Making a Spare Copy Of Tomb of Unknowns Some Object to Quarry’s Plan for Replica

By Annie Gowen
Courtesy of the Washington Post
Sunday, November 16, 2003

After officials at Arlington National Cemetery decided last year that an extensive crack in the Tomb of the Unknowns could not be repaired, the operator of a Colorado marble quarry lined up a donor and gallantly offered to give the cemetery a new $31,000 stone free of charge.

But the Colorado Yule Quarry's latest plan, which calls for carving two nearly identical replicas of the hallowed tomb — one to give to Arlington Cemetery and the other to be the centerpiece of a $1 million visitors center and museum in Marble, Colo. — has been criticized by some who fear that a replica and for-profit museum would desecrate one of America's most sacred monuments.

“That leaves a sour taste in my mouth,” said Charles H. Atherton, secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts, the federal panel that oversees aesthetics in ceremonial Washington. “I'm sorry, but there is something sacred and unique about that stone. To have copies lying around in a museum somewhere doesn't appeal to me at all.”

Arlington Superintendent John C. Metzler Jr. declined to comment on the quarry's plans, deeming them an issue for a tiny (population 89) Colorado mountain town 1,800 miles from Washington.

“He does not wish to comment on whether or not the cemetery feels it is an ‘appropriate' act, as the cemetery and the U.S. Army are not involved in that decision process. Nor are they affiliated with the residents of this Colorado community,” said Kerry L. Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Military District of Washington.

The memorial — also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier — sits high on a hill in Arlington Cemetery and contains the remains of unidentified soldiers from America's wars. The Army Old Guard regiment provides 24-hour watch, and the solemn changing of the guard is observed daily by many of the cemetery's visitors, of which there are about 4 million a year.

The crack in the tomb, which meanders more than once around the 36-ton headstone, has been visible for decades. But it has worsened to such a degree that cemetery officials decided to replace the tomb. They got the go-ahead from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs last year.

Cemetery officials then began working with Sierra Minerals Corp., which operates the Colorado Yule Quarry, to find a replacement stone. The quarry had supplied the original block of marble for the tomb in 1931, as well as marble for the Lincoln Memorial.

Rex E. Loesby, who owns Sierra Minerals Corp., said stone carvers are still trying to locate the right 7-by-13-foot piece of marble for the new tomb, as well as a second piece. The “insurance stone” will be the centerpiece of a $1 million visitors center and museum in Marble, a town southwest of Aspen that is so small its Main Street is a dirt road. Carving demonstrations, quarry tours and exhibits of the quarry's role in Washington's history are planned.

Loesby has already hired a Polish stone carver who will copy the current tomb's images on both stones — including mourning wreaths and the robed figures representing Peace, Victory and Valor. The tomb's familiar inscription, “Here Rests in Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But to God,” would be carved only on the cemetery's stone.

“There is only one Tomb of the Unknowns. We think a visit there is so powerful that we could never approach that or cheapen it by having a second set of blocks. All we're doing is adding to it,” Loesby said.

After the right pieces of marble are located, the American Legion will launch a $1 million fundraising campaign for the project, to cover the quarrying and carving of the stones. The fundraising will not include money for the town's museum, according to Marty Justis, the legion's director of Americanism and children and youth. Justis said having a backup stone makes “good sense.”

Many of Loesby's neighbors in Marble disagree.

“We don't want to live in a big tourist trap,” said Alison Finn, who runs an ice skating rink that sits on the site planned for the new museum. “It makes the tomb look like a cheap trinket. Why would we want two or three of them on display?”

Atherton, the Fine Arts Commission chairman, said the cemetery should reexamine its agreement with Loesby and add a stipulation that if the quarry provides the stone to Arlington Cemetery, there will be no other copies of the tomb made “at all.”

“I think they should insist on that,” Atherton said.


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