Originally established as Kill Devil Hill Monument in 1927, and still bearing that name when it was transferred to the NPS in 1933, Wright Brothers National Memorial finally acquired its present designation 55 years ago on December 4, 1953. A recently completed restoration project has made this 55th birthday even more worth celebrating. The park’s single most visible feature, the Wright Monument, has received a badly needed facelift.
When the Centennial of Flight rolled around on December 17, 2003, Wright Brothers National Memorial played host to President George W. Bush, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Chuck Yeager. John Travolta, and a horde of other dignitaries, celebrities, and miscellaneous visitors gathered to celebrate 100 years of powered flight. The park was gussied up for the occasion, of course, and appeared to be in pretty good shape. With one very noticeable exception, that is. The Wright Monument, though serviceable, was nowhere near as fit as it should have been. In the patois of the combat soldier, it was among the “walking wounded.”
The Wright Monument features a 60-foot granite pylon perched atop a big sand dune called Big Kill Devil Hill (see accompanying photo). The monument was installed there in 1932, not just because the dune top insures high visibility (the monument is visible for miles), but also because the 90-foot high dune was used for test glides and other experiments that helped set the stage for that monumental First Flight. The Wright Brothers used the dune to perform many thousands of glides and related experiments.
The inscription on the monument is inspiring:
IN COMMEMORATION OF THE CONQUEST OF THE AIR BY THE BROTHERS WILBUR AND ORVILLE WRIGHT. CONCEIVED BY GENIUS AND ACHIEVED BY DAUNTLESS RESOLUTION AND UNCONQUERABLE FAITH.
The glittering monument installed more than three-quarters of a century ago suffered the ravages of time. Assaulted by windblown sand, salt spray, winter freeze-thaw cycles, and a host of other enemies, the monument deteriorated as the decades went by. Eventually, mere maintenance would not suffice. Only restoration could save it.
There was a major restoration over a decade ago, but many of the problems addressed at that time were not permanently taken care of. Fortunately, a more lasting fix was on the way. Earlier this year, the First Flight Foundation partnered with the National Park Service to undertake yet another restoration of the Wright Monument. Unlike the last attempt, this one would be truly sufficient to prevent further deterioration and “reestablish the monument’s structural and historical integrity.”
The project included cleaning both the interior and exterior of the granite pylon, re-pointing the exterior mortar, painting the stairs, polishing and coating the stainless steel doors, replacing the heating/ventilation system and the exterior lights, and renovating the electrical and mechanical systems. Even the marine-style beacon atop the pylon was removed, cleaned, and replaced.
The monument looks great now. When you visit Wright Brothers National Memorial, be sure to climb the hill and take a look for yourself, up close and personal.
Traveler trivia, no extra charge: The First Flight Foundation (then called the First Flight Centennial Foundation) raised money for the monument restoration project by means of a coin match project with the United States Mint conducted in association with the Centennial of Flight commemoration in 2003.