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A forgotten monument

The Jeannette Memorial of 1890 — determined by architectural conservation experts in 1994 and 2008 to be in poor condition — continues to present a forlorn, forgotten and generally miserable appearance in the Naval Academy cemetery, which dates from the 19th century.

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A white marble cross draped in formative “icicles” carved in high relief, it is heavily soiled and sorely in need of attention. Its original bronze memorial plaque was replaced in 1965 and cleaned and treated in 1994, and it is in readable condition. But a second bronze plaque, containing selected names of Navy men who perished in the 1881 Arctic expedition, is blackened and illegible.

A long bronze cable in the shape of a hawser leads from an antique bronze anchor at the base of the cross, extending over the topside of the granite base and almost to the ground. The bitter end is twisted, bent and unraveled — almost as if to signify the unraveling of the historic expedition.

Architectural conservator Howard Wellman performed the 2008 survey with treatment recommendations. He decided that the unraveling of the hawser’s loose end, dangling a few feet off the ground, was a result of vandalism over the 124-year history of the monument. Perhaps youngsters have used it as a kind of “Tarzan” swing or as a climbing rope with which to ascend the monument. Drawings or vintage photographs that could show the bitter end of the hawser would take a determined search but might answer that question.

“In general,” noted Wellman, “the entire monument is in poor condition, suffering from loss of pointing, biological growth and staining, stone losses and stress cracking, surface erosion, metal corrosion, and metal and pollution staining of the stone.”

There is no doubt that this handsome memorial needs significant work, although there is no danger of it collapsing anytime soon. The problem is that it is not a high-visibility historic monument. It’s sequestered in a seldom-visited cemetery and is out of sight of the brigade of midshipmen, alumni and visitors. Qualifying as an academy class project for restoration might be an option.

The academy’s Class of 1973, for example, raised $300,000 this year to restore the Macedonian Monument figurehead of Alexander the Great on Stribling Walk on the main campus.

Meanwhile, back at the academy cemetery on “Strawberry Hill” — a distant hike from the main campus — the impressive Jeannette Memorial continues to overshadow its neighbors at rest in a gentle, bucolic setting. Although it is not a burial site, it is in good company with aged tombstones of distinguished admirals — some cracked, difficult to decipher and mostly forgotten, too.

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January 2015 issue