WASHINGTON — The National Park Service announced Monday that the Lincoln Memorial will undergo a major renovation over the next four years, thanks largely to an $18.5 million donation by billionaire philanthropist David Rubenstein.
The project is probably the biggest overhaul of the building since the structure was dedicated in 1922, officials said.
The memorial, which attracts 7 million visitors a year, will remain open during the work, although parts of it may be closed off from time to time.
The marble-columned edifice, which houses the 120-ton statue of a seated and contemplative President Abraham Lincoln, is one of the most elegant and hallowed memorials in the country.
Much of the work on it will take place inside, beneath the massive chamber that holds the statue.
The limited exhibit space will be greatly expanded, along with the memorial's tiny bookstore and antiquated restrooms. New exhibits will be added, and visitors will be able to see the massive pilings and foundation that support the memorial.
The area, now about 750 square feet, will be expanded to 15,000 square feet, said Sean Kennealy, chief of professional services for the National Mall and Memorial Parks.
The memorial will be scrubbed inside and out. Its crumbling slate roof, which is not the original but has leaked water and stained interior walls, will be repaired.
And its two dramatic 60-feet-long murals inside will be restored.
Damage to some inside brickwork that occurred during the 2011 earthquake also will be repaired.
"The idea was to take the basic Lincoln Memorial and reshape it a bit, make it more modern, scrub it up a bit," Rubenstein said last week.
"When you go to the Lincoln Memorial today you see this great statue of Lincoln," he said. "But there's no real museum or education center about Lincoln. So I think it would be a good idea to have such a thing."
Rubenstein's gift is the latest in a series of multimillion-dollar donations he has made to historically themed projects around the Washington area.
Last April, he announced a $5.37 million donation to refurbish the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial near Arlington National Cemetery.
In 2014, he gave $10 million to Montpelier, the historic Orange, Va., home of President James Madison, $5 million to the White House Visitor Center, and $12.3 million to Arlington House, the home of Robert E. Lee.
And after the earthquake, he paid $7.5 million of the $15 million cost to repair the Washington Monument.
Rubenstein is co-founder of the Carlyle Group, a Washington-based global private equity firm.
"I'm very fortunate that I'm able to do it," Rubenstein said of his gift to the Lincoln Memorial. "I'm happy to do it."
Gay Vietzke, superintendent of the National Mall and Memorial Parks, said the goal is to broaden the story of Lincoln.
"But . . . this place has become symbolic of so much more," she said last week. "And in this tiny footprint, it's near impossible to talk about . . . the power of the place and Lincoln's legacy and why it's really relevant to us today."
"Our hope is we're going to do that with this very, very special gift," she said.
The money will go to the National Park Service through the National Park Foundation, the park service's nonprofit fundraiser, officials said. The Park Service will kick in about $6 million to the project.
"This is a very long overdue rehabilitation," said Will Shafroth, president of the National Park Foundation. "It's old and tired.
"In some ways, we've let this place get . . . run down," he said. "The improvements that are going to be made are going to make it a much more welcome place to be."
The Park Service is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and is in the midst of an effort to raise $350 million in donations, Director Jonathan Jarvis said. It has a nearly $12 billion backlog in deferred maintenance, he said.
The park service was established under President Woodrow Wilson on Aug. 25, 1916.
The 38,000-ton Lincoln Memorial is built on fill dredged from the Potomac River. It is supported by a series of huge concrete pilings that were sunk 44 to 65 feet through the fill down to bedrock.
"It's very cool," Jarvis said last week. "When we build the new exhibit and visitor use space, it will . . . give the public an opportunity to actually see underneath the memorial. There's even old graffiti down there from the original crews.
"I think people are really interested in how these incredible facilities were built a hundred years ago," he said.
Ground was broken for the memorial on Lincoln's birthday — Feb. 12 — in 1914. The cornerstone was set a year later. The memorial was dedicated in the presence of Lincoln's 78-year-old son, Robert, on May 30, 1922.
Jarvis said some of the work will begin this year.
"I feel great about it," he said.
"It's our centennial year," he said. "We're announcing the restoration of one of our most iconic sites . . . (and) the public phase of the (fundraising) campaign. . . . I'm feeling like it's a pretty good year."