Cleaning up Milwaukee's "Dirty Dozen"

Venu Gupta, P.E., Buildings and Fleet Superintendent, and John J. Jach, Project Architect, Department of Public Works, City of Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The City of Milwaukee is the owner and caretaker of some 75 monuments with an aggregate value in the millions of dollars. These monuments include sculptures, reflecting pools, plaques, stone markers, and commemorative flagpoles. Milwaukee's "main street," Wisconsin Avenue, is graced with a monument called The Victorious Charge depicting four Union soldiers from Wisconsin in Civil War combat. This monument is actually referred to as a "tableau" because it has multiple figures and is representative of classical era 19th century sculpture which was highly detailed and usually cast in bronze. Unfortunately this work suffered the same fate as many other monuments in America: deterioration due to deferred maintenance.

With shrinking budgets and maintenance funds spent on more urgent and essential services there are few resources left to preserve these monuments, and cities must often helplessly stand by and watch time and weather ravage their historical treasures. This sad fate was averted in Milwaukee by dedicated and civic-minded people who raised enough money from various local organizations and secured sufficient grants to restore and preserve The Victorious Charge.

The group was spearheaded by Diane M. Buck who is an art educator with a special love for sculpture and classical monuments. Diane raised the money for the project (one of 12 historic bronze sculptures-the "Dirty Dozen"-targeted for restoration) and her expertise and knowledge finally led her to the City's Department of Public Works, and to Andrzej Dajnowski with Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio, Inc. (CSOS). CSOS is headquartered in a 13,000-square-foot studio in Chicago and has completed projects across the United States and beyond. Some of his work includes supervision of the rebuilding and restoration of the Buckingham Fountain and the treatment of the Fountain of Time, both located in Chicago.

Milwaukee's The Victorious Charge monument presented a unique challenge to Andrzej. Most projects can be transported to his studio for treatment under carefully controlled and secure conditions; but for this project transportation to a studio was impractical because the statue was filled with concrete! Andrzej went on to explain that sometime in the unrecorded past someone decided to fill the monument with concrete thinking that this would provide additional strength and weather resistance. This decision was the absolute worst thing for a hollow metal sculpture because eventually the concrete will absorb water and the expansion and contraction of the freeze-thaw cycle will split and crack the metal. In addition, minerals from the concrete will leach onto the surface and cause severe deterioration, which is exactly what happened to The Victorious Charge.

To remove the concrete Andrzej would have had to ship the statue 90 miles south to his studio in Chicago and completely break down the statue to remove the concrete. This would have been time-consuming (adding a year to the schedule), extremely labor intensive, and would have tripled the cost of restoration.

In addition to the base of the monument being filled with concrete, the bottom portion of the bronze was also misaligned. During the last move of the monument it was discovered that it was also assembled incorrectly. A decision was made to dismantle the sculpture, remove the concrete from the base, treat the bronze, recreate the missing elements and correctly reassemble the sculpture. When the company arrived to transport the monument in late fall of the 2002 they were unpleasantly surprised to learn that the monument was filled with concrete to the top.

Moving the monument was out of the question so now Andrzej was forced to work at the site itself. This posed additional problems because the monument is located on Wisconsin Avenue, which is downtown Milwaukee's most heavily-trafficked main arterial street. In addition to the access problem, the work could not be secured at night or on weekends. Fortunately there was no vandalism and the work did proceed smoothly onsite without incident for the duration of the activity.

The project was complicated. Basically the cracked and split areas had to be welded shut to prevent further water from entering the statue. Then "weep holes" were created at the bottom of the statue to allow existing water to drain out. Several pieces of the original work were missing, including parts of two rifles, straps, and a sword blade with a scabbard. These pieces had to be replicated to match the originals. Decades-old photos of the statue were provided by Diane and the images were used to replicate the missing parts which had to be created and then cast from the mold.

After ensuring that the monument was watertight and creating and replacing missing parts, the metal surface of the statue had to be restored and properly finished. In all of his metal statue restorations, Andrzej has the metal analyzed by a laboratory to determine its exact content. The Victorious Charge is made of bronze which in this case was 82-86% copper, 6-10% tin, and 3-5% lead. In addition, some areas of the statue had about 3-8% zinc. Knowing the exact chemical makeup of the metal is essential for choosing the proper restoration and cleaning agents. Andrzej added that some municipalities without historical conservation experience will attempt to refinish their metal statues with an acid bath or harsh glass bead pinning. This is absolutely lethal to any metal surface and should never be attempted!

CSOS, Inc. has special chemical washes formulated according to the metal content of each individual statue. The goal of this project was not to restore the monument to its original bronze, shiny state, but to retain a slight appearance of aging—referred to as patina. Consequently, black areas of the statue had to change to green and green areas had to be changed to brown. This patina was achieved with the application of acid washes containing cupric nitrate and ferric nitrate acids respectively. After sample areas were refinished, the City of Milwaukee (which owns the monument), the Art Commission, and Diane had to inspect and approve the colors. After the patina colors were approved, samples of the patina on the actual metal were sent to a lab for a final analysis. When everything checked out with the lab, the patinas were then applied to the entire monument. Finally, two layers of a microcrystaline wax were applied for added protection. The project began in the early summer of 2003 and, in autumn of the same year, the scaffolding was removed and The Victorious Charge was back in its former glory.

Municipalities should cherish these historical treasures and make all efforts necessary to preserve them for future generations. Andrzej advises that the best thing agencies can do on their own is "maintenance, maintenance, and maintenance!" A simple annual washing with a mild detergent and then a coat of wax will go a long way to prevent the need for extensive and costly restoration by a professional conservator. Car wash or dish detergents should not be used; instead, Andrzej recommends a product made for this use called Orvus (available from conservation suppliers such as Conservation Support Systems of Santa Barbara, California and Conservation Resources of Springfield, Virginia). After washing with Orvus, a coat of microcrystalline wax should be applied. A few monuments may have a lacquer finish and these should be cleaned and refinished on a five-year cycle by a professional conservator.

Work on this project was performed by Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio, Inc. (CSOS); staff: Gabriel Harrison, Tomasz Pegiel, Miroslaw Rydzak, and Luke Grimm. The casting of the missing elements from molds provided by CSOS was done by the foundry Images in Bronze from Mt. Morris, Illinois. The Department of Public Works greatly appreciates contributions for this article by Diane M. Buck, art educator, and Andrzej Dajnowski, conservator.

Venu Gupta, a member of APWA's Facilities and Grounds Committee, can be reached at (414) 286-3401 or at vgupta@mpw.net; John J. Jach can be reached at (414) 286-3557 or at jjach@mpw.net.

For more information on sculpture conservator Andrzej Dajnowski and the Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio (CSOS), please see their website at www.csosinc.com.