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Massive King memorial nearly ready for trip to Mall for assembly

Chinese sculpter Lei Yixin works on the granite head that will cap the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the Mall.
Chinese sculpter Lei Yixin works on the granite head that will cap the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the Mall. (Courtesy Of Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation)
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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sometime in the next several weeks, if all goes as planned, 159 huge blocks of granite will be loaded aboard ships in the seaport of Xiamen, China, for an 11,000-mile journey to Washington.

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Bound for a site on the Tidal Basin, the cargo includes one block that bears the likeness of Martin Luther King Jr. and the dreams of generations of African Americans.

The other blocks -- which weigh as much as 55 tons each -- make up the rest of the mammoth, three-part sculpture that is the centerpiece of the $120 million memorial to the slain civil rights leader. Assembly is scheduled to begin this year.

More than a decade in the making, finally "it's here," said Ed Jackson Jr., the project's executive architect.

The memorial, the first on the Mall honoring an African American, also will be a monumental construction project.

It will require erecting one of the biggest figurative sculptures in Washington -- a three-story-tall relief of King -- atop a landscape of compressed mud. (The carving of King's head alone weighs 46 tons.)

It will require driving more than 300 concrete piles as deep as 50 feet through the dirt to support the monument's foundation. This must be done without damaging the adjacent Tidal Basin seawall, which has already sunk into the muck at the Jefferson Memorial across the basin. A multimillion-dollar seawall repair project is underway there.

And it will require that the three parts of the sculpture have cores of concrete, rather than solid granite, to reduce weight.

Authorized by Congress in 1996, the King memorial has weathered 14 years of fundraising challenges, artistic controversy and bureaucratic squabbles.

Complaints erupted when a sculptor in China was selected to execute the chief parts of the design. More trouble came after the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts criticized the sculptor's image of King as too grim and totalitarian. And the project was held up for months recently by a dispute over the kind of security elements the memorial should have.

But on Oct. 29, with problems resolved, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed the construction permit. Work on the site began in December, a project official said. Total construction time is estimated to be 20 months.

Next month, a delegation from the Washington-based foundation that is building the memorial is scheduled to visit China for a final look at the sculpture before its shipment here, currently set for sometime in March or April.

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