Share story

ST. LOUIS — On the campus of the University of Missouri, Columbia, in a spot that’s easily overlooked just outside the chancellor’s home, a worn 9-foot-tall granite obelisk stands 878 miles from where you’d expect to find it.

It’s the tombstone of Thomas Jefferson.

Most of it, anyway.

There’s a smaller piece — the portion bearing the grave marker’s inscription — that’s been languishing for decades in the attic of Mizzou’s administration building. That piece needs help. It’s broken in several spots. The inscription is weathered and fading. Sections of the surface are crumbling.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

How it wound up at Mizzou, half a country away from Jefferson’s final resting place at his beloved Monticello in Virginia, is its own story.

For now, the attention is on a different migration.

This 160-pound chunk of American history will soon leave the state for a year or so to undergo a full restoration at the Smithsonian Institution.

It has been several decades since the stone made a public appearance on campus, said Kee Groshong, a retired vice chancellor for administrative services, whose domain included Jesse Hall.

Groshong remembers seeing the stone hauled out each year in the 1960s to take part in the annual Tap Day ceremonies, when several campus honor societies welcome new members. But even those brief appearances became too stressful for the deteriorating stone, forcing the school to put it in storage, where it was largely forgotten.

Always in the back of his mind was the thought that something needed to be done about the stone.

About 18 months ago, he started making inquiries with stone-restoration experts and ended up talking with the Smithsonian, which agreed to tackle the project for free.

So it falls upon the Smithsonian’s Carol Grissom, senior-objects conservator, to learn more about the stone’s various adventures and mishaps. Among other things, she wants to determine why the surface is falling apart in some areas. Some of the damage could have been caused by fire, though she suspects the deterioration may be blamed on salts in the glue material used to hold together the broken slab.

“It’s not glued back together very well,” said Grissom. “I would eventually like to take it apart and put it back together properly.”

None of this, however, explains why Mizzou — which didn’t exist when Jefferson died — would have the grave marker in the first place.

The answer lies in a chain of events that started before Jefferson died in 1826. It seems he had given some thought to how he should be memorialized. And he put those wishes into writing.

The nation’s third president wanted an obelisk perched atop a simple cube base, the whole thing measuring 9 feet tall. He chose the words, making it clear he wanted these words precisely and “not a word more”:

Here was buried

Thomas Jefferson

Author of the Declaration of American Independence

of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom

& Father of the University of Virginia.

When he died, he largely got his wish. Except for one thing.

Instead of making the entire monument out of coarse granite, the builders decided to put the inscription on a 3½-inch-thick slab of marble (measuring roughly 29 inches by 23 inches). The marble undoubtedly made for a nicer writing surface than granite.

But sadly, marble isn’t as durable as granite.

Almost immediately, according to historians, the monument — particularly the softer marble slab — began suffering at the hands of souvenir seekers. By 1882, the monument had become so damaged that Congress agreed to pay for a new one, leaving it to Jefferson’s family to find a home for the original.

After some lobbying by Mizzou, the family agreed on the significance of the school being the first public university west of the Mississippi River and liked that it was modeled after the University of Virginia.

So the monument was sent to Columbia, where the obelisk and cube were put in the Quad, while the marble slab was displayed in Academic Hall. After that building burned in 1892, the slab was given a home in Jesse Hall.

That’s where Groshong would like to see it return once restoration is complete. The stone will always be too fragile to be put outside. But something nice on the first floor of Jesse could be in its future.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.