Protecting Arlington Cemetery from Itself
First, the good news: Two historic urns, Beaux Arts in style, are on their way back to Arlington National Cemetery, after receiving a last-minute reprieve from the auction block.
Now the bad news: The fact that staff allowed the urns to be removed in the first place, along with a recent campaign to replace the Tomb of the Unknowns and the mishandling of gravesites and burial records, suggests a dangerous lack of stewardship at the cemetery. It has further come to light that, despite its Civil War origins and the many notable Americans interred there, Arlington Cemetery is not even listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
According to an investigative report by the Washington Post, the 9-ft.-tall marble urns, which date to 1920 and flanked the rostrum of the cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater, were mistakenly removed during a mid-1990s restoration project. How they went from the cemetery to a Maryland antiques dealer, who recently placed them up for auction, is a mystery; the records governing the removal have been lost. All we know is that the company in charge of the restoration removed the urns and had them replaced with modern replicas. It is disturbing to consider that, at any time over the past 15 years, the original urns could have been lost, auctioned or destroyed.
The Department of the Army, which oversees the cemetery, has vowed to investigate the matter and to preserve and interpret the historic urns once they return to their possession. The Army has also stated that it will seek National Register listing for the cemetery, which will ensure the comprehensive documentation of its historic elements. Along with the rest of the amphitheater, the urns were designed by Carrère & Hastings, the renowned Beaux-Arts firm responsible for the New York Public Library and many other City Beautiful-era commissions.
I happen to live only a couple miles from Arlington Cemetery, and I take a special interest in its preservation. But I would care about this place even if I lived anywhere else. This national cemetery is the final resting place of Civil War heroes, presidents and Supreme Court justices, as well as countless ordinary Americans who answered a call to public service. The cemetery also surrounds one of my favorite buildings anywhere – Arlington House – the Greek Revival “temple on the hill” that once belonged to George Washington Parke Custis and Robert E. Lee. (Arlington House is administered by the National Park Service and is itself included on the National Register.)
Unfortunately, the Army’s attitude toward its historic objects seems to have been “remove and replace,” rather than “repair and restore.” Recently, several concerned preservation groups (including one I’m involved in, the Arlington Heritage Alliance) came together to oppose the Army’s proposed replacement of the historic Tomb of the Unknowns with an exact replica, simply because of a few cracks in the monument. Thankfully, after a public outcry, the original 1932 Tomb is now being repaired, and plans to replace it have been shelved, at least for now.
But something is clearly still amiss at Arlington. Last year, investigators discovered more than 100 unmarked gravesites there, as well as unearthed burial urns, missing records and even one gravesite that held eight sets of remains. The problem is obviously even bigger than historic preservation. As an Arlingtonian, but even more so as an American, I hope the Department of the Army provides the oversight and resources necessary to protect and preserve this most sacred historic site.