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Tomb of Unknowns Is Due for Replacement

The Arlington National Cemetery monument is cracked. The search is on for a new stone.

June 29, 2003|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Tomb of the Unknowns, the memorial that honors unidentified American servicemen and women killed in battle and attracts millions of visitors annually, is being replaced after 72 years.

The white marble monument atop a hill in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia is cracked on all four sides. The fault runs 1 1/2 times around the rectangular tomb, cutting through its classic facade, slicing the three laurel wreaths etched on two sides and marring the Greek relief figures of Peace, Victory and Valor carved into one end.

The crack doesn't obscure the solemn inscription: "Here Rests In Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God."

Many tourists hardly notice the crack, which has been growing about an inch a year. Others say the crack detracts from a symbol of national pride.

"It makes a difference; they need to repair it," said Dale Cottrell, a retired Air Force captain from Alamagordo, N.M., who was visiting the tomb last week. "It's important as far as honoring guys who I served with who aren't here anymore."

Arlington National Cemetery officials seem to agree. The crack, possibly caused by impurities in the marble, first appeared in the 1940s. At one time, officials tried to repair the crack by filling it with marble dust, but the fault continued to grow. A 1990 study recommended either enclosing the tomb or replacing it completely, said Kerry Sullivan, a cemetery spokesperson.

With 3,000 outdoor ceremonies conducted every year at the tomb and 4 million annual visitors, an enclosure would "just destroy the entire setting of the tomb as we know it," said John Metzler Jr., the cemetery's superintendent.

So in 2001, cemetery officials approved a project to replace the original tomb with an identical new one to be carved from stone from the same quarry.

Officials hope to "replace it before we do have something significant happen, such as a piece of the marble come off, or worse, some structural damage," Metzler said.

Replacing the structure is a painstaking process that has begun in Marble, Colo., about 70 miles east of Aspen. The mountain town with a population of just over 100 is known for the purity of the stone for which it is named.

"It's one of the whitest marbles in the world," said Rex Loesby, the president of the Sierra Mining Corp. The company owns Yule Quarry near Marble, which produced the stone for the original tomb in 1931, and also provided marble for the Lincoln Memorial. The quarry began operating in 1905 but closed in 1941 when the demand for stone withered as popular taste began to favor synthetic materials. But after a revival of interest in marble, Yule Quarry reopened in 1990.

A 10-person crew is searching the quarry for just the right 20-by-20-foot slab to replace the monument. (The finished memorial measures about 13 feet long by 6 feet wide by 7 feet high.)

"We're looking for the best of our best material," said Gary Bascom, the quarry superintendent. That means a superior quality and a clean, off-white color with flecks of gold to match the original tomb, he said.

"There's a lot of honor in doing it," Bascom said. "We feel pretty proud the replacement one would be coming from our quarry."

That pride means Bascom's crew, four of whom are military veterans, is willing to search as long as it takes to find the perfect stone. They've been at it a year.

"We've asked Arlington to not put time pressure on us," Loesby said. "They're happy to give us that time -- they know they're going to get a better product that way."

Bascom and his crew are cutting a promising rock now from a vein two miles long, 300 feet thick and of unknown depth. The slab has only one face exposed, so there is a 50-50 chance it will be the right quality on the back side. If the marble meets expectations, it would take workers about a month to extract it.

The carving of the stone -- a sculptor has not yet been chosen -- would take an estimated six to nine months.

"There'll be a lot more activity in town in the next few years than there has been," Loesby said of Marble. This will be in large part because of his plans for a visitors center to showcase the tomb's sculptors at work.

Loesby hopes to create both a replacement monument and a backup to be used if anything happens to the original in transport. The town of Marble would keep the copy on display.

Local residents have been putting their stamp on the project. Retiree John Haines of nearby Glenwood Springs donated $31,000 to cover the cost of the uncut marble block.

"You know what the tomb stands for," Haines said. "The freedoms we have today for the sacrifices those guys made; it kind of gets you in the left chest."

Further funding and details of how the project will unfold are still being worked out.

Although the cemetery will work with the Department of Veterans Affairs to select a sculptor to complete the tomb, Loesby has a preferred candidate whose name he intends to put forward: Janusz Obst, a Polish emigre.

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