In 1953, the hill overlooking the James River along Belvidere Street was home to a couple of small buildings and a billboard for Purelube motor oil.
Three years later, it would become the site of glass and marble walls etched with 10,342 names of Virginians who died in World War II and the Korean War, a towering statue called Memory, and an eternal flame.
The Virginia War Memorial, the $900,000 tribute to fallen servicemen and women that has become one of Richmond’s most treasured landmarks, turns 60 on Monday.
“Since the dawn of history, it has been customary for governments to erect memorials, permanently expressing the appreciation of a grateful people for the patriotic service and heroic sacrifice of their sons and daughters in time of war,” John J. Wicker Jr., then chairman of the Virginia War Memorial Commission, wrote after the memorial opened.
“When everyone living today has passed away, this memorial will remain for the education and inspiration of generations unborn, and as tangible evidence that patriotic service of Virginians will never be forgotten.”
But for decades, the memorial often stood vacant atop Gambles Hill except for the few holidays each year, when a couple hundred people would come to pay their respects.
Even with its view and its prime spot at one of the gateways into Richmond, the memorial’s surroundings were so rough that many around the state questioned the idea to place it there. Until its demolition in 1992, the state penitentiary was one of the memorial’s most visible neighbors.
“For many years it was almost an afterthought. A lot of that had to do with where it was,” said Jeb Hockman, spokesman for the memorial.
By the mid-1990s, the eternal flame had been snuffed out, the reflecting pool was drained, and the wall filled with names was on the verge of collapse.
But a renewed focus by the state, which in 1997 hired its first employee to take care of the memorial, jump-started a transformation.
By 2010, a private fundraising effort along with state funding culminated with the opening of an educational center next to the shrine and an amphitheater on the backside of the hill. Since then, the memorial has become vastly busier, attracting many more visitors and hosting a variety of events.
The new building bears the names of Paul Galanti, a retired Navy officer who spent three years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and his wife, Phyllis, who died in 2014. It’s the biggest honor they ever had, said Paul Galanti, who still regularly visits the memorial, often to speak to groups of children.
“Have you looked in a history book lately? They talk about people manning barricades and protesting this and protesting that. A lot of my friends died, and a lot of my friends ended up being POWs,” Galanti said. “And a lot of really bad stuff happened there, and a lot of the publicity went to folks who didn’t do anything but just complained about it.”
Sharing the personal history of war veterans, as Galanti does, is one of the less visible elements of the memorial’s mission.
The educational center played host to more than 50 programs last year, bringing in students, Scouts and other groups. And war memorial staff travel the state to capture veterans’ stories and so far have amassed nearly 2,000 hours of video interviews that often are used in short films sent to classrooms across the state.
“If you just have names on a wall, you’re a cemetery almost,” Hockman said. “We want to make sure these people’s names are known and their stories are known.”
More than 12,000 names now are on the wall, which now includes the names of Virginians who died in Vietnam and Desert Storm.
Another addition is in the works, to make room for the Virginians killed since 2001 in what often is called the Global War on Terror. The expansion will include a second glass wall, a new education wing, a parking garage and a 300-seat auditorium.
Galanti, a former Navy pilot, compared the trajectory of the museum to one of the planes he used to fly, which “starts off rolling really slowly and starts building speed over speed.” More than 71,000 people visited the memorial last year.
On Monday at 5 p.m., a ceremony will commemorate that day 60 years ago when two Medal of Honor recipients and dignitaries from 10 countries came to Richmond to dedicate the memorial.
“Today we harvest the fruits these honored men planted, enjoy them in abundance beyond their powers to imagine,” Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, a native Virginian who commanded the 82nd Airborne Division during World War II, said in a speech marking the memorial’s opening.
“But in life there is a responsibility co-equal with every privilege, and great as our privilege is today, our responsibility is no less. ... We have a responsibility to stand ready with all our strength to keep the Torch of Liberty before every American eye, the love of freedom alive in every American heart.”
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The statue inside the Va. War Memorial on February 23, 2016. Names of Virginia's fallen soldiers are engraved on the walls of the memorial
Phyllis and Paul Galanti look at a WWII exhibit inside the new $9 million Paul and Phyllis Galanti Education Center at the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond, VA Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2010. The facility is scheduled to open to the public on Sept. 17.
A broken line on this aerial photograph, taken Nov. 18, 1954, marks the site of what would become the Virginia War Memorial at Belvidere and Second streets.
Visitors leave flowers at the Virginia War Memorial on May 31, 1956.
Pete Kezsch, who served in 1966-67, looked at names on the Virginia War Memorial in February 1988. He traveled from Miami to pay his respects to Virginia soldiers killed during the Vietnam War. The War Memorial was hosting a tribute to mark the 20th anniversary of the Tet Offensive.
Workmen finish work on the names carved in marble at the Virginia War Memorial on Feb. 7, 1956.
