World War I memorial reopens after years of neglect, disrepair

Sunday, May 26, 2002

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Looking at the crumbling base of America's largest World War I memorial two years ago, it was hard to imagine the thousands of spectators who had filled its lawn in 1921 as generals from Europe and America dedicated the monument.

As World War I receded into the history books, so did interest and care for the 217-foot Liberty Memorial. By 1994, the massive tower was so damaged from neglect it had to be closed. Then, two years ago, the city began a renovation.

On Saturday, the memorial, scrubbed clean and accompanied by a museum of war relics, reopened again to fanfare and rededication speeches attended by representatives of Belgium, France, Italy, Great Britain and the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers -- much like the gathering of Allied generals in 1921.

Then, as now, "they are with us there, side by side," Myers said Saturday to a cheering crowd of about 8,000.

Thousands of people had been similarly drawn to the monument's first dedication eight decades earlier by "unbridled patriotism," said museum curator Doran Cart. "Everybody was touched by the war."

But over the years, the Liberty Memorial went from glorious, including its grand opening in 1926 attended by President Calvin Coolidge, to crumbling by the 1990s.

Soot and cigarette smoke stained the murals in the museum's halls and decades of freezes and thaws caused the tower base to begin to crumble. Sections of tile on the floor were missing and some of the limestone was chipped or broken, said Greg Schultz, one of the project's architects.

During its restoration, Schultz said restorers found the Indiana quarry that had supplied the original limestone, and ordered new stone from the same place.

Historians watching over the project ensured the renovated memorial retained the original's look, Schultz said.

Four stone urns, each about seven feet high, were remade because the originals were cracked. New stone wheelchair ramps and a reflecting pool also were added at the tower's base.

The memorial's museum, housed in two buildings, will eventually have about 300 items on display from the hundreds of thousands in its collection, Cart said. Work, as well as fund-raising, continues on a $30 million project to expand the museum into a much larger space beneath the tower. The project was paid for mostly by a special city sales tax and private funds.

The goal of the museum is to let the people tell the story, Cart said. Throughout its rooms are quotations from generals and the soldiers in the trenches.

While the monument was closed, the museum opened a small exhibit at remodeled Union Station across the street that was based on the Red Cross canteen that had operated there. The exhibit, which remains open, includes photos and objects related to the service of 767,000 soldiers who traveled through the station on their way to or from a war still not forgotten.

For 106-year-old Paul Sunderland, who attended Saturday's ceremony, the memorial is piece of his history.

Sunderland made seven trips across the German submarine-infested water of the Atlantic Ocean during World War I as his cruiser escorted supply ships to France, dropping depth-charges on suspected U-boats.

During the rededication, the European speakers acknowledged the impact U.S. troops like Sunderland.

"France will never forget the sacrifice of 120,000 American soldiers who gave their lives on its soil," said French Maj. Gen. Daniel Bastien.

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