Robert E. Lee, you’re looking good. But you, Jefferson Davis? Kinda shabby. Same for you, J.E.B. Stuart.
To the average commuter or dog walker, the statues that give Monument Avenue its name all look about the same: big and bronze.
But if you were to ascend on a lift to get a general’s-eye view, you might be alarmed, says fine art conservator Andrew Baxter, president of Bronze Et Al, Ltd. It’s been 20 years or more since serious conservation work was done on some of the monuments, he says, and the bronze is eroding. “If people would see that,” Baxter says, “they would realize how incredibly important the maintenance issues are.”
Taking care of an outdoor bronze statue is kind of like taking care of a car, Baxter says. The statue should be washed and waxed annually until a protective layer of wax has built up. Then the cleaning can be done less frequently, every two to three years. A well-cared-for statue looks like the city’s lustrous Slavery Reconciliation Statue at 15th and Main streets, or the Lee statue, the only one of the six that the state owns. The other five on Monument Avenue belong to the city. “That’s a perfect example of what maintenance can do, in terms of keeping a sculpture looking rather excellent,” Baxter says.
But if the regular wash-and-wax is neglected, the statue’s finish deteriorates. The bronze oxidizes to a green patina, which, like rust, eats away at the metal and eventually causes pitting. At a certain point, the statue must be refinished by blasting it with glass beads or small fragments of walnut shell.
On the city-owned statues, “the maintenance just hasn’t been done,” Baxter says. Davis is in “dreadful” shape. Stuart’s “looking so poorly.” And Matthew Fontaine Maury has been patchy for years.
Jackson’s not as bad, Baxter says. He treated that monument for free a few years back, after the city parks and recreation department agreed to provide lift trucks and traffic control. About three years ago, the private Historic Preservation Guild paid for Baxter to do partial maintenance on the statue.
The longer maintenance is delayed, the more expensive it gets. If you add up the costs for a crew of two to work for a week, the lift truck rentals and traffic control, it could cost as much as $50,000 to totally restore a statue, Baxter says.
And who will pay for it?
Technically, it’s the city’s responsibility. But there’s no money in the municipal budget for statue maintenance, says Laura Cameron, who’s led a neighborhood attempt to raise funds. “We’re not ready to give up on the city,” Cameron says, but private fundraising efforts have faltered.
Baxter recently talked with city parks and recreation staff about getting their support for statue maintenance. They said they could provide maybe two days of traffic control and a lift, but no money. “So that’s not going to do very much, to tell you the truth,” he says.
“What we’re hoping to do was establish an endowment” to care for the statues in perpetuity, says Steve Nuckolls, former president of the Monument Avenue Preservation Society. But in a tough economy, it’s a tough sell. Hordes of tourists visit the statues, but because no one tracks the visitors to the avenue — a national historic landmark — the impact is “almost invisible,” he says.
The Confederate monuments may be more popular with tourists than with some Richmonders. For years, the statues along Monument Avenue have been defaced. In April the words “No Hero” were scrawled on the Lee and Davis monuments. In 2004 someone spray-painted “Death To Nazis” and “Happy Birthday MLK” on the Lee statue. In 2002 a vandal etched the word “racist” on the base of the Davis statue. And in 1998 the bases of the Jackson and Arthur Ashe monuments were splotched by paint-ball pellets.
Just last week someone poured corn syrup on the Lee statue. The Richmond Fire Department hosed it off.
Baxter says he knows it’s difficult for the city to spend money on statues that, for many, are eternal reminders of the Confederacy: “It’s a very sensitive issue, and I understand that.” But from an academic and artistic perspective, he says, they’re both “pretty fantastic sculptures” and “extremely important historical objects.”
The Lee statue was erected in 1890, when nostalgia for the war ran high, says Timothy S. Sedore, author of a new book on Virginia’s Confederate monuments. “They idolized these men for what they thought they accomplished,” he says. They even made the Lee statue taller than the George Washington statue in Capitol Square, notes Sedore, who is a professor of English at the Bronx Community College of the City University of New York.
What happens if nothing’s done to maintain the statues? The good news is they won’t fall apart, they’ll just silently corrode, Baxter says: “Most people would say, ‘Hey, they’re green and black. That’s what happens to old bronze.’” S
Author Timothy S. Sedore gives a noon lecture on Virginia’s Confederate monuments at the Virginia Historical Society on Dec. 8.