It might seem hard to believe, but these projects—from famous presidential portraits and literary masterpieces to iconic tourist destinations and even a subway line—never quite crossed the finish line.
1. The Portrait of George Washington on the $1 Bill
The Athenaeum Portrait, as it's known, was painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1796. It was commissioned by Martha Washington, who had requested a portrait of herself as well. Stuart painted the faces of both of his subjects, and a bit of the shoulders and brown background for George, but that’s about where he stopped. The paintings were never delivered. Stuart had reportedly kept the unfinished Washington portrait for himself, and used it to recreate at least 75 replicas of the painting, which he sold for $100 apiece.
Upon Stuart’s death, the Athenaeum Portrait was passed down to his daughter, and was eventually bought and given to the Boston Athenaeum, hence the name it’s now known by. Years later, this depiction of Washington’s was chosen for the engraving of the one dollar bill. The image was flipped, but otherwise, it’s the same George that Stuart painted 200 years ago, stopped partway through, then kept for himself for profit.
2. The Unfinished Portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt
Elizabeth Shoumatoff started working on a portrait of FDR around noon on April 12, 1945. As he was being served lunch, the president reportedly complained of a pain in the back of his head; at 3:35 p.m. that day, he was pronounced dead by his doctor from a cerebral hemorrhage. Shoumatoff did later make a new portrait of the president, but the original, unfinished one remains a partial snapshot of Roosevelt, just moments before his passing. It currently hangs at FDR’s onetime retreat, the Little White House in Georgia.
3. Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales is considered Geoffrey Chaucer’s magnum opus, and one of the most influential pieces of English-language literature. Chaucer, however, never got around to finishing it. The story begins at the Tabard Inn with 30 travelers about to embark on a pilgrimage. The innkeeper proposes a storytelling contest that requires each pilgrim to tell two tales on the way up, and two on the way back. That should give us 120 tales by the end of the story, which would hypothetically end with the winner of the contest being crowned. If you’ve read The Canterbury Tales, though, you know there aren’t nearly that many. There’s only 24 stories, and it doesn’t have a proper ending.
Chaucer is thought to have been working on the manuscript for over a decade, up until his death in 1400. The Tales were distributed posthumously, but most scholars believe he never had a chance to properly conclude them. Some blame Chaucer’s busy business life—at various times he worked at the Port of London, moved to Kent to be the Justice of Peace, later became a member of parliament, and then shuttled back to London as Clerk of the King’s Works. Moonlighting as a seminal literary figure seems like an exhausting hobby.
While some, like professor Michaela Paasche Grudin, have argued that The Canterbury Tales were a deliberate attempt to challenge classic narrative structure by not having a proper ending, it seems the consensus is that Chaucer just couldn’t finish all 120 stories before his death.
4. Jane Austen's Sanditon
Many other famous authors have left behind incomplete works. Jane Austen’s final novel was a book that we now call Sanditon, but she stopped work on it in March 1817, just a few months before her death. She completed 11 chapters of the novel, which takes place in the seaside town of Sanditon, which most believe is based on Worthing, England. Over a century later, the book was published as is, though it was far from complete. And because of Austen’s legacy, it’s been the subject of multiple continuations, where an author attempts to complete the novel within Austen’s presumed vision and style. A Completion of Sanditon, A Return to Sanditon, and Jane Austen’s Sanditon: A Continuation are just a few examples of attempts to finish what the famed writer left behind. There’s even a television series that first aired in 2019 called Sanditon; its second season will premiere in March 2022.
5. Charles Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Charles Dickens’s final novel met a very similar fate. He completed just half of the 12 planned installments of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, leaving the whodunit unsolved for generations of readers: What happened to Edwin Drood?
