WWI memorial gets facelift

Sunday, June 2, 2002

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- From the top of the Liberty Memorial's 217-foot tower, visitors can look down onto most of Kansas City. But the real point of a visit to the memorial is looking back.

The nation's largest monument to World War I, and among the largest to any of the country's wars, the Liberty Memorial reopened this summer after two years of repairs to its crumbling base, required after decades of neglect. Closed since 1994 by the disrepair, the memorial's official rededication is this weekend.

It's impossible not to notice the massive tower first. But inside the museum at the tower's base are smaller reminders of the war. Like the business cards from the pocket of William T. Fitzsimons of Kansas City, shot through with the shrapnel that killed their owner.

Housed in the museum's two buildings, there are just 300 items on display from the hundreds of thousands in the memorial's collection, said curator Doran Cart. Work, as well as fund-raising, continues on a $30 million project to expand the museum into a much larger space beneath the tower.

But even the small museum succeeds at telling stories, beginning with the names of the 441 Kansas Citians who died in the war. It expands to include artifacts like the contents of Fitzsimons' pockets and an incendiary bomb dropped from a German Zeppelin, which failed to ignite.

There are maps painted at eye-level on each of the museum's walls. Above them hang murals depicting the memorial's dedication and one that shows the diversity of people involved in the war -- from American Indians to British colonial Indians.

And throughout the museum are quotations from generals, pilots and soldiers in the trenches.

"We let the people tell the story," Cart said.

The memorial will remind most about of a piece of history. It reminds Paul Sunderland of a piece of his history.

Sunderland made seven trips across the German submarine-infested waters of the Atlantic Ocean during World War I, as his cruiser escorted supply ships to France. He is 106 now, but he recalls clearly the times his cruiser dropped depth-charges on suspected U-boats.

"We wouldn't know whether they were effective or not," he said recently at his Kansas City home. "We always hightailed it away from the area so we wouldn't be involved in it ourselves."

Few World War I veterans are still alive -- about 3,000 nationally, according to the Department of Veteran's Affairs. Sunderland is believed to be the only World War I veteran in Kansas City.

The site's dedication in 1921 drew at least 100,000 people and the military leaders of the five Allied nations -- the only time they appeared together. The crowd was so thick that people watched from the roof of nearby Union Station.

Renovations overdue

As World War I recedes into the history books, it's hard to imagine the kind of enthusiasm that drew thousands to watch generals dedicate the green hill that would become home to the memorial. The crowds, Cart said, were drawn by "unbridled patriotism. Because they knew the importance of this. Everybody was touched by the war."

Representatives of the five nations -- Belgium, France, Italy, Great Britain and the United States -- attended the May 25 rededication ceremony, with Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, representing the U.S.

The memorial had its grand dedication, followed by an opening officiated by President Calvin Coolidge in 1926, but by the 1990s it was in rough shape. Soot and cigarette smoke stained the murals in the museum's halls and decades of freezes and thaws had ruined the base of the tower. 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 the painstaking restoration, Schultz said, restorers found the Indiana quarry that had supplied the original limestone, ordering new stone from the same place. Historians have watched over the project, ensuring the renovated memorial retained the original's look, he said. Four stone urns, each about 7 feet high, were remade because the originals were cracked.

Even so, there are changes, including stone wheelchair ramps and a reflecting pool added at the tower's base..

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