Tomb of the Unknowns

Arlington, Virginia
At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Latest News

Conserving the Historic Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery

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. Read the full story here.

Finally, Good News for the Tomb of the Unknowns

After two and a half years of advocacy, we are very pleased to report that the cemetery has begun the work to restore rather than replace the original monument.

Tomb of the Unknowns: “We Do Not Discard Our National Treasures”

Written by Robert Nieweg As  I mentioned in a post a couple of weeks ago, thanks to the timely intervention of thousands of Americans, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Congress, the authentic Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery will be restored beginning in September 2009. In response to this good news,


When the National Trust for Historic Preservation sounded the alarm in 2007 about plans to replace the original Tomb with a replica solely because of repairable cosmetic imperfections, there was a huge public outcry.  Thousands of National Trust members and supporters contacted Congress and the Superintendent of the Cemetery, asking that all options for the 1932 monument – which is nationally significant and eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places – be considered, including repair.

Preservationists raised awareness that the two nonstructural cracks in the 48-ton marble block pose no threat to visitors or the historic structure.  They also successfully raised the point that replacement proponents want the replica carved from a particular type of marble that will inevitably crack along its grain as this marble does naturally over time. Repair and proper care of the Tomb (re-grouting the cracks and using only gentle cleaning methods instead of high-pressure power-washing) is possible and is the preferred method for fixing the existing cracks, as other marble monuments such as the Lincoln Memorial were repaired.

As stone preservation expert Mary Oehrlein informed staff to the Senate Armed Services Committee staff in September 2007, "The existing monument can easily be repaired, as was done 17 years ago, using conventional conservation methods to re-grout the cracks. Once repaired, the fault lines would be virtually invisible from the public viewing areas." (Read more of Ms. Oerhlein's comments to the committee staff here.)

Thanks in no small part to efforts of preservationists, on January 29, 2008 the President signed the Defense Authorization Bill that included an amendment introduced by Senators Daniel Akaka (D-HI) and James Webb (D-VA), requiring the Department of the Army and the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) to produce a written report outlining ALL the options for the Tomb – including repair.  That report was submitted to Congress in August 2008.

In March 2008, the National Trust cautioned the Army and the DVA that it is imperative that the personnel tasked with conducting the new study of the Tomb Monument be highly experienced specialists in the conservation of marble. For example, this expert was tasked to conduct technically sophisticated tests to assess the structural integrity of the monument, evaluate the feasibility of repairing the monument, and prepare cost estimates for repair versus replacement.

In the report delivered August 11, 2008, Congress was informed that Arlington National Cemetery anticipates the repairs, the first to the two cosmetic, non-structural cracks since 1989, will last twelve years with proper maintenance and cost just $65,000 (as compared to an estimated $2,200,000 for a replica).  The new repairs are imperative to address any aesthetic concerns and to stem further deterioration due to water infiltration where the old repairs have failed. Arlington National Cemetery has turned for technical advice to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the National Park Service's National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.  The Cemetery also has committed to conduct the repair work in compliance with the U.S. Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. 

Unfortunately, the report to Congress also indicated that Arlington National Cemetery has not entirely abandoned its long-term goal to replace the Tomb Monument with a replica quarried "from the original quarry and from the same marble vein."  The original 48-ton monument, carved of Yule Marble in 1931, has since cracked along its natural grain. Cemetery officials continue to explore replacement because they believe high-quality white marble is in short supply:  "The impetus for considering the replacement of the Tomb Monument now, rather than later, is the uncertainty of obtaining suitable marble in the future." 

Under pressure from thousands of concerned Americans, officials at Arlington National Cemetery and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have publicly committed to restore – rather than replace – the authentic Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.  In September 2009 the Army Corps awarded a contract to repair the historic monument.  We understand the restoration work is expected to begin in spring 2010.   

The Southern Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation is leading the public campaign to ensure that the 1932 tomb monument is restored properly to honor our nation's war dead.  Although the Cemetery apparently is proceeding with the repair project with expert advice from the National Park Service, the National Trust remains vigilant to protect the monument. 

In June 2009 the Army Corps reported that Arlington National Cemetery was evaluating methods for repairing the monument and consulting with stone conservation experts, including the National Park Service's National Center for Preservation Training & Technology.  However, the Army Corps and Arlington National Cemetery have not provided key information regarding the scope of work or the contract to the National Trust, which is a formal "consulting party" pursuant to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and, thus, is entitled to information and an opportunity to consult before final decisions are reached.   

If it is done correctly, repair is the responsible approach, particularly given that it is estimated to cost just $65,000 to restore the original monument.  If the marble monument is properly maintained, the repair work should last twelve or more years.  By contrast, replacement with a new replica would cost $2.2 million.  

In late May 2011 the National Trust was surprised to learn that the restoration work completed by the Cemetery in April 2010 has failed and that the grout used to repair the cosmetic cracks in the Tomb Monument is flaking, powdering, and falling out of the cracks.  Officials at Arlington Cemetery had discovered the failed repair in October 2010 but did not inform the National Trust and other public-interest organizations – like the expert American Institute for Conservation – until May 2011.  (The National Trust has repeatedly requested information from the Cemetery about the Tomb Monument throughout 2010 and 2011.)  The National Trust also learned in late May that the Cemetery was rushing forward with another repair to the Monument in early June.  However, during a consultation call convened by the Army Corps, the National Trust and others appear to have secured a commitment from the Cemetery to postpone the second round of repairs until the cause of the grout failure has been analyzed and alternative grout mixtures and application methods have been fully evaluated in the laboratory and in field tests.  We will continue to be vigilant to ensure that the Tomb of the Unknowns receives the best stewardship available.


Our Partners

Arlington, Virginia County Government; Arlington Heritage Alliance; APVA - Preservation Virginia; American Institute for Conservation; Advisory Council on Historic Preservation; and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.