As with Sanditon, The Mystery of Edwin Drood has been the subject of many continuations—including one by a man named Thomas P. James, who claimed to have literally “ghostwritten” the novel—as in, Dickens’s spirit was channeled through him, and he finished the novel like a kind of literary prophet. Some people, including Arthur Conan Doyle, the author and creator of Sherlock Holmes, praised this version. Others, like scholar J. Cuming Walters, said that the work was "self-condemned by its futility, illiteracy, and hideous American mannerisms; the mystery itself becomes a nightmare, and the solution only deepens the obscurity.” Ouch. Even Doyle eventually “debunked” the ghostly Dickens authorship, though his methods were a bit suspect. He wrote in The Edge of the Unknown that at a seance, he asked Dickens, "Was that American who finished 'Edwin Drood' inspired?" To which Dickens’s spirit responded “not by me.”
Fun fact: Shortly before Edwin Drood was beginning publication, Dickens sent an installment to Queen Victoria and commented that “If Her Majesty should ever be sufficiently interested in the tale to desire to know a little more of it in advance of her subjects,” he would be very pleased to help. Sadly, Victoria never seems to have taken him up on the offer.
6. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune
One of cinema’s great boondoggles was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s planned adaptation of Dune, Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel. Jodorowsky began production for his film in 1975. Obviously, the film was never made, but the stories about it are the stuff of Hollywood legend. It was supposed to be more than 10 hours long. Jodorowsky’s storyboards were made up of over 3000 individual drawings.
The would-be cast included Mick Jagger as Feyd-Rautha, Salvador Dalí as Shaddam IV, and Geraldine Chaplin (the daughter of Charlie Chaplin) as Lady Jessica. Orson Welles was slated to play the villain, Baron Harkonnen (a commitment Jodorowsky was only able to secure, reportedly, by promising Welles that his favorite chef would make him food on set every day). Dalí also, allegedly, demanded $100,000 per hour for his work, which Jodorowsky agreed to, with the plan to only film with the famed surrealist for one hour. A mechanical mannequin would have been used for the rest of production. The soundtrack? Provided by Pink Floyd, of course.
Even after millions of dollars were spent in pre-production, with elaborate costumes and set pieces already made, the film was scrapped. Dune was eventually made into a film in 1984, directed by surrealist David Lynch. A new adaptation starring Timothée Chalamet and Oscar Isaac came out in 2021.
7. The Cincinnati Subway
It’s not just artists that don’t finish their work. The Cincinnati Subway is an abandoned city project underneath the streets of the Ohio metropolis. Construction began in the early 20th century in an attempt to upgrade the city’s public transportation system, which at the time relied on their aboveground streetcar system. A few miles of tunnels were dug out and built, but unfortunately, the cost of the project proved too great: $6 million was allocated to the project, but inflation after World War I increased the cost of production well past that budget. By the end of the 1920s, the project was effectively abandoned.
A few people did have ideas on what the tunnels could be used for. Meier’s Wine Cellars Inc. wanted to use it for wine storage and production, but that didn’t pan out. In the 1970s, George Clooney’s father, Nick Clooney, wanted to turn part of it into an underground mall and nightclub, but that fever dream of an idea never came to fruition either. Today, the tunnels are used partially to carry the city’s water main and optical fiber cables, and is a frequent destination for urban explorers, though those latter expeditions are generally illegal.
8. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine
Another incomplete structure is the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, a landmark in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. Its construction began in 1892, and its original design was in the Byzantine and Romanesque Revival styles. Then, about 15 years into the construction, the architect died, and the cathedral’s design eventually moved in a Gothic Revival direction. The nave wasn’t completed until 1941 after various funding issues, and construction has been intermittent since then. A large fire damaged the cathedral in 2001, and it was reopened in 2008. Today, it’s estimated that the church is only two-thirds complete, according to the original plan. It’s still missing its spires.
Despite being unfinished, it is still one of the biggest and most impressive standing cathedrals. Its floor covers 121,000 square feet and its roof reaches 177 feet into the air, making it the sixth largest church in the world by area. It not only serves as an Episcopal church, but is also home to various cultural events and art showings.
9. Basilica de la Sagrada Familia
Barcelona’s breathtaking Basilica de la Sagrada Familia is another famously unfinished church. The cornerstone was laid well over a century ago, but construction isn’t expected to be completed until 2026.
