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Piece of world history saved by two Kansas City artists

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Pantheon de la guerre is 70-feet of history. It's a relic of World War I that was rescued from destruction more than 50 years ago.

The Pantheon hangs in Kansas City's WWI Museum, but how it got here is a story only 77-year-old Jack Cox can tell first hand.

"I really didn't know the significance of this when I started," said Cox.

Cox, who retired from Fox 4 as a graphic artist, was an art student at the University of Missouri Kansas City in 1956. While in school, he had been asked to help artist Thomas Hart Benton hang paintings and, because of that work, was called on again to help artist Daniel MacMorris with a project for the Liberty Memorial.

"I was in college and I needed money, so to me it was just a job, until I got here and he started explaining this to me," said Cox, motioning to the Pantheon which hangs in WWI Museum's Memory Hall.

The Pantheon was a 404 foot long painting, which included the work of more than 100 French artists. It was created during WWI and tells the story of the victories of France and its allies who worked to defend against a German advance.

MacMorris saw the original Pantheon when he was stationed in France as a dough boy. Thirty years later, thanks to a Life Magazine article, he learned the French painting, which had toured the United States as part of the 1933 Worlds Fair , was stored in a crate in Maryland and no one knew what to do with it. MacMorris decided to bring it back to Kansas City.

It arrived in its own train car. At that point, the Pantheon was so fragile that even unrolling it was a risk. Much of it was dirty and water-damaged. In many sections, the canvas had to be reinforced before MacMorris and Cox could start restoring them.

Only 70 feet of the original still survives today because MacMorris sliced and diced the original painting, removing the bad sections and in the process retelling story of WWI for an American audience.

"It was put together like a jigsaw puzzle," Cox recalled.

Instead of focusing on the French, as the original painters had, MacMorris gave the Americans a starring role. He added Harry Truman and Franklin Roosevelt. Surprisingly, MacMorris threw away many of the pieces he didn't need. Cox still has several of them.

For six months, Cox and MacMorris painstakingly restored the Pantheon. Cox kept a log detailing everything he learned from MacMorris who was well-known as a muralist and portrait artist. As the project neared the end, Cox asked if he could add his signature.

"He told me 'no' , " said Cox, laughing. But he added it anyway, hiding it in a busy section of the painting. But he thinks MacMorris must have discovered it and painted it out.

"I've been here with binoculars and can't find it," Cox said.

MacMorris died in 1981, but Cox, who went on to become a successful commercial artist, still takes pride in the only work he's ever done that's hanging in a museum.

"If I have out of town guests, I trot them down here to look at it," Cox said.

After all, the Pantheon de la Guerre is a piece of world history saved by two Kansas City artists.

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