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Tuesday, December 31, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Seattle monolith: an odyssey

Seattle Times staff reporter

When a mysterious gray steel slab appeared on a hill at Seattle's Magnuson Park two years ago New Year's Day, people joked that a UFO piloted by space aliens had planted it there. Maybe the vibrations that came from inside whenever gawkers spoke were replies resonating from the mother ship.

But the story behind Seattle's monolith, as it came to be known, was all too human.

Today, as the two-year anniversary of its appearance approaches, the 9-foot structure leans against a fence in an alley behind the North Seattle home of Microsoft programmer Chris Lodwig.

Lodwig, 28, acknowledges he and some friends conceived and installed the monument. Most members of that crew had refused to use their real names until now, adding to the monolith's mystery.

But the subsequent journey of their creation was stranger than anything they could have dreamed up.

The once-imposing rectangle in Lodwig's back yard lies on its side, dented and revealing a hollow, rusting interior. The life of this piece of "guerrilla art," though, has been full of intrigue — involving theft, artistic folly, surrealist zeal and a quest for peace and beauty for its own sake.

Lodwig's friends, Titus Grupp and Eric Leuschner, were the first to suggest the idea as a quirky way to mark the millennium and stir up a little faceless mischief.

They gathered about 50 other friends under the name Some People to plan and execute the project.

The group's main inspiration was the opening scene in Stanley Kubrick's movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," in which apelike humans are awed by a monolith that has appeared in their midst.

As Lodwig wrote on the group's Web site, the point of the monolith project was "to have some levity in our lives, to organize something beautiful and peaceful and just for the hell of it."

But a few days after the monolith was discovered at Sand Point, somebody — Lodwig still doesn't know who — stole it and somehow placed the 350-pound structure on Duck Island in the middle of Seattle's Green Lake.

"Up until it was stolen, I was euphoric over how well-received the monolith was," said Lodwig. "Then it got frustrating — it became this thing."

The monolith was on an odyssey of its own.

A Ballard artist associated with Some People, Caleb Schaber, arranged to have the monolith temporarily placed in a concrete foundation back at Magnuson Park. Schaber became the public face of the project from that point on. On the heels of his involvement with the monolith, he made his own replica, now in Wallingford, and later launched a campaign for mayor.

Schaber, 29, agreed the monolith prank turned into a "media fiasco" that Some People couldn't control but which was thrilling nonetheless. Had the monolith not been stolen, the story probably would have ended with Some People whisking it away from Sand Point after a couple of days, never to be seen again, he figures.

Lodwig and others in the group stayed behind the scenes, devoted to the idea of not claiming responsibility for a stunt that wasn't exactly legal.

"The original idea was that no one was going to know who did this at all — just like in the movie," said Lodwig.

News outlets from around the world were calling members of Some People, who went by aliases such as "Gomez Collins," "T.G. Fricker" and "Big Mouth."

Louie Raffloer, a Belltown blacksmith who fabricated the monolith over two days, still considers the project brilliant, even if the mystery surrounding it unraveled with all the media attention.

"I'd prefer that people still didn't know how the hell it all happened," Raffloer said. "One of the most enchanting parts of their project was that it was a secret."

Raffloer would like to see the monolith repaired and exhibited again someday.

The structure, its concrete base attached, was moved from perch to perch, including one under the Fremont Bridge, before Lodwig got it back.

The Museum of History & Industry had wanted the monolith, but officials there ultimately decided that damage to the structure from the removal of the concrete made it unsuitable for display.

"Now it's just sitting in a big heap in my back yard," Lodwig laments, staring at the monolith. "I've thought about calling "This American Life" (on Public Radio International) to have them do a story about it."

Grupp thinks he has a fitting finale for the monolith's wild journey.

"I've never stopped thinking that we should fill it with cement and throw it into the Sound," he said. "I think that would have solved so many problems."

It's still unclear whether the apes in Kubrick's film responded more intelligently to their monolith than Seattleites did to their own mystery slab.

Lodwig said the Seattle monument symbolizes the potential of humans to keep evolving at the dawn of a new millennium.

"I don't know if evolution happened, but 'interesting' doesn't happen enough," he said. "So I'm glad something interesting happened."

Tyrone Beason: 206-464-225.

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