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Feb. 14, 2013 Volume 34, No. 19

Thomas Jefferson’s marble epitaph to receive makeover at the Smithsonian Institution in D.C.

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MOVING ON Artex Fine Art Services movers, Matts Gurmudssen (left) and David Gadol, direct a cart carrying the marble epitaph for Jefferson’s tombstone to a truck on Conley Avenue. Phillip Temple, facility attendant for Jesse Auditorium, walks alongside them. On Feb. 6, the slab arrived at the Smithsonian Institution, where it will be restored. Photo by Rachel Coward


Charred and broken, the epitaph slab was stored for decades in Jesse Hall’s attic

On Feb. 1, two men directed a cart carrying a 160-pound slab of marble encased in wood to a truck parked on Conley Avenue. The slab, bound for Washington, D.C., had sat in Jesse Hall’s attic for decades.

Engraved in the blistered and chipped marble is an inscription by Thomas Jefferson, created to complement his granite 9-foot tombstone marker, standing on the east side of Francis Quadrangle. The movers were transporting the marble to a truck headed for the Smithsonian Institution, where it would get a makeover.

“Unless you knew where it was, you didn’t know it was up there,” said Kee Groshong, an MU vice chancellor emeritus of administrative services. “Really, there wasn’t any reason for people to know about it.”

The obelisk tombstone and epitaph have a long and complex history. Their paths to Columbia are said to be the result of Jefferson’s interest in public education and Missouri.

 A complicated past

Before his 1826 death, Jefferson planned his memoriam. He sketched out and instructed his descendants to build a granite obelisk and have it inscribed with his self-written epitaph. However, the obelisk’s tough granite couldn’t be carved, so a marble plaque was engraved instead. 

Once finished in 1833, the monument sat in Jefferson’s Monticello graveyard in Charlottesville, Va. But vandalism, weathering, and familial fighting took its toll, according to a pamphlet by historian William Peden. A new monument was erected in the graveyard. Though the Monticello estate was sold several times in the 1800s, the Jefferson family maintained ownership of the graveyard.

The family  wanted give the old tombstone marker and marble to any interested party. The University of Virginia was interested, but MU got it. Virginia might still hold a grudge. “I can tell you, the University of Virginia would give their right and left arms to get [the tombstone],” said Gary Smith, a director emeritus of admissions and registrar.

The decision by the Jefferson family to give the tombstone to MU was due to Jefferson’s championing of state-supported education. In 1839, MU was the first public university west of the Mississippi; in 1862, the university became a public land-grant institution as part of the Morrill Act. According to Groshong, Missouri was important to Jefferson because it was within the vast region of the Louisiana Purchase, which Jefferson orchestrated in 1803 while president.

On July 4, 1885, MU officials unveiled the tombstone at a dedication ceremony, Peden wrote. Although the obelisk sat outside Academic Hall, the tombstone plaque was put inside the building for safekeeping. It stayed there until the 1892 fire that consumed the building, eventually leaving only the iconic Columns. Students ran inside to save the plaque, but not soon enough to save it from smoke and heat damage, Peden wrote.

Charred and cracked, the plaque was placed in storage until completion of a new building in 1895, which in 1922 was named Jesse Hall. For decades the slab was displayed in the cashier office’s vault. At some point later it was moved to the attic and made public appearances on Jefferson’s birthday and Tap Days.

Groshong, who attended MU during the early 1960s, remembers first seeing the stone on Tap Day. It sat on Jesse Hall’s north stairs facing the columns, he said. But it wasn’t until Groshong started his university job in 1965 that he became emotionally invested in the artifact and its condition. “I was aware of the stone’s existence and always thought I would like to see it restored,” he said. “I hated that it was in the attic of Jesse Hall.”

Marble Makeover

When in 2009 it was announced that the Academic Hall cornerstone would be restored, Groshong decided the same should be done to Jefferson’s marble slab. He contacted Alex Barker, director of MU’s Museum of Art and Archaeology, and Barker contacted a Smithsonian Institution curator. 

On Sept. 25. 2012, Carol Grissom, the senior objects conservator at the institution, came to Columbia to assess the damage. When Grissom walked into Jesse Hall’s attic, she saw the tombstone plaque in its wooden box. She saw it broken into three pieces and mortared back together. She saw how its left side was slightly higher than its right. She saw its sugaring marble, ragged corners and blistered surface. 

It wasn’t pretty, but it was the perfect Smithsonian project. “It’s an American icon,” Grissom said. “From our standpoint, it presents an interesting challenge in terms of treatment.”

Marianne Marti, president of Russell-Marti Conservation Services Inc., prepped the tombstone for shipment using Cyclododecane, a wax-like material. Working in stages over a few hours, Marti gently placed coated tissue paper on the stone’s fragile areas to help keep the plaque stationary during the trip to Washington. While finishing her work on Jan. 31, Marti was visited by Groshong and Smith. They thanked her for her efforts. 

The Smithsonian received the artifact on Feb. 6. In addition to giving the stone a facelift, Grissom hopes to discover where it was quarried. She thinks it was either Vermont or Italy. 

Other revelations occurred. Beneath the marble slab was a June 1891 Cleveland newspaper, Jung Amerika, written in German. Surrounding the slab was paper stuffing. One crumpled wad was an MU catalog from 1888 listing semester happenings; a page stated that campus schools and colleges would open Sept. 10, 1888. The dates are consistent with the epitaph being stored in its wooden frame following the slab’s rescue from the 1892 fire, Grissom said.

The plaque is scheduled to return to Missouri in about a year, and will probably be displayed in Jesse Hall. The Smithsonian is paying for the cost of restoration, while MU paid for the shipping and initial stabilization treatment.  

After a tumultuous life of being passed from owner to owner, surviving a fire, breaking apart and being put back together — and now getting a facelift — the tombstone epitaph will soon, for the most part, rest in peace. 

— Ashley Carman