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Wright Brothers Memorial Sees Inner Beauty Restored

Towering 151 feet above the rest of Wright Brothers National Memorial, the granite Wright monument is a glittering landmark from afar; up close, it's a mighty sculpted artwork that well represents the feat of flight.

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CATHERINE KOZAK (The Virginian-Pilot)
KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. — Towering 151 feet above the rest of Wright Brothers National Memorial, the granite Wright monument is a glittering landmark from afar; up close, it's a mighty sculpted artwork that well represents the feat of flight.

Inside, it's dark and empty and dank. Niches in the granite walls where busts of Orville and Wilbur Wright and a model of the Wright Flyer were once displayed are bare. The steel map marking aviation breakthroughs has been removed. White buckets are positioned on the floor to catch water drips.

Because it's so woefully unpresentable, few people have seen the interior of the Wright monument.

But a restoration project set to start next month will include cleaning and restoring the interior and exterior. Mortar will be chipped out and replaced. Wiring and lighting will be redone. A new air conditioning unit will be installed.

When the project is completed in 120 days, weather permitting, the Wright brothers monument will be nearly as perfect as it was when it was dedicated 75 years ago.

"Our goal is to have the public go inside," said Mike Murray, National Park Service Outer Banks Group superintendent.

It has not yet been decided, he said, what exhibits, if any, will be returned to the interior.

The monument has been plagued with moisture problems, water dripping from the first-floor ceiling and down the walls. As a result, the electrical wiring corroded.

"It's like being in a cave or a cavern," Murray said. "It's cool inside, but when it's hot and humid outside, there's condensation."

Similar work was done on the pylon-shaped monument in 1997, with the nonprofit First Flight Centennial Foundation paying for the $250,000 restoration. That project culminated in 1998 with a re dedication and the relighting of the beacon atop the monument that had been extinguished since World War II.

Alan Cox, director of architecture with Greensboro firm Moser Mayer Phoenix Associates, said that this time more mortar between the granite will be replaced, a process called repointing. The electrical system, he said, will also be replaced with more durable outside-quality wiring, conduit and fixtures. The beacon at the top will also be repaired.

"I don't think anybody anticipated the level of moisture inside in years past," Cox said. But he said it is not unusual to have to replace mortar every 10 to 15 years.

Cox said the project will include preparation of a maintenance plan for the Park Service to follow to keep the structure in good condition.

The monument has a narrow, windowless staircase in the middle that twists more and more tightly up four stories before opening up to a small observation platform. From there, 61 feet off the ground, the entire 320-acre park can be seen.

The walls of the staircase will be repainted, but because the staircase is so treacherous, the public will still have limited access to climbing it.

Cox said the outside lighting will be redone so it illuminates the artistic features in the granite, as it had been originally lit. It had been thought during the last renovation that brighter light was better, he said. But it ended up washing out the bird-wing pattern.

"The lighting scheme that we have currently designed will better show off the fine detail in the granite," he said. "During the day, the sunlight produces very interesting shadows. At night, we can produce interesting shadows, but they're different shadows."

The same architectural firm had worked on the project 10 years ago. Chesapeake-based Watson Electrical had also redone the wiring and lighting then. This time, Watson is also the general contractor.

Project costs should be available after bids are reviewed this month, Cox said. The same group - now called the First Flight Foundation - will again fund the restoration.

Lola Hilton, the foundation's executive director, said that the group has about $550,000 in the bank. The money was earned from the 2003 commemorative coin program, which was established to go toward projects in the Wright park.

The foundation had originally been established to help fund the 100th anniversary event held in 2003. The nonprofit group signed a new agreement with the Park Service this year.

Atop 90-foot-tall Big Kill Devil Hill, the 4,500-ton monument was considered an engineering marvel when it was finished in 1932. Its core is concrete, Cox said, and the Mount Airy granite is like a 1-to-4-foot-thick veneer. The foundation goes 35 feet into the sand hill.

The hill was one of the three at the park that the brothers had tested their gliders from before they built the Flyer. In 1903, the Wrights achieved the first manned, heavier-than-air flight on December 17 at the base of the hill. The hill had moved 450 feet to the southwest, and it was stabilized before construction began on the monument.

When it was dedicated on November 19, 1932, with a nor'easter blowing, the monument was called the largest ever dedicated to a living person. Orville Wright, who attended the rainy ceremony, was later quoted as saying that the monument "was distinctive without being freakish."

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