Is Beauty a Finer Honor, or Truth?
Four years ago, John Haines, a retired Chevrolet dealer from Glenwood Springs, Colo., 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, Colo., which had supplied the original bright-white gold-veined marble, was searching for a 55-ton stone to replace the cracked one.
Haines, who never served in the military and has never visited the cemetery, decided 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 Army accepted his donation offer in 2002, it is not clear whether 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.
Other issues, including a mandatory government bidding process and requirements imposed by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, have turned what Haines thought would be a simple act of generosity into a source of frustration.
Cemetery officials are deciding among four options: replace the stone, repair it, repair the Tomb while procuring a replacement stone, or do nothing. This month and last, they accepted suggestions from the public on what should be done.
At least one organization and 249 individuals offered comments: The Virginia Department of Historic Resources wants to explore repair options and retain the original block; 51% of individuals favor replacement, 27% favor repair and 12% favor doing nothing.
On Thursday, cemetery Superintendent John C. Metzler Jr. is expected to announce his decision.
Large horizontal cracks in the memorial were first documented in 1963. The 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.”
Metzler said hairline cracks probably formed when the marble was quarried -- quarry workers then did not have the diamond-cut saws now in use -- and were deepened by the freezing and thawing of moisture within the marble over the decades. A 1990 report by Oehrlein & Associates, a Washington architectural firm that specializes in historic preservation, concluded that the cracks would keep lengthening and widening, becoming continuous through the stone by 2010.
Cracked headstones at the cemetery’s 300,000 gravesites are replaced routinely, but because of the Tomb’s historical significance, the cemetery is required to seek comments from the public before a change.
Unlike the individual headstones, the Tomb symbolizes the sacrifice of thousands of fallen soldiers, Metzler said.
“I want to do it right,” he said, explaining why the process is taking so long. “I want to be sure that at the end ... we have completed what’s required of us, that the public’s had the opportunity to provide their comments, and that everyone can stand back and say we’ve done the right thing.”
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.
“It’s very similar to a tooth -- 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,” Metzler 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.”
Even if the cemetery decides to replace the stone, the new Yule marble block could end up unused: Metzler said he was required by law to open bids to other quarries, in spite of where the original came from. And though Haines is paying for the new Yule marble, the costs of inscribing, shipping and installing it must also be considered. Metzler said that ideally, those tasks would be completed in one operation under one contract to minimize how often the stone must be moved, because each trip risks damage.
If the Tomb is replaced, the government will retain control of the original block and explore alternative sites to display it. The Smithsonian Institution is one possibility, Metzler said.
If nothing is done, the 74-year-old block is not likely to collapse. But Metzler said he was concerned that some of the Tomb’s embellishments -- such as the Greek figures, or the laurel wreaths sculpted on the Tomb’s north and south walls -- could crack and fall off.
Recent visitors to the Tomb were divided about how to deal with the crack issues. 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?”