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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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February 17th, 2014
06:02 PM ET

The Lincoln Memorial, 100 years later

(CNN) – He presided over some of the most transformative events of the last century, from Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream," speech, to Vietnam War protests, so it's hard to believe that the 19-feet high, 175-ton Abraham Lincoln Memorial, one of the most recognizable in the world, almost never existed for a familiar reason: congressional gridlock over government spending.

When people talk about Washington as a swamp, it's not just a metaphor. More than a century ago, the site of the Lincoln Memorial was a swamp, a favorite place for vagrants, even, as legend has it, for dumping dead bodies. At the time, the $3 million memorial was going to be the most expensive in history.

"Joe Cannon, who was the Speaker of the House, he called it a swamp, and he didn't understand how we could have a presidential memorial out here," Thomas Luebke, Secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts, told CNN.

It took almost a decade and five failed votes in Congress to approve the site.

"The designer, who was Henry Bacon, came up with this idea of putting this thing on an elevated hill ... on pylons 60 feet in the air, and that's where the temple of the memorial actually begins," says Luebke.

Construction of the site began in February 1914, 100 years ago this month. It took eight years to complete

Lincoln Memorial through the years

"It's an epic memorial, in that it is not only a president, but it actually speaks to this huge American experience that was so important in our history," said Luebke.

But the Lincoln memorial is iconic not just just because it commemorates history, but also because it is a place where history is created, the place for political protest.

That all started in 1939 with a concert by opera singer Marian Anderson.

"She had been scheduled to sing at the Daughters of the American Revolution, but when it was learned that the audience was to be segregated, she refused to do so," Lucy Barber, author of "Marching on Washington" told CNN.

"It was a concert, but it was a protest, and people knew it," said Barber. "Afterwards in the 40s and 50s, you just have a steady stream, whether it's an explicit protest, a conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the prayer pilgrimage organized by Martin Luther King."

"The latest in this chapter was actually ... at the first Obama inaugural. The day before, they had a huge event here which was very celebratory, but actually draws on this very same tradition," said Luebke.

The memorial itself is a tribute to Lincoln, from his famous speeches carved into the walls, to his sculpted hands – one clenched for strength, the other opened to show compassion. But the legacy of this 100-year-old memorial is the perch Lincoln provides Americans to protest, and celebrate.

"This has become a place that the American people really feel attached to," said Barber.

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