A year and a half behind schedule, the African-American Civil War Memorial looks more like a construction site than a monument. The statue dedicated a year ago is fenced off each night, large slabs of limestone and granite are piled behind a barrier and shrubs planted for the dedication are dead.
The foundation building the memorial has announced and then withdrawn a half-dozen completion dates. Foundation Chairman Frank Smith Jr. is reduced to asking the few workers who show up at the site at 10th and U streets NW when it will be done.
"Going to finish today?" he asked mason Aurelio Antunia.
"Yes, sure," Antunia said casually, glancing up at Smith, who stood with his hands in his pockets, his shoulders hunched forward. "You ask me that every day."
Smith's life for the last 10 years has been caught up in getting a national memorial built to honor the 200,000 black Civil War soldiers and their 7,000 white officers. The former council member from Ward 1 worked to get Congress to authorize the memorial, guided the site and design plans through several commissions and raised $2.6 million to build the memorial, which consists of a statue surrounded by a wall of names of black Civil War soldiers.
What he hasn't been able to do is get it finished.
An Oct. 21, 1997, letter from the Department of Public Works, acting as general contractor for the memorial, said the work would be done by March 1998. Smith believed it and scheduled an elaborate dedication for July 1998. A week before the ceremony, he discovered the panels with the names wouldn't be ready, so he dedicated the statue, which was finished.
For most of the last year, Smith said he has seen few or no workers at the site. Sometimes, like yesterday, there were three.
Smith held out the last work sheet that showed work that had just begun had been scheduled for June 3. He pointed to the July 1 completion date.
"These words don't have any meaning," he said.
Michael Carter, deputy director for mission support for the Public Works Department, sees it differently. He said he had not seen the work sheet Smith showed a reporter and has no complaints about the work done by the contractor, Fort Meyer Construction Co., and a subcontractor, Roubin and Jameiro. He said he checks the work daily, as does a construction manager.
"We are very pleased with the work of the contractor and the subcontractor," he said. "You just can't throw a whole lot of people into the job and think it will be done; you'll just end up with more problems."
Mason Manuel Fortes was fitting granite blocks into the back side of the wall of names yesterday. He said he had worked alone on the memorial several times.
"I needed help, and I didn't have it," he said. "The guys on this memorial served and died for a purpose, and that was to help me. The least I can do for them is to keep on working."
Two weeks ago, Smith turned to D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who defeated Smith in last year's election, for assistance. Graham said he called the two contractors, asking why there were so few workers on the job.
"They had an explanation, but they got the point to move with greater speed," he said, noting there were more workers on site soon after his calls.
Neither of the contractors returned calls asking for comment.
For Smith, the 18-month delay has frustrated his plans to establish a major, related museum next to the memorial. He said he needs to have the memorial done and transferred to the National Park Service before he can approach donors to support another project.
Smith committed the foundation to a $10,000-a-month lease in January for the first floor of a building next to the memorial. By now, he said, he expected the memorial to be done and funds to be raised for the museum to be housed in the rented space.
The foundation is running out of money, Smith said, but he stressed that it did not affect the memorial, which had to be financed before the groundbreaking.
Last week, Smith asked Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) to negotiate an interim agreement with the Park Service to step in and finish the work. A spokesman for the Park Service said it was considering the option.
Yesterday, Smith asked Fortes the question that has come to haunt him: "What's your best guess as to when this will be done?"
"Once this wall gets poured, by the end of the month," Fortes said.
Smith stopped grinning when Fortes continued.
"Now we can't get anything done till the wall gets poured and closed," he said. "That has to happen first, and that's not up to us."
CAPTION: Aurelio Antunia, left, and Jose Cavadas work on the African-American Civil War Memorial at 10th and U streets NW.
CAPTION: "The guys on this memorial served and died for a purpose. . . . The least I can do for them is to keep on working," said mason Manuel Fortes.