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Gilding Failure Mars NYC Monument

Monday, June 23, 2014

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A year-old $500,000 gilding project has failed on a landmark statue in Central Park, with officials mystified as to the cause.

The 24-foot-tall rendering of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, sculpted by the late Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1903, was just regilded last year. The gold leaf covers 1,200 square feet.

But officials say something has gone wrong with the Civil War legend's coating, and they have no idea what.

Central Park Conservancy
Central Park Conservancy

Gilt applied last year on the Gen. Sherman statue in Central Park is already cracking, and in some areas "almost peels off like an orange."

The sculpture sits on the Grand Army Plaza, the gateway to the 843-acre park on Fifth Avenue, and is cared for by the Central Park Conservancy.

The statue shows Sherman on horseback, accompanied by a bronze figure of Pomona, goddess of abundance. After the Civil War, the general moved to New York City and rode his horse and carriage through Central Park daily, the Conservancy reports.

$500K Coatings

The statue underwent rehabilitation last summer, when it was cleaned and coated with 23.75-karat gold leaf, The New York Times reported at the time.

Although The Times reported that the gold leaf would be topped with three coats of polyurethane to protect the gilding, a different approach was taken, said Michael Kramer, founder of The Gilders' Studio, of Olney, MD, which completed the project.

Kramer said Friday (June 20) that the statue "was toned, then coated with a urethane system," not with polyurethane. "It was, in fact, an aliphatic urethane system which had been rigorously tested in the lab and the field."

In any case, the $500,000 project starting coming undone by October, when conservancy officials first noticed cracks forming at the base. First, they thought it was a moisture problem, but it continually got worse.

The Gilders' Studio

Regilding the statue will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, said Mike Kramer of The Gilders' Studio, which completed the original project last year.

"The gold was just not adhering to the substrate as it's supposed to," Christopher Nolan, the conservancy's vice president for planning, design and construction, told the Times on Wednesday (June 18).

"Something had gone wrong in the way the materials interact," Nolan said, adding that in some areas, the coating "almost peels off like an orange."

'We Knew it Was Systemic'

According to its website, The Gilders' Studio provides interior and exterior gilding, sculpture conservation, painted finishes and murals, and similar services.

Kramer took a look at the Sherman cracking (called crazing) in April.

"Even where there was no crazing evident to the eye, when you put it under the microscope, you could see it. So we knew it was systemic," Kramer told The Times.

Expensive Failure

The Gilders' Studio has accepted responsibility for the problem and will pay for the regilding, which Kramer said "would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars."

The Gilders' Studio

The Gilders' Studio's conservation portfolio includes Winged Victory, the 1st Division Memorial, in Washington, D.C. Both this and the Sherman statue were regilded in 23.75-karat gold leaf.

Officials do not know what caused the failure, but materials used were tested in the laboratory and on site, Nolan said.

One possibility is an issue with the adhesive material, called size, that was used. Or it could be the urethane the conservancy opted to use to make the surface more resistant to pigeon damage than traditional wax.

Kramer told The Times that the size that was successfully tested came from a different lot than the size that was actually used. Perhaps, the report said, there was some discrepancy.

According to the conservancy, Sherman will be regilded this summer. This time, the urethane will be cut out, as will the intermediate glazing.

Coating Trials

This isn't the first time that "Uncle Billy" Sherman's coating has caused a problem. The prior gilding job, in 1989, was roundly reviled because it was so bright and shiny, The New York Times reported then.

The critics included Richard J. Schwartz, the philanthropist who footed the $116,500 restoration tab.

Lear magazine publisher and Central Park neighbor Frances Lear decried the "vulgar, garish gilt that seems just a horror.''

Park officials noted that the more subdued green and black patinas of nearby statuary signaled not artistic enhancement, but extensive corrosion.

'What should be remembered is that what you're seeing in that blackish patina is disintegration," said Paul Gunther, spokesman for the Municipal Art Society, "and if you don't do something, it will ultimately just fall beyond repair."

Nevertheless, a lightly tinted wax was applied in 1996 to tone down the shine, The Times noted.


Tagged categories: Adhesion; Coating failure; Corrosion protection; Cracking; Decorative Finishes; Gilding; Historic Preservation; Historic Structures; Monuments; Peeling

Comment from Michael Kramer, (6/24/2014, 6:13 AM)

There was never a different approach taken on the project. It was always to be coated with the aliphatic urethane system, which was what had been successfully tested and approved. The "three coats of polyurethane" noted in the Times' article was not entirely accurate. But D&D's portrayal of our taking a "different approach" is ridiculous speculation.

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