These Iconic American Landmarks Almost Had Completely Different Looks

America’s iconic places went through quite a few phases before they became the ones you know and love. Buckle up for a sightseeing tour of five first drafts of history.

The Other Half of Mount Rushmore

Courtesy Library of congressAs you can see from sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s model of Mount Rushmore (above), the carving crew made a few concessions during the monument’s 14-year construction. Time, money, and areas of impenetrable rock prohibited the team from finishing the full head-to-waist sculptures Borglum had planned—Lincoln never even got ears. Still more trouble came when weak rock quality forced the presidents’ relocation to a different part of the rock face than originally planned, leaving no room for what would have been Lincoln’s neighbor and Borglum’s pièce de résistance: a monstrous 80-by-120-foot tablet in the shape of the Louisiana Purchase, inscribed with the nine most important moments from 1776 to 1906 (that is, from Washington to Roosevelt). Some things are better left uncarved. Bet you didn’t know these other wacky facts about Washington D.C.

Full of Hot Air

Keith De Lellis, NYThe spire atop New York’s Empire State Building was not built solely as a hangout for King Kong; it was originally pitched as a zeppelin dock. In 1929, investors announced that the already 1,050-foot-tall tower would soon add a 200-foot “mooring mast” for tethering luxury dirigibles after trans­atlantic flights (as imagined in this doctored promo photo from 1931). While this was likely all a big stunt to one-up the nearby Chrysler building, one airship reportedly did secure itself to the mast but promptly fled after three minutes in the turbulent 40-mile-per-hour winds above the tower. The spire is still called a mooring mast today, but what would’ve been the docking level is now the 103rd floor observatory, open only to maintenance staff and celebrities. (Here’s why July 2nd is America’s real Independence Day.)

Hail, Emperor Washington

Courtesy Library of CongressApproved in 1845, Robert Mills’s original design for the Washington Monument was a temple fit for a caesar. A flat-topped obelisk, a ring of grand Romanesque columns, and a huge statue of George Washington driving a horse-drawn chariot seemed like fitting tributes to ­America’s first president—until 1854, when the money (and later the marble) ran dry. Construction halted for decades; when Mark Twain visited in 1868, he likened the barely started obelisk to an “ungainly old chimney” and demanded it be finished or torn down outright. Work finally resumed in 1879, but Congress decided not to trifle with Mills’s lofty temple or statue. Instead, they’d finish the obelisk and call it a day—a plan that Mills thought would make the memorial look like a big “stalk of asparagus.” Vegetable or no, when the obelisk was finally capped at 555 feet in 1884, it became the tallest structure in the world.

Fourscore and 170 Steps to Go

Courtesy national archives and records administrationCongress took another shot at memorializing a president in 1911, approving $2 million (more than $49.5 million in today’s money) for a monument to ­Abraham Lincoln. The final contending designs, submitted by rival architects John Russell Pope and Henry Bacon, were fittingly extravagant. Pope’s sketches evoked the ancient: Imagine an Egyptian pyramid, a Mesopotamian ziggurat (shown above), or a lofty Mayan temple burning an eternal flame. One concept drawing showed a replica of the Roman Parthenon standing high atop 250 feet of stairs. Today’s tourists should rejoice that Pope’s stairway to heaven lost the commission to Bacon’s more reined-in neoclassical temple—and that they need to climb only 58 steps to get from the memorial plaza to Lincoln’s feet. We bet you never noticed that there’s a typo in the Lincoln Memorial.

A Bridge Too Far—and Too “Ugly”

Courtesy The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District The Golden Gate Strait didn’t want a bridge. Violent tides, regular blinding fogs, ferocious winds, and a reach of water more than one mile wide and 300 feet deep all made this evident. Still, San Francisco needed a connection to the other side of the mainland, and engineer Joseph Strauss didn’t let the elements shake his ambition. In 1921, Strauss submitted a design for a hybrid cantilever-­suspension bridge (seen here) and rallied much political and financial support, despite a local paper’s contention that his bridge was, frankly, “ugly.” Strauss brushed it off. But as planning progressed, his hybrid design also proved structurally inefficient. By 1930, the “ugly” hybrid was replaced with a pure suspension bridge developed by Strauss Engineering Corporation’s vice president, Charles A. Ellis. We’re not saying Strauss was jealous, but Ellis was inexplicably fired during a vacation in 1931, two years before construction on his now-famous bridge began.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest