Cuban-American Friendship Urn – Washington, D.C. - Atlas Obscura
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Washington, D.C.

Cuban-American Friendship Urn

The only National Monument ever to go missing for nearly 50 years then resurface in a dump. 

“The memory of the Maine will last forever through the centuries as will the bonds of friendship between the homeland of Cuba and the homeland of the United States of North America.”  — Gerardo Machado (President of Cuba from 1925 to 1933)

Sitting on a small patch of grass in southwest Washington D.C., between a parking lot and the 14th Street Bridge overpass. is a small marble urn. Officially known as the “Cuban American Friendship Urn,” the monument itself isn’t terribly remarkable. Its story, on the other hand, is unparalleled in absurdity.

Originally presented to the United States by Cuban President Gerardo Machado in 1928, the urn was meant to commemorate those who lost their lives in the sinking of the Maine in the Havana Harbor (though if the erstwhile political slogan “Remember the Maine!” had any legs, wouldn’t have proved necessary). Its origins in Cuba, as told on the plaque in Spanish, tell the same story, albeit in a subtly different voice:

Esta copa fue esculpida en un fragment de la columna de marmol del monument a las victimas del ‘Maine’.  Ericido en la Ciudad de la Habana, cuya columna fue derribada por el ciclon de 20 de octobre de 1926.

Or, translated into English, which to this day appears nowhere on or near the monument itself: “This urn was carved from a fragment of the marble column of the monument to the victims of the Maine.  Erected in the City of Havana, the column was demolished by the cyclone of October 20, 1926.”

The discrepancies relating to the monument stretch back to the site of its original placement; according to the National Park Service, it sat in front of the Cuban Embassy, while the Washington City Paper placed it in West Potomac Park, “not far from the Lincoln Memorial.” 

Wherever it first was, the fact remains that at some point in the early 1960s, conveniently around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the urn disappeared.  

How did a historic gift, a National Monument get lost? That depends on who was asked, and when. In a 2009 National Park Service newsletter, the official line states that, as relations between Cuba and the United States unraveled, the Urn slipped through the fingers of the National Park Service and was then “rediscovered” in 1996 in the annals of an official warehouse. An article in the Washington City Paper from the same year charts quite a different course for the Cuban-American Friendship Urn; according to reporter John Cloud, an anonymous tipster submitted two photographs of the Urn “sitting in a dump, placed there by the National Park Service.”

Regardless of how it was lost and the particulars of its recovery, $11,000 was poured into the urn to buff away its scratches and rejoin fractured pieces. The urn was promptly reinstalled at its current location in East Potomac Park, where it sits lonely in the din of traffic and Metro trains, just in time to usher in a new era of Cuban-American relations.

Know Before You Go

The column and Urn are in East Potomac Park, just south of the Tidal Basin and Jefferson Memorial, just off Ohio Drive SW, 1/4 mile west of Buckeye Drive.