Baltimore's polished statues seem to know they're cleaner Refurbishing: The sculptures' heroes are conservationists dedicated to keeping them buffed and waxed. Workers are convinced some of the bronze faces are more expressive.

June 25, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

It appears that the Marquis de Lafayette is riding a bit higher in the saddle over in Mount Vernon Place.

Baltimore's 72-year-old bronze statue of the legendary French general -- a hero of the American Revolution and confidant of George Washington's -- is the same size as always. But a soldier can't help but look better after the kind of spit and polish job he got the other day.

The horse the general rides determinedly on Charles Street and 13 other pieces of outdoor sculpture around Mount Vernon were cleaned, waxed and buffed to a deep, lustrous blackish green. Conservationists also worked on two statues at the Johns Hopkins University as part of the adopt-a-sculpture program, a project of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Improvement Association.

"I lived in Mount Vernon Place for years and have a romantic attachment to the square. The sculptures sort of become like your children," said Bob Pringle, an art conservator now working out of Manhattan.

Pringle has been treating Baltimore sculpture for 15 years and, with a couple of helpers, cleaned all of the Mount Vernon bronzes and the Lanier and Hopkins statues in Homewood, in five days last week.

He likes the expressionistic quality of sculptor Andrew O'Connor's Lafayette, the way his face is almost a caricature of intensity, the way the tail on the general's horse flies in the air.

By comparison, he said, the John Eager Howard monu-ment near Madison Street looks like a piece off a chessboard.

"After years of working on the pieces, you see characteristics and depth you didn't see the first time," he said. "The [Antoine-Louis] Barye lion always strikes me. It's simple and strong, but the expression on the face is incredible -- one of the greatest pieces of animal sculpture I've ever seen."

Believed to be nearly lost to the elements in 1980, works such as Barye's depictions of war, peace, force and order near the Peabody Institute were found to be structurally sound but in need of cleaning and maintenance. In a city that can barely afford to keep its public libraries open, benefactors were sought to adopt the sculptures and pay for their care.

Thus, the Time Group ponied up half of the $10,000 it takes to maintain the Lafayette statue for five years. The rest comes from the city. Other benefactors include Maryland Art Place director Suzi Sinex, who put up $1,250 for Grace Turnbull's 1932 statue of a water nymph known as "Naiad," and Agora publishers, who adopted the Boy and Turtle fountain.

"In 1980, we found out that the pieces were not falling apart but needed ongoing care," said Kathleen G. Kotarba, director of the city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation. "The method we chose was the hot wax treatment."

This traditional process, dating back to the Roman era and the same technique applied when bronze is cast at a foundry, involves washing the statue with conservation soap and a little detergent. If the surface is not absolutely clean, the wax seals the dirt.

The bronze is heated with a torch, which helps old wax sink in as new coats of synthetic and natural waxes are applied while the sculpture is still warm.

The torch is repeatedly passed over the bronze with the heat reduced each time, allowing the wax to cool. The next day, the newly waxed sculpture is buffed with brushes. Now protected by a shield of cold wax, the statues are good for another year. Without public and private benefactors, Baltimore could not afford the job's cost every year.

"We were advised not to start this if we couldn't keep it up," said Kotarba. "We've done all the outdoor bronzes that the city owns from the Pulaski Monument in Patterson Park to the Union Soldiers and Sailors monument in Wyman Park. The tough part is doing it annually. The Recreation and Parks budget is limited, and there are more pieces [about 45] than we're able to do."

Steven Tatti owns the conservation company that employs Pringle. In past years, Tatti has done some of the Mount Vernon work himself.

"Baltimore is very densely populated with sculpture, on a par with Philadelphia, Boston and New York," Tatti said. "Most of these monuments were executed from the turn of the century through the 1940s. People tended to ignore these pieces for the first 50 years. You can't do that anymore with our corrosive atmosphere. They look cared for now. They look solid."

Pub Date: 6/25/96

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