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In this time of crisis, Richmond's war memorials call to mind heroes of the past. 

Remembering Heroes

Within days of the annihilation of the World Trade Center towers and the thousands of lives they contained, conversations began as to how to fill the new void in lower Manhattan, and how to remember the dead on the site.

Therefore, as Veteran's Day approaches, this year's observance has heightened significance. It will mean more than glaring newspaper ads promoting sales (although making cash registers ring is now considered an act of patriotism). With the grim reality of Americans being on the ground in Afghanistan, Virginians might look anew at their war memorials and consider how they help us remember previous wars. Or do they?

Sarah Boxer, a New York Times critic and reporter, suggested recently that a public memorial is "a scaffold, something on which collective memory can hang."

"But that does not mean that it helps people remember things," she wrote. "Even the collective histories created or fixed by memorials are not stable. The traditional fallacy of the memorial is that a perpetual meaning can be assigned to a memorial, that future generations will remember things precisely as the present one does. In fact, the meaning will constantly shift."

This is true of at least two Richmond memorials built in the last century to commemorate the dead of the First and Second World Wars.

"What is that tower?" is a question visitors ask frequently when spotting the Carillon, the 226-foot brick shaft that towers above Byrd Park. Nothing suggests this is Virginia's memorial to the dead of World War I (1917-1918).

It was designed by Boston architect Ralph Adams Cram in a rare break from his preferred Gothic style, which he employed at University of Richmond, West Point and Princeton. The Carillon's classical mode nods to the architectural traditions of old Virginia. However, the tower is steel construction sheathed in a Flemish-bond brick pattern, a combo Christopher Wren or Thomas Jefferson never envisioned.

The decision in the 1920s to build a bell tower was controversial. A modernistic design had already been submitted by another architect; there had been suggestions for a memorial library.

But a "singing tower" captured imaginations. Evidently, American troops in Europe had been thrilled by the ringing of church and town-hall bells in northern Europe at victorious moments. After the war, a carillon commission was set up to encourage such musical memorials nationwide.

The Richmond tower was dedicated in 1932. Getting off to a good start, that same year a carillonneur played the "battle hymns" of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and William and Mary to honor veterans attending a football game being played at nearby City Stadium (now UR Stadium).

For a time, a musty museum on the ground floor exhibited World War I relics. Later, the space was a popular spot for community art shows. The building fell into disrepair, but it was restored in the 1980s.

Today, the Carillon is underused save for an occasional charity ball and the annual Nativity pageant. The bells seldom chime. Who knew it remembers World War I?

Virginia's World War II memorial is more successful. Of course, it memorializes a war whose veterans are still very much with us. And it was built on U.S. Highway 1 (Belvidere Street), expressly to lure passing motorists.

Like the Carillon, there was heated controversy initially as to what form it should take. Some wanted the memorial to be a children's mental hospital. Others suggested a dog hospice to honor the K-9 corps. Even Natural Bridge was suggested as a memorial.

Eventually, an architectural competition was won by Samuel J. Collins, a Staunton architect. His open-air, templelike stone pavilion we see today is both modern and ageless. Situated on a magnificent bluff above the James, it was dedicated in 1956.

On clear glass panels, facing the downtown skyline, were etched the names of 10,342 dead in World War II and Korea. Since that time, the lists of Virginians killed in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf have been added to the wall. The names remain constant as the skyline and the life of the city shift, suggesting that sacrifice and service to country is constant even as the landscape changes.

Looming large in this temple of remembrance is "Memory," a carved statue of a female figure designed by Leo F. Friedlander. At her feet burns a "torch of liberty." Although it was intended as an eternal flame, Sarah Boxer's suggestion that there is no permanent meaning affixed to memorials holds some truth here. In 1972, during the energy crisis, the city of Richmond extinguished the flame to conserve energy. The savings were $300 a year. So much for eternal memory.

And then there's Richmond Memorial Hospital, which was opened in 1956 on Westwood Avenue as a memorial to Richmonders who died in World War II. It is now defunct; its operations have moved to Hanover County. "The meaning will constantly shift," observes Boxer. Obviously.

Now Americans are grappling with 21st-century death and grief from new kinds of warfare, passenger planes as bombs and poison letters as bullets. Will we find new ways of remembering?

Probably not. Since ancient times, architectural memorials have been built to bring public closure to death, just as a funeral brings personal closure. At times like these, out of necessity not nicety, Americans turn to architects, artists and craftspeople for expressions of comfort and memory: expression found in brick, stone, etched glass and even bronze
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