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.
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.
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.)
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!
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.