While researching a new book last year, writer Bill Mares popped into Burlington’s Memorial Auditorium to take a closer look at the plaques that commemorate local veterans of the two World Wars and the Korean War. Reading through the names, he noticed something odd: The alphabetical listings stopped at M. Where were the rest of the names?
Mares began asking city employees about the missing plaques, and eventually they turned up. Eight of Mem Aud’s 16 memorial plaques had long been tucked out of sight. “They were down under the staircase, covered with dust,” Mares says.
How long had they been there? “It’s conceivable that they went underground, figuratively speaking, in ’56, which is the last time there were any markings on the back of them,” says Mares. It’s likely they were moved temporarily for some practical reason such as electrical work, and then forgotten about.
Thanks to a successful fundraising campaign — he raised $8000 — and a $2000 contribution from the city, Burlington’s Conant Metal & Light has now fully restored the missing plaques so they can be reinstalled this fall.
When Memorial Auditorium was built in 1928, its walls were covered in plaques, says Mares, who was interested in the place as part of this country’s “living memorial” movement. After World War I, he explains, people didn’t want to commemorate wars with statues, as they had for the Civil War; they wanted to create memorials that served some civic function. “They named highways, they named parks, they named civic auditoriums,” Mares explains. Burlington’s Memorial Auditorium is one of dozens of similarly named facilities built around the country in the 1920s.
The plaques are huge and heavy-duty, with torch-shaped borders and, on some, Burlington’s city seal, which features a deer head and a fleur-de-lis. Flowery language adorns some: “Dedicated to the glory of almighty God in memory of all the men of Burlington who during World War II by their unselfish patriotism have advanced the American ideals of liberty and the universal brotherhood of man.”
Familiar area names such as Gadue, Bissonette and Wheeler populate the plaques, as well as more mysterious names, such as Shortsleeves, that appear multiple times. One plaque commemorates the women who served, including one who lost her life in World War I.
The heavy bronze plates would have been “a serious investment back then,” says Steve Conant, who worked on rehabbing them — burnishing the letters and coating them in epoxy so they’ll last longer. “And they have extraordinary scrap value, so it’s a wonder they weren’t stolen.” Perhaps would-be thieves were deterred by their bulk; each plaque weighs more than 200 pounds, Conant says.
The project has Mares thinking about more recent wars and how we commemorate them. “It’d be nice if there were subsequent memorials to Vietnam, Afghanistan,” he says. “The country has been so conflicted about overseas wars. I think one of the great ironies is that we build a great big memorial to 9/11, which is not at the end of the war but at the beginning of the war. That’s emblematic of the nature of this war.”
Mares is aiming for a celebratory reinstallation of the plaques in Memorial Auditorium at the 11th hour on November 11, Armistice Day.