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MLK memorial's stonework 11,000 miles closer to D.C.

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 18, 2010; B04

After more than a decade of effort, a few chapters of controversy and a 47-day ocean voyage from China, a small blue and white cargo ship pulled into Baltimore's Canton Marine Terminal at 6 a.m. Friday bearing the shipment of stone blocks that will make up Washington's national memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The 159 granite sculpture blocks, which weigh 1,600 metric tons, were thought to be the vessel's only freight. They were carried, with little fanfare, aboard the BBC France, a modern 300-foot-long vessel operated by the German-based shipping firm BBC Chartering.

As officials with the King project watched, the crated blocks were unloaded and placed in temporary storage near the port. They will remain there until construction crews are ready to start assembling the memorial this fall on a site amid the cherry trees near the Tidal Basin.

The $120 million memorial's official unveiling is scheduled for next year.

The arrival of the pre-carved pieces in the United States is a major milestone in the project.

Designed and fabricated by a master sculptor in China, some of the stones will be assembled into the "Stone of Hope," a three-story relief of King that is the memorial's centerpiece and will be one of the biggest figurative sculptures in Washington.

Named for a line from King's 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, the 30-foot 8-inch sculpture bears the image of the slain civil-rights leader in a business suit with his arms folded.

The BBC France, a 4,300-ton vessel that carries two cargo cranes and a crew of about 12, picked up the stone blocks in the eastern Chinese port of Xiamen, where they had been in storage, said Edwin Bastian, director of global sales at the company's Houston office, who was at the unloading in Baltimore.

Bastian said the trip, roughly 11,000 miles, was a "direct voyage" from Xiamen to Baltimore via the Panama Canal, with perhaps a stop for fuel. The ship steams at about 12 knots, he said, adding that to his knowledge the sculpture was its only cargo. He said he could not discuss the cost.

Some of the blocks are gigantic. One that depicts King's folded arms weighs 55 tons; one that bears the image of his head weighs 46 tons.

Once completed, the sculpture will be bigger than the 19-foot statue of Thomas Jefferson in the Jefferson Memorial, the 19-foot 6-inch statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial and the 19-foot 6-inch "Freedom" statue on the U.S. Capitol dome.

Extensive work is underway at the four-acre site, off Independence Avenue near the Lincoln Memorial. More than 300 support pilings have been sunk, and the bookstore's foundation has been poured.

The King memorial, authorized by Congress in 1996, has weathered 14 years of fundraising challenges and the controversy that often goes with such an iconic public monument.

Complaints came when a Chinese sculptor, Lei Yixin, was selected instead of an American. A federal arts commission whose approval is required for monuments and memorials then criticized the sculpture as too grim. Then, last spring, there was a shipping glitch when the Greek government, smarting from the global economic crisis, dropped its promise to provide free shipping.

Project officials said it had budgeted for shipping costs anyway.

Bastian said the unloading began about 8 a.m. and lasted until about 4:30 p.m. The stones were in steel crates.

But the sculpture is at last on U.S. soil, and a mere 40 miles from the construction site.

The pieces are about 80 percent carved. The work will be finished by Lei, who is scheduled to travel to Washington as the blocks are assembled. Construction on the site could take 20 months.

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