Cracks mar the Tomb of the Unknowns

A Colorado man has donated identical new marble, but government rules and uncertainty have stalled a decision on whether and how extensively to rebuild.
Heather Gehlert, Los Angeles Times
26 August 2006

Four years ago, John Haines, a retired Chevrolet dealer from Glenwood Springs, Colorado, was thumbing through his hometown newspaper when an article about a local business caught his attention.

Arlington National Cemetery's largest and most famous monument, the Tomb of the Unknowns, had developed extensive cracks after seven decades of exposure to harsh winters. At the government's request, Yule Marble Quarry in nearby Marble, Colorado, which had supplied the original white gold-veined marble for the sarcophagus, was searching for a 55-ton stone to replace the cracked one.

Haines, who never served in the military and has never even visited the cemetery, decided that he would like to pay for the new stone. It would, he said, honor those who “have given their lives for our freedom.”

A large block of replacement marble has been quarried and $70,000 set aside to pay for it, Haines said recently. But even though the U.S. Army accepted his donation offer in 2002, it is not clear if the stone or his money will ever be used.

Things stalled, in part because a fundamental question has not yet been answered: Should the cracked stone be replaced?

Some argue that it is more respectful to let nature take its course on the tomb, which marks the graves of three never-identified soldiers from World Wars I and II and the Korean War. (An unknown soldier interred from the Vietnam War eventually was identified.)

Other issues, including a mandatory government bidding process and requirements imposed by the 1966 Historic Preservation Act, have turned what Haines thought would be a simple act of generosity into a source of frustration.

The final call is up to cemetery officials, who are deciding among four options: replace the stone, repair it, repair the tomb while procuring a replacement stone, or do nothing.

During July and August they have been accepting suggestions from the public on what should be done. So far, at least one organization and 249 individuals have offered comments.

Large cracks in the memorial, dedicated in November 1932, were first recorded in 1963. The horizontal fissures, then spanning a total of 34 feet, are now more than 10 feet longer and wrap all the way around the tomb's midsection. The lines cut through the shoulders of the three Greek figures (representing Valor, Victory and Peace) adorning the east wall of the block and run diagonally across the words inscribed on the west: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”

Cemetery superintendent John Metzler said that hairline cracks probably formed when the marble was quarried — at that time, quarry workers did not have the diamond-cut saws now in use — and were deepened by the freezing and thawing of moisture over the decades.

A 1990 report by Oehrlein & Associates, a Washington architectural firm that specializes in historic preservation, concluded that the cracks will keep lengthening and widening, becoming continuous throughout the stone by 2010.

Because of the tomb's historic and cultural significance, the cemetery is required to seek comments from the public before making a decision.

The cracks have been repaired several times, most recently in 1989. Another repair would be cheaper and quicker than replacement, but it would only hold temporarily and could make the cracks worse.

“When you repair it, it's very similar to a tooth,” Metzler said. “To fill a tooth, you have to take away the old filling and you have to actually take away some of the tooth to get a clean surface again.”

It's the same with the tomb, he said: “You'd have to destroy or take away part of the tomb in order to reapply the caulking material. In essence, you're causing the crack to become bigger each time you repair it.”

If the cemetery decides to replace the stone, the Yule Marble block could end up unused. Even though it comes from the Colorado quarry where the original marble was cut, Metzler said, the law requires him to open bids to other quarries. And despite the fact that Haines is paying for the Yule Marble stone, Metzler said he also has to consider the costs of inscribing the marble, shipping it and installing it.

If nothing is done, the 74-year-old block is not likely to collapse. But according to the 1990 report, the growing cracks could detract from the experience of the cemetery's 4 million annual visitors. And Metzler said he was concerned that some of the tomb's embellishments — such as the Greek figures, or the laurel wreaths sculpted on the north and south walls — could crack to the point that they fall off.

Of the individuals who have offered comment on the issue, 51 percent, favor replacement, 27 percent favor repair and 12 percent favor doing nothing. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources said it wants to explore repair options and retain the original block.

Recent visitors to the tomb were divided. Some said they liked the idea of replacing the stone and accepting the donation. But others preferred a hands-off-approach.

“I would say unless there's something structurally wrong with it, it should be left alone,” said Vinny Fusari, 55, from Palm Harbor, Fla. “They didn't throw out the Liberty Bell, did they?”

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