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Embedded in bedrock, the Liberty Memorial reaches 217 feet in the air. The flame that appears to burn at the top of the monument is actually illuminated steam.
The shaft is often compared with a phallus, but it may be best to think of the monument as a vacuum hose sucking tax dollars. Officials at the World War I Museum put the cost of the renovation and museum expansion at $102 million. Less than $15 million came from private donors. City, state and federal governments provided the rest, in bundles of various sizes, over the years.
A fit of patriotism provided the initial investment in Liberty Memorial. As the war came to an end in 1918, a newspaper suggested that a monument be built to honor the war dead. R.A. Long, J.C. Nichols, William T. Kemper and other barons of Kansas City formed the original Liberty Memorial Association. A 10-day public fund drive raised $2.5 million. President Calvin Coolidge attended the dedication ceremony on November 11, 1926.
By the 1970s, the grounds became known as a place to have secluded sex, attracting thugs who liked to prey on people engaged in such activity. The frequency of the assaults led police to close off the traffic loop at night.
In the summer of 1994, a 31-year-old man threw himself off the observation deck. A few months later, officials of the parks department, which controlled the monument, decided that the suicidal weren't the only ones at risk. Engineers said water damage had compromised the deck structure. The monument closed on Veterans Day that year.
It was an embarrassment to turn away visitors from such a stately edifice. Former Mayor Emanuel Cleaver appointed a civic group, Citizens to Save Liberty Memorial, to come up with a rescue plan. Parks officials, meanwhile, began to think about ways to incorporate a new museum when renovating the monument's crumbling stonework. But the public was cool to the idea of building a grand stage for the World War I artifacts (a collection that the association said had outgrown Exhibit Hall and Memory Hall, the monument's existing exhibition spaces) that the Liberty Memorial Association had amassed over the years.
In 1998, voters approved a temporary sales tax to restore the monument to its original glory. The tax raised $30 million for repairs and set aside an additional $15 million for an endowment to pay for maintenance.
The proposed museum was expected to cost yet another $30 million. But it was up to its backers to pry money from private donors, and the state and federal government.
As the restoration proceeded, preservationists grumbled that the parks department was using the sales-tax proceeds to create a shell for the new museum. Mark Funkhouser, then the city auditor, investigated the claim. He determined that the parks department's decision to remove and replace the support columns underneath the deck was done primarily to accommodate the museum. But the Liberty Memorial Association defended the parks department's work with a two-page ad in The Kansas City Star.
The monument reopened to the public on Memorial Day in 2001. Later that year, DiCapo, a restaurateur active in charity efforts, became president of the Liberty Memorial Association. He did not lack confidence in his ability to raise funds for the museum. "Believe me, we will get the money," he told a Star reporter then.