MLK Memorial sculpture centrepiece 'Stone of Hope' to ship early July

Updated: 17 Jun 2010
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Chinese master sculptor Lei Yixin
Free at last! Free at last! The massive granite centerpiece of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial – stranded at the Chinese seaport of Xiamen for more than a month – should soon be free at last!

But shipping the 159 carefully carved pieces that collectively make up the "Stone of Hope" will be far from free. And that's a bit of irony that isn't lost on those in Barre's granite industry, who argued vociferously and unsuccessfully against outsourcing the work to China in the first place.

"This whole thing just never seemed right to me," said John Castaldo, executive director of the Barre Granite Association. "This is work that could have, and should have, been done here in the United States"

Possibly even in Barre.

But it wasn't, a snubbing that Castaldo, who represents an industry that includes some of the world's most skilled granite sculptors, took more personally than most.

"What they did was wrong," he said of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation. "It shouldn't have happened."

Castaldo couldn't help but chuckle at the latest bit of national news involving the now-$ 120 million project.

Citing a faltering economy, the Greek government recently withdrew its offer to transport the 1,600 metric tons of granite from Xiamen, China, to Baltimore for free. Estimates indicate shipping could cost the M.L.K. memorial foundation as much as $ 250,000 that it hadn’t anticipated.

Castaldo's reaction?

"I was happy," he said. "I haven't wanted to see this go from the beginning"

Barre Mayor Thomas Lauzon's response was incredulity that the shipping costs had derailed the project for a while.

"Are you serious?" said Lauzon, who, like Castaldo, argued the foundation should have selected an American sculptor to create the focal point of the new national monument out of domestic granite.

An accountant by trade, Lauzon couldn't get past the math.

"Realistically, this is a $ 120 million project … and they're worried about $ 250,000 in shipping costs?" he said. "That's two-tenths of a percent of the total budget. That doesn't make sense"

The "Stone of Hope," which will feature a 30-foot likeness of Dr. King in a memorial to the slain civil rights leader, is now being constructed on the Tidal Basin in the nation's capital. News that the statute of King by a Chinese sculptor was stranded in the country broke in the Washington Post last week.

"This is the centerpiece of the memorial," he said. "It's not like they can just leave it in China."

They won't.

Days after the initial story broke, Harry Johnson Sr., president and chief executive officer of the M.L.K. National Memorial Project Foundation, quickly turned the crisis into a fundraising opportunity – electronically soliciting donations to assist with the "emergency"

If you believe Johnson's e-mails, the $ 250,000 problem was solved in 24 hours, though the foundation remains $ 13 million short of its $ 120 million goal.

"The Stone of Hope, the centerpiece of the Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial will ship the first week of July," Johnson wrote. "Great news! Major work continues in preparation for its historic arrival"

Lauzon said he didn't get either e-mail. "Who knows? I might have sent them $ 50," he said.

Authorized by Congress in 1996, the King memorial is scheduled to be dedicated late next year. However, work on the "Stone of Hope," which will be assembled and finished by master sculptor Lei Yixin after it arrives in Washington next month, must be completed well in advance. As soon as Yixin puts the finishing touches on the memorial's centerpiece it will be shrouded until the dedication ceremony.
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