Visitors look over names of Virginia's war dead etched in glass at the Virginia War Memorial on Feb. 7, 1956.
The Virginia War Memorial is shown two days before its dedication in February 1956.
An honor guard presents the colors at the Virginia War Memorial on Memorial Day, 1969.
A vistor pauses to look over names at the Virginia War Memorial on Nov. 12, 1985.
A crowd of citizens and dignitaries gather at the dedication of the Virginia War Memorial on February 29, 1956.
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On Feb. 29, 1956, the Virginia War Memorial was dedicated despite the statue “Memory” still being unfinished. The statue’s head was finally placed on March 13, after which the smoothing process was completed. With the ceiling of the memorial only 2 feet above the top of the head, it was an arduous six-hour process to get the head installed.
General Alexander A. Vandgrift speaks during the dedication of the Virginia War Memorial on Feb. 29, 1956. Others are John J. Wicker Jr. (left) and Del. Edward M. Hudgins.
Virginia War Memorial - WWII on April 4, 1956.
Names of fallen World War II veterans covered the wall at the Virginia War Memorial on April 9, 1957.
Memorial Day services in 1957, Virginia War Memorial. At the end of the memorial services, taps was sounded by cadet Jimmy Warren, John Marshall High School.
An Easter Cross as a Memorial. The American Gold Star Mothers of Virginia placed an Easter cross at Virginia's War Memorial March 28, 1959 as a tribute to the state's war dead. The cross was placed on behalf of chapters in Richmond, Roanoke, Portsmouth, Alexandria and Arlington. Placing the memorial are (left to right) Mrs. R. J. Reynolds, Richmond chapter chapliain; Mrs. William W. Nicholas Sr., department of Virginia first vice president, and Mrs. Nora B. Moon, chapter president.
Veterans Day observance at War Memorial. The playing of taps brought ranks of American Legion members to attention during 1962 Veterans Day ceremony. The observance, sponsored by American Legion posts of the Third district, was concluded with a wreath laying at the Shrine of Memory. The American Legion wreath was placed by Gen. Paul M. Booth, the adjutant general of Virginia.
American Legionnaires, visitors attend 1965 ceremony at Virginia War Memorial. Veterans Day activities honored war dead, servicemen in Viet Nam.
P.J. Arrighi, a member of the American Legion honor guard, holds the American flag during 1968 Veterans' Day ceremonies at the Virginia War Memorial.
Karl Stalnaker of Richmond's American Legion Post 141 pays silden tribute to Virginia's War dead at the American Legion ceremonies at the Virginia War Memorial on Veterans Day in 1969.
Hero honors war dead. A Medal of Honor winner, Army Lt. Col. Van Thomas Barford, paid homage on Feb. 24, 1970 to Virginians who have died during the Vietnam conflict as he placed a wreath at the Virginia War Memorial here. The Mississippi native received the nation's highest award during World War II for killing seven Germans, capturing 17 others, destroying two enemy machine gun nests, knocking out a tank and carrying a wounded soldier 600 yards under enemy fire. He lives in Petersburg.
Gold leaf is added to the approximately 8,000 names of Virginia's war dead etched on the tranparent walls of the Virginia War Memorial on Oct. 22, 1971.
A reflecting pool provides a break in the snow-covered hill near the Virginia War Memorial on Jan. 8, 1973
Tents set up on the south side of the Virginia War Memorial were set up to provide shelter for the construction workers repairing and regrouting the stonework.Photo taken Friday,November 7,1997
Members of the American LEGION Leigon Memorial Rifles fire a salute during the Memorial Day celebration at the Virginia War Memorial . May 29 , 2000
Brittany Dexter, 9 of Ashland looks at the names on the walls of the 2000 Virginia War Memorial during the American Legion Richmond area Veterans Day Ceremony.
A bunch of flowers left at the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond, VA Tuesday, July 3, 2001.
Sam O'Connor, 6, looks at the names on the glass walls at the Virginia War Memorial Monday, May 27, 2002 before the Memorial Day Ceremony.
One of about 40 color guards march into the Virginia War Memorial ceremony Saturday, October 1, 2005, to honor America's armed forces. The event is sponsored by the Virginia War Memorial Foundation and the Richmond Chapter of the Military Order of World Wars.
Russell Wilson, 83-year-old WWII veteran, practices with his trumpet inside the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond, VA Wednesday, May 14, 2008, where he will play "Taps" on Memorial Day. Wilson is a volunteer member of Buglers Across America, a group that plays at military funerals and other ceremonies.
Robert Westermann of Richmond reflects on the names of schoolmates etched on the glass of the Virginia War Memorial on May 26, 2008.
Tim Batten of St. Andrew's Legion Pipes & Drums, plays at the Virginia War Memorial during the Richmond Area 2009 Memorial Day Ceremony at the Virginia War Memorial.
The main entrance of the Paul and Phyllis Galanti Education Center at the Virginia War Memorial during construction in June, 2009.