10. The National Monument of Scotland
The National Monument of Scotland has been referred to by locals as a "national disgrace." The monument was supposed to be a recreation of the Parthenon in Greece, but it never quite got there. The foundation stone was laid in 1822, and by 1829, just 12 columns had been put up. Nearly 200 years later, that’s still the most complete this monument has ever been. It was meant to commemorate Scots who died in the Napoleonic wars, but the organizers only received about half of the funding needed. In the years since, various proposals have been made to reinvent the monument, such as turning it into a monument for Queen Victoria, or transforming it into the Scottish National Gallery. None of those plans took either, and Scotland’s Folly, as it’s sometimes known, still stands as an unfinished relic.
11. Chernobyl's Reactors 5 and 6
Reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is one of the most infamous structures in recent history. There, in the early hours of April 26, 1986, disaster struck, causing lasting damage for generations.
At the time of the Chernobyl disaster, there were two other reactors being built about a kilometer away from the old site. Reportedly, the 286 construction workers at Reactors 5 and 6 continued to work through the night of the disaster. It wasn’t until the following morning that construction was officially halted. Only a few months later, construction resumed ... until it was halted again in April 1987. In 1989, the Soviet Council of Ministers made the official decision to abandon the construction of both reactors. Reactor 5 was 70 percent complete at the time, and is now an eerie piece of incomplete history.
12. The Who's Lifehouse
If you’re a fan of the English rock band The Who, you’ve likely heard of Lifehouse. It was supposed to be the follow-up to the 1969 album Tommy, but it never quite came to be. Lifehouse was intended to be a multimedia project that included an album, a sci-fi film, and an experimental live concert experience that involved music based on individual audience members. All pieces of the project were based on a futuristic story that band co-founder Pete Townshend had conceived, and ideas inspired by the Indian spiritual master Meher Baba.
Townshend described the plot as "a fantasy set at a time when rock ’n’ roll didn’t exist ... The enemies were people who gave us entertainment intravenously, and the heroes were savages who’d kept rock ‘n’ roll as a primitive force and had gone to live with it in the woods. The story was about these two sides coming together and having a brief battle."
The idea never came to fruition, and The Who instead released Who’s Next in 1971, which would go on to become known to many as their greatest album. But that didn’t mean Townshend gave up on the idea. He continued trying to bring Lifehouse to life for the next four decades.
A radio play was produced based on Townshend’s original concept, which was released on BBC in 1999. In 2007, Townshend launched a website called The Lifehouse Method which was able to, in a way, bring part of his futuristic concert to life. The Lifehouse Method had users sit down for a “musical portrait” composed by a program based on information they entered about themselves. Over the course of 15 months, the site generated around 10,500 musical portraits before it was closed. An album was later released of music based on songs created by The Lifehouse Method. It was also reported that a graphic novel would be released based on the Lifehouse story, but a release date has yet to be announced, and its eventual publication seems far from certain.
13. Boldt Castle
The story of Boldt Castle, which sits on Heart Island in New York's St. Lawrence River, is a love story—but it's a bit tragic. Millionaire George Boldt—a hospitality mogul of sorts, who ran multiple luxury motels—began construction around 1900. It was an ambitious project, a huge six-story estate, that was meant to be a gift to his wife, Louise, and a monument to his love for her. He hired hundreds of workers to build the castle, which had 120 rooms, a drawbridge, its own tunnel system, and a polo pitch.
In early 1904, Boldt telegraphed the island with the order to “stop all construction.” Louise had suddenly passed away. Boldt abandoned the castle, and reportedly never stepped foot on the island again. For 73 years, the structure stood incomplete, an unfinished letter to a lost lover.
Don’t worry, there’s a sort of happy ending: In 1977, The Thousand Islands Bridge Authority purchased the island (and the nearby Boldt yacht house), with the promise that all revenue gained from the castle would be put toward renovation and upkeep of the castle for future generations. Today, you can visit Heart Island by ferry and explore the castle. Make sure to check out the bowling alley in the basement and the epic stained glass ceiling.
This story was adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.