USS Arizona

by Don Friedman on December 7, 2016

USS Arizona, in February 1942:

The USS Arizona was sunk in the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, with the deaths of almost 1200 sailors and Marines on board. Most of the bodies are still in or around the wreck, which is designated as a national landmark. The wreck serves as the focus of a memorial constructed above and around it.

Arizona is as fraught as a preservation site can be. It is at the intersection of a national trauma, thousands of deaths and injuries, and a war. It is also, physically, a steel structure that cannot be maintained, lying in the mud below a salt-water bay. The steel is deteriorating, slowly, but inexorably. As the attached article says, it’s not going to suddenly collapse in the immediate future, but it will only get worse over time.

There is a class of landmarked structure that is almost impossible to address because of the combination of technical problems and difficult history. There is no way to deal with the deterioration of Arizona’s steel without disturbing the bodies, and there is literally no answer to the question of which should be prioritized. In this case, the solution has been to do as little as possible, which keeps the site near its 1941 state but also means that the physical collapse of the wreck is inevitable, although well off in the future. I don’t know if that’s the right solution but I don’t know what would be better.

Preservation is about saving the memory of our shared culture in the form of pieces of the constructed environment. It is inherently ill-suited to deal with brief-lived traumatic events: Arizona was built in 1915, but that date has almost no meaning in the memorial; there is no constructed-environment aspect to the two hours of the attack in 1941. The modern memorial over the wreck will be maintained; perhaps the answer to preserving the wreck is that it cannot be preserved.

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