Written by Rob Nieweg
On Tuesday, September 13th I had the opportunity of a lifetime to visit Arlington National Cemetery after hours to observe the on-going conservation of the historic monument at the Tomb of the Unknowns. My invitation came from Arlington National Cemetery and the Army Corps of Engineers, Norfolk District, which is managing the conservation project. I was pleased to accept.
The cemetery closes each day at 7:00 pm, and the dozens of visitors who had just witnessed the changing of the Tomb Guard were ushered to the gates shortly thereafter. As the sun went down, we then watched a pair of stone conservationists from Worcester Eisenbrandt, Inc. as they gently cleaned and re-pointed the base of the 1932 monument. Later in the three-day job they will re-grout the two thin cracks which cross the face of the solid marble monument. From the visitors’ vantage across the broad plaza, these repairs will be virtually invisible.
Since 2007 the National Trust for Historic Preservation has advocated to ensure the best treatment of the authentic historic monument. A repair implemented in 2010 was not successful, and now Arlington National Cemetery and the Army Corps are renewing their effort to preserve the monument. Nationally renowned conservation experts associated with the National Park Service, American Institute for Conservation and National Center for Preservation Technology & Training have been consulted by the Army Corps and Arlington Cemetery, and are helping to guide the project, especially the critical mixture of the grout. It’s clearly a fine balance of science and art.
After so many years touring Arlington Cemetery with my family in honor of my father’s father, who was gravely wounded just days before the end of World War I, it was a rare privilege to stand next to the historic monument, which is beautiful at any distance. It was a high honor to meet and talk with the men who guard the Tomb of the Unknowns around the clock year-round, all members of the elite 3rd U.S. Infantry. In the middle of the night, as the conservators worked, it was clear to me that the men and women charged with guarding and conserving the Tomb of the Unknowns share a deep respect for the iconic monument and the ultimate sacrifice it represents.
Check out this great video detailing why the restoration needs to happen and what's being done now:
Rob Nieweg is the Director and Regional Attorney of the Southern Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.