“Old Bullion” is Golden Again!
The restoration of the Thomas Hart Benton statue is underway! This project was an early goal of the Lafayette Park Conservancy. The “Hats Off to Hattie Gala” in 2008 raised about half of the funds needed for the project. The remaining funds came from private donations and the Lafayette Park Conservancy.
Harriet Goodhue Hosmer’s statue of Benton was cast at the Royal Bronze Foundry in Munich, Germany, then under the direction of Ferdinand von Miller. The marvelous quality of the von Miller bronze helped Benton withstand 140 years of air pollution. Like most industrial cities of the time, coal was a major fuel for homes and industry in St. Louis.. By the 1930’s, so much bituminous (soft) coal was being used that thick grey smog blanked the city. A Smoke Ordinance was passed requiring the burning of cleaner coal. One day in 1939, a heat inversion trapped the smog creating “a day the sun l didn’t shine.” The Clean Air Acts of the 1960’s brought attention to the issue of air pollution and its detrimental effect on outdoor sculpture.
By the 1970’s, Benton had turned green and had large black and pitted areas. Phoebe Weil discovered that a statue’s green patina, long thought to protect a statue, indicated a severe corrosive attack produced by sulfur-polluted air. Weil was the Director of the Conservation Laboratory, Center for Archæometry at Washington University at that time. Working with a team of art historians, scientists, archeologists and physicists, they developed a new method to restore outdoor sculpture. Their first projects were the Washington and Benton statues in Lafayette Park. Unfortunately, both statues were not maintained after restoration.
On July 6. Russell-Marti Conservation Services (RMCS) put up scaffolding and evaluated Benton’s current condition. Their assessment of Benton in 2009 found “several issues affecting the sculpture, including varying degrees of corrosion activity, surface flaws, areas of investment seepage, and damaged metal from water retention and associated freeze/thaw activity.”
RMCS began by plugging the largest holes and breaks in the metal surface with threads of copper alloy. Then the white plaster-like material left over from the casting process that had seeped onto the surface was carefully removed along with the protective coating from the 1970 restoration. These procedures were gently and carefully done using wooden sculpture tools, dental picks, and brushes with soft bristles.
In preparation for a very low pressure cleaning with microscopic glass beads, the scaffolding was draped in plastic sheeting. St. Louis was in the grip of a heat wave, a streak of days with temperatures in the 100s. Working in the blazing sun at the top of the statue looked unbearably hot, but proved to be the coolest spot in the park since the protective gear was air-conditioned.
The original golden colored bronze began to emerge. When all the green and black corrosive crust is removed, the statue will be polished and a protective coating will be applied.
By Carolyn Willmore
Read more about the Benton restoration project at the St. Louis Beacon.
“Step Right Up” To Help Restore the Benton Monument
The Lafayette Park Conservancy is raising funds to conserve and restore the colossal bronze statue of Senator Thomas Hart Benton that graces the center of the park. Benton, nicknamed “Old Bullion”, was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1820 when Missouri became a state. He served five consecutive terms there. The monument, St. Louis’s first, was originally dedicated in 1868 before a crowd of nearly 40,000 citizens. Benton, a staunch proponent of westward expansion, overlooks the western horizon.
To celebrate the 140th anniversary of the statue’s dedication and raise the funds needed to restore it the Conservancy has organized the following three events to be held on June 13 and 14, 2008. These events celebrate not only the statue itself, but also the uncommonly talented and fiercely independent, world-renowned sculptor who created it, Harriet Hosmer.
Hosmer Symposium – This international educational event focuses on the life and works of Harriet Hosmer. Although most of her professional career was spent in Rome, Hosmer attended medical school in St. Louis to study anatomy. Several of her works are also located there. The symposium will kick off with a dessert reception and a one-woman play on Friday evening, June 13, at the Saint Louis Mercantile Library located on the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. It will continue on Saturday morning, June 14, at the Kemper museum on the campus of Washington University. Admission to the Symposium is $40 for the general public, $30 for members of the Conservancy and other sponsoring organizations, $15 for students. (Please click here or on the heading above to see the full symposium program or to register to attend.)
Benton Monument Celebration – On Saturday afternoon, June 14, we will meet at the Benton Monument itself in Lafayette Park, from 4:30-6:00 PM to celebrate both Flag Day and the statue’s 140th birthday. Patriotic music, speeches, carriage rides, a gallery tour and more will be included, with food and merchandise available for purchase. Come one, come all–attendance is free and open to the public.
“Hats Off To Hattie” Gala – Beginning at 6 PM on Saturday, June 14, this elegant fundraising event will feature mansion and garden tours, musicians, dining under decorated tents, fine art sales and an auction of irresistibly indulgent items. If you would like to receive a formal invitation or reserve a table please contact Linda Weiner at firstname.lastname@example.org to add your name to our mailing list. You may also order your tickets now by clicking here to print an order form.
Other Events – The Kemper Art Museum on Washington University’s campus will have Hosmer works on display from May 2 through July 21, 2008, with a gallery talk about them at 6 p.m. on June 18. See their newspaper article for details. Elizabeth Pickard will perform her highly entertaining and informative one-woman play, Zenobia Unchained: The Life and Work of Harriet Hosmer, at 2 p.m. on July 11 and July 25 at the Missouri History Museum.
Hosmer image provided by The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute – Harvard University