Work is proceeding on the $9.1 million education center at the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond, Va., seen here Friday, August 28, 2009.
Work is proceeding on the $9.1 million education center at the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond, VA, seen here Friday, August 28, 2009, through a glass wall with names of servicemen killed in WWII.
What's a war memorial without flags? That's what was facing the Virginia War Memorial, hit hard by state budget cuts, until the Marine Corps League stepped up in 2009 to raise money for a year's worth of flags for the various services.
Members of the American Legion Memorial Rifles, Post 84 salute with others during the last moments of the 2010 Memorial Day observance at the Virginia War Memorial.
Virginia War Memorial construction. Taken June 22, 2010.
The Paul and Phyllis Galanti Education Center at the Virginia War Memorial is under construction June 29, 2010, with the shrine of the Virginia War memorial in the background.
One entrance to the new $9 million Paul and Phyllis Galanti Education Center at the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond, VA Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2010. The facility is scheduled to open to the public on Sept. 17.
Bricks outside the new $9 million Paul and Phyllis Galanti Education Center at the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond, VA Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2010. The facility is scheduled to open to the public on Sept. 17.
Paul Galanti introduces the keynote speaker, Rear Admiral Robert H. Shumaker, USN (Ret.), during the Grand Opening ceremony of the Paul and Phyllis Galanti Education Center at the Virginia War Memorial on Sept. 17, 2010.
People exit after the Grand Opening ceremony of the Paul and Phyllis Galanti Education Center at the Virginia War Memorial on Sept. 17, 2010.
St. Andrew's Legion Pipes and Drums played before and after the Grand Opening ceremony of the Paul and Phyllis Galanti Education Center at the Virginia War Memorial on Sept. 17, 2010.
Rev. Dr. Donald Denton performs the invocation during the Grand Opening ceremony of the Paul and Phyllis Galanti Education Center at the Virginia War Memorial on Sept. 17, 2010.
John Cogbill, who comes from a military family, is chairman of the Virginia War Memorial Educational Foundation. July 30, 2012.
Veterans look at the wall of names of Virginia's fallen at the Virginia War Memorial on May 2, 2013.
A big crowd was on hand for the Virginia War Memorial’s Memorial Day service in 2013.
A veteran of the Korean War stops at the wall with the names those who died in that war at the Virginia War Memorial during a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the cease-fire ending the conflict. July 27, 2013.
A 21-gun salute marks Veterans Day ceremonies at the Virginia War Memorial on Nov. 11, 2013.
George Bland, center, a Pearl Harbor survivor, salutes with sea cadets David Sandborn, left, a sophomore of Midlothian High School, and Lucas Aparicio, right, a freshman of Glen Allen High School, during the 72nd Pearl Harbor Remembrance Ceremony at the Virginia War Memorial on Saturday, December 7, 2013.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe delivers the keynote speech during Veterans Day ceremonies at the Virginia War Memorial, in Richmond, Virginia, Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2014.
Accompanied by her father Jim Davis, Lauren Davis, 3-and-a-half of Henrico, pauses at the foot of Memory prior to the start of Veterans Day ceremonies at the Virginia War Memorial, in Richmond, Virginia, Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2014.
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, at podium, adresses the crowd, including a group of WWII veterans, right, who were honored at the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond, VA Wednesday, April 8, 2015. The group of five veterans were awarded the Legion of Honor, France's highest medal awarded to U. S. veterans who fought in France during WWII.
WWII veterans Russell Scott, left, a tail gunner on a B-29 bomber shot down over Italy, and Dr. Guy DeGenaro, right, who piloted a glider in the D-Day invasion, attended the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day ceremony with Ralph Fields, center, a Memorial volunteer docent, whose brother was killed serving in World War II, at Virginia War Memorial in Richmond on Friday, May 8, 2015.
WWII veteran Russell Scott, a tail gunner on a B-29 bomber shot down over Italy, waited the ceremony of the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day at Virginia War Memorial in Richmond on Friday, May 8, 2015. Scott was captured and held as POW of the Nazis for over a year.
Members of the 262nd Quartermaster Battalion from Ft. Lee run in formation down th 2nd street ramp of the Lee Bridge on April 12, 2014 during the 3rd Annual Virginia War Memorial 5K Run-Walk To Remember. The 5K included 950+ soldiers from Fort Lee led by their commanding officers on the course through Oregon Hill and Hollywood Cemetery.
Dr. Tommy South plays' "Taps" during Memorial Day ceremonies at The Virginia War Memorial in Richmond, Monday May 26, 2014.
Every year, retired Marine Clyde Childress of Powhatan provides the Virginia War Memorial with a year's supply of flags. The War Memorial flies 10 flags: U.S., Virginia, Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Merchant Marine, POW/MIA and the War Memorial's flag. Childress is shown at the museum in Richmond on Tuesday, June 17, 2014.
Fireworks at Va. War Memorial July 3, 2012.