Greece’s Economic Crisis Strands Sculpture for Washington’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

Michael E. Ruane, Washington Post, June 7, 2010

The Greeks’ offer was a gracious one: The giant pieces of sculpture for Washington’s new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial needed to be transported from China. Perhaps Greece, with its large shipping industry and admiration for the civil rights leader, could arrange for vessels to move the monument for free.

Officials planning the $120 million King memorial on the Tidal Basin were delighted. The cost savings would be substantial. {snip}

But now, with the 159 huge stone blocks that make up the sculpture waiting at a Chinese seaport and major work underway on the memorial site in Washington, Greek officials have told officials of the King project that they can’t deliver.

“They apologized and said their country is in dire straits and they will not be able to fulfill their promise,” said Ed Jackson Jr., the project’s executive architect. A spokesman at the Embassy of Greece in Washington confirmed that, saying no Greek shippers could be found to do the job. The “economic crisis bites everywhere,” he said.

{snip}

He [Jackson] said the sculpture weighs 1,600 metric tons. Geoffrey C. Powell, vice president of operations for C.H. Powell Co., a Baltimore-based international freight forwarding firm, said shipping rates could range from $60 to $150 a ton–or about $96,000 to $240,000 for such a trip.

Jackson expressed concern about when the elements of the sculpture might arrive. They have been ready for shipment since April, and the departure date has slipped several times. The stones are supposed to be shipped to Baltimore, placed in temporary storage and then transported to Washington for assembly.

The centerpiece of the memorial is a three-story-tall relief of King, which will become one of the biggest figurative sculptures in Washington when it is erected.

Named the “Stone of Hope”–for a line from King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech–the 30-foot 8-inch tall sculpture bears the image of King in a business suit with his arms folded.

That and two other huge segments have been carved in China out of individual blocks by Lei Yixin, a master sculptor. One block weighs 55 tons, another 46 tons. The carving is 80 percent complete and is to be finished in Washington.

{snip}

The 11,000-mile journey from the port of Xiamen, China, takes about 30 days, he [Jackson] said. Substantial work has been done on the Washington site, amid the Tidal Basin’s famed cherry trees. More than 300 support pilings have been sunk, and the foundation for the memorial’s bookstore has been poured.

{snip}

The memorial, authorized by Congress in 1996, has survived 14 years of fundraising challenges, artistic controversy and bureaucratic upset.

Complaints came when a Chinese sculptor was selected instead of an American. Then the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, a federal panel whose approval is required for monuments and memorials, criticized the sculpture as grim and totalitarian. Then the project was held up by a dispute over architectural security elements. Now this.

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