Monument of the Month: Henry Ward Beecher Monument
Celebrating 30 years of public art
Thirty years ago, The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) launched the Adopt-A-Monument program in collaboration with the NYC Public Design Commission and the NYC Parks Department, to secure private funding for the rescue of public art in danger of deterioration. To date, MAS’s Adopt programs have raised nearly $4 million dollars to conserve fifty-one works of art in all five boroughs. In honor of the 30th anniversary of the program, we are highlighting one restoration per month in 2017.
This summer a masterpiece in the American Renaissance style by the esteemed sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward (1830-1910) was restored through the Adopt program. The Henry Ward Beecher Monument, unveiled in 1891 at Borough Hall (relocated to Columbus Park in 1959), commemorates Beecher (1813-1887), an advocate of women’s suffrage, an agitator for the abolitionist movement, staunch supporter of the Union , and Senior Minister of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church for forty years. He overcame a childhood fear of public speaking to become one of this country’s most celebrated and accomplished preachers. Beecher’s father was the prominent Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher. One of his ten siblings was Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the persuasive classic anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Social reform was at the heart of the Beecher family. The Independent, of which Beecher was contributing editor, took strong anti-slavery and women’s suffrage stances. In addition, Beecher’s popularity and ministry at Plymouth Church contributed much to Brooklyn’s growth, and his sermons and writings served as a barometer of social change in the second half of the nineteenth century. Plymouth Church continues as a vibrant, worshipping community committed to anti-human trafficking efforts.”
John Quincy Adams Ward, one of the most influential sculptors of his generation, was commissioned by the Beecher Statue Fund, to create an image of the theologian representative of Beecher’s character. From his studio on West 48th Street, Ward modeled Beecher’s remarkable portrait from a death mask that the sculptor, himself, had made on March 8, 1887. Wearing an Inverness cloak, Beecher stands in a classic pose. Expressive genre groups are on either side of the prodigious orator: a young black woman laying a palm branch at Beecher’s foot evokes his abolitionist sentiments; a small boy and girl placing a wreath on the pedestal symbolize his love for children. The figures rest on a handsome polished black pedestal designed by Richard Morris Hunt who frequently collaborated with his friend Ward (as in the Indian Hunter in Central Park among other important works).
The inscription on the pedestal poignantly reads:
Henry Ward Beecher, 1813-1887
“The grateful gift of the multitudes of all classes, creeds and conditions at home and abroad to honor the great apostle of the brotherhood of man.”
While the piece had been restored in 1989 as one of the original twenty monuments in the Adopt program, the Incralac coating applied to impede corrosion had failed and active green corrosion appeared where the coating had broken down. The figures revealed surface pitting and erosion caused by the relentless extremes of weather even with the annual maintenance the MAS has supervised.
The treatment was executed by Wilson Conservation, one of the leading sculpture conservation teams in the country, and took two months. MAS commissioned them, having worked with Wilson Conservation on other outstanding monuments including Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Admiral Farragut Monument in Madison Square Park, the James Gordon Bennett Monument in Herald Square, and the Evangeline Blashfield Fountain, Bridgemarket Plaza, at 59th Street.
The conservation project entailed stripping the bronze elements of the degraded Incralac with a methylene chloride stripper. The gel was applied with brushes and sat until softened before it was removed. The bronze was then pressure washed to remove traces of solvent and corrosion. Using traditional foundry patina chemicals, cupric nitrate, ferric nitrate and liver of sulfur, the bronze was repatinated. The elements were heated with a hand held torch and the patina chemicals were stippled on until the desired color and opacity was achieved. Three thin applications of clear microcrystalline paste wax were brushed on and hand buffed with cotton cloths and horse hair brushes. The open seam on the bronze palm frond was filled with an epoxy putty to stabilize it and to make it less noticeable. The fills were inpainted with acrylic paints and then wax coated to match the color of the adjacent surface.
To arrive at the historically correct patination color, the Wilsons and MAS’s Director of Public Art, Phyllis Cohen, did careful research on Ward’s original patination with the thoughtful guidance of Thayer Tolles, Curator of American Sculpture, Metropolitan Museum of Art. The decision was made to return the monument to the original reddish-brown coloration. The Conservation Advisory Group of the Public Design Commission and Art & Antiquities, NYC Parks, confirmed the choice.
The Beecher monument conservation was made possible by a generous grant from the Paul & Klara Porzelt Foundation. Prior to adopting the Beecher Monument, the Porzelt Foundation provided major leadership gifts to the Adopt Program, invaluably helping to restore six masterpieces of public art in the American Renaissance style.
The Municipal Art Society is grateful for the collaboration of Plymouth Church for generously partnering with MAS and NYC Parks in planning the dedication ceremony and reception.