City council resolves sculpture’s permitting problem

By Derrick Perkins (Photo/Derrick Perkins)

California-based artist Mario Chiodo’s twisting tribute to those interred at Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery has gazed out across the George Washington Memorial Parkway for weeks now, but without official sanction until this weekend.

“The Path of Thorn and Roses,” which towers over the south Old Town burial ground, was installed during the summer in violation of a little known regulation limiting sculptures to 15 feet in height or less. That meant officials needed a special use permit — the way by which City Hall waives restrictions — for the 22-foot tall statue, which they sought at Saturday’s city council meeting.

“This is something that, frankly, was just overlooked as we were going through the sculpture process,” said Planning Director Faroll Hamer.

She defended the decision to erect the monument in violation of city code, arguing that waiting for approval would have added to the project’s roughly $350,000 price tag. Alexandria’s top elected officials didn’t disagree with the move, but the original oversight — only discovered as workers prepared to install the statue — earned planning and recreation staff a light chastisement from City Councilor Paul Smedberg.

“It is sort of after the fact — how did we not know that [as the statue] was coming in?” he wondered aloud. “And it also raises other questions as to the design and management of this and the cost. … It does raise some issues.”

Chiodo’s sculpture is just part of the city’s larger effort to pay tribute to the cemetery, which dates back to the Civil War. Located securely behind Union lines, Alexandria became a safe haven for black refugees during the bloody war and as many as 1,800 were buried on the land, according to local historians.

Though forgotten for a time — the cemetery later became home to a gas station and an office building — it was rediscovered in the 1980s. In 2008, City Hall launched a campaign to convert the land into a memorial park. The project is expected to be finished in March.

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