Century-old memorabilia box opened at Arlington Cemetery

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Tim Frank, historian, History Office; views coins of the United States of America removed from the Memorial Amphitheater memorabilia box in the Memorial Amphitheater Lower Chapel at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va., April 9, 2020. The box had just been opened after being placed over a century ago in the cornerstone of the Memorial Amphitheater. (Army photograph by Elizabeth Fraser)
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An interdisciplinary team recently unsealed a memorabilia box more than a 100 years old at Arlington National Cemetery, in honor of the Memorial Amphitheater’s centennial.

And now, a peek inside the old copper box, along with its historic relics, are available virtually, as ANC hosts it’s first-ever online exhibit starting this week.

“As Arlington National Cemetery remains closed to visitors, the online exhibit will allow the public to explore these hallowed grounds,” said Karen Durham-Aguilera, Office of Army National Cemeteries and ANC executive director. “Virtual visitation is the centerpiece of the 100th-anniversary commemoration, showcasing the resilience of the historical structure and our nation.”

An accompanying illustrated book, “Arlington National Cemetery: Memorial Amphitheater and Tomb of the Unknowns,” by Benjamin D. Brands, an American historian, will be available free-of-charge, as a downloadable file.

“The exhibit will appeal to anyone interested in American history, architecture, or the military’s changing role in society, from international tourists to those within the national capital region who are currently unable to explore Arlington National Cemetery in person,” said Ray Alexander, ANC superintendent.

Joseph Dorley, maintenance mechanic, Facilities Maintenance; works to open the cornerstone of the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va., March 26, 2020. Inside the cornerstone was a memorabilia box placed in 1915 when the Memorial Amphitheater was first constructed over a century ago. (Army photograph by Elizabeth Fraser)

The box was tucked inside a marble cornerstone 105 years ago when construction on the amphitheater began. It was carefully removed April 9, and sorted through by a team of conservators, facilities maintenance staff, and historians at the cemetery.

“Our mission is to maintain the institutional knowledge of Arlington National Cemetery for future generations,” said Steve Carney, the ANC command historian. “[Retrieving the box] took several weeks to do, to ensure everything could be done safely.

“This included removing it from the cornerstone where it was originally placed, cleaning the box, evaluating it, and opening it,” he added.

In all, the process required several months to plan for, not including the time to remove and sort through. In other words, Carney said, “it’s a slow process,” but time is relative when considering the years it waited in darkness.

Inside the copper box were blueprints of the amphitheater, a U.S. coin and postage stamp circulating in 1915, an autographed photo of President Woodrow Wilson, a map of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s design for Washington, D.C., a U.S. flag, and copies of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and a Bible.

To better understand the memorabilia box, it’s best to take a trip back in time — a time when Americans were buying their first cars, women received the right to vote for the first time, and a young author named F. Scott Fitzgerald published his first novel.

It’s 1920, and just outside of the nation’s capital at ANC, the Memorial Amphitheater finished hosting its first Memorial Day ceremony — then known as Decoration Day.

By that time, the copper box, retrieved by ANC’s team, had been in place for five years.

Caitlin Smith (left), conservator, Engineering; and Tim Frank (right), historian, History Office; work to open the Memorial Amphitheater memorabilia box in the Memorial Amphitheater Lower Chapel at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va., April 9, 2020. (Army photograph by Elizabeth Fraser)

“The Memorial Amphitheater is important to [ANC] history, because of its connections to Memorial Day,” Carney said. “Arlington became seen as the nation’s premier national military cemetery, and our nation’s most sacred treasure.”

Originally, Decoration Day was a time for mourners to honor fallen service members. The name came from the living who decorated graves with flowers, flags, and wreaths. In 1868, roughly three years after the Civil War, the observance was officially held at ANC’s original amphitheater, the Tanner Amphitheater.

But as years passed, Carney explained, “The sheer number of those who came to commemorate that day is why the Memorial Amphitheater was approved [to be built] in 1913.”

In the early 1900s, President William Howard Taft — one of two American presidents buried at ANC — signed legislation to construct the new Memorial Amphitheater, which was large enough to accommodate the ever-growing crowd sizes. The construction site was set on top of a hill watching over Washington, D.C.

The amphitheater has a memorial display room, a chapel beneath the stage, and it’s the location of the Tomb of the Unknowns, where a guard has been on duty, around the clock, since 1937.

Before all that, in 1915, as the construction of the Memorial Amphitheater kicked off, then-President Wilson placed the building’s cornerstone — or ceremonial building block — to commemorate the construction.

By Armistice Day on Nov. 11, 1918, nearly all of the building’s exterior was complete, and interior construction wrapped up in June 1919.

Then finally, on May 15, 1920, the roofless, white marble structure was dedicated, and went on to host its first Memorial Day. Since then, every American president has visited the location during their tenure.

Tim Frank, historian, History Office; reaches into the newly opened Memorial Amphitheater memorabilia box in the Memorial Amphitheater Lower Chapel at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va., April 9, 2020. (Army photograph by Elizabeth Fraser)

The memorabilia box is essentially a time capsule, Carney explained, however, the term “time capsule” wasn’t coined until the 1936 World’s Fair, more than two decades later.

As years have come and gone, the copper memorabilia box remained untouched, behind the cornerstone placed by the 28th president of the United States. Moving forward, in addition to the online exhibit, the team is also putting together a physical one to display the items at ANC, Carney said.

“We have to ensure it’s put on display safely, and there is no chance it will be degraded or damaged,” he added.

Later this year, ANC also plans to install a new time capsule to be opened in 100 years, continuing the tradition of commemoration and preservation for generations to come.

However, the exact date and what the items will be are both still up in the air.

“We want to ensure that the selected [items] are reflective of what the nation, and what Arlington, are going through right now,” Carney said. “We want the items [to be opened in 2120] to reflect a snapshot in our moment in time.”
 
 
 

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