for a home with ever-changing residents.