Removing Dirt, Debris, and Graffiti from Prospect Park’s Lafayette Memorial

A Note from MAS Director of Public Art Phyllis Cohen

December 21, 2022

The works saved and maintained by the MAS represent a Who’s Who of American Sculptors in the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries. Among the most illustrious monuments conserved and maintained this summer was the elegant Lafayette Memorial, 1917, by the sculptor Daniel Chester French and architect Henry Bacon, in Prospect Park at the 9th Street entrance.

French (1850-1931) gained national prominence as a sculptor of heroic subjects at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. This showpiece of late 19th century eclecticism reflected a collaborative spirit evident in French’s public monuments. The most notable bear the imprint of his friend, the architect Henry Bacon. A foremost example is the Lafayette Memorial, followed in 1920-22 by their teaming up to create the magnificent Lincoln Memorial on the Washington Mall in the nation’s capital.

The Marquis de Lafayette is set in a polished granite exedra framed by Corinthian pilasters. The nearly 10-foot high bronze tablet commemorates the French military hero and his commitment to the American colonists in the Revolutionary War. Modelled in high relief, Lafayette stands out boldly against the shallow outline of his horse and a groom bracing the horse’s bridle. Some historians have speculated that the figure of the groomsman is James Armistead (Lafayette). The Marquis was a staunch abolitionist and his role in gaining Armistead’s freedom is a compelling story. However, the authentication of Armistead is still debated.

  • The Lafayette Memorial in Brooklyn's Prospect Park before its restoration. Photos: Phyllis Cohen.
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  • The Lafayette Memorial undergoing restoration. Photos: Phyllis Cohen.
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  • The Lafayette Memorial after being restored. Photos: Phyllis Cohen.
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When the Municipal Art Society included the Lafayette Memorial in its Adopt-A-Monument initiative in 1987, the piece had markedly deteriorated. Pollution had changed the bronze surface to a bright sherbet green patina while the background was blackened by sulfur deposits; wax was blanching and graffiti was marring the granite; and Lafayette’s sword and spurs had been stolen. Under the 1989 restoration by MAS, the missing pieces were replicated, the bronze was repatinated to its original statuary brown, and vandalism to the stone was removed. The MAS has since maintained the piece annually.

This fall, Zach Tatti of Tatti Conservation cleaned the sculpture and the base with a mild ionic detergent and water rinse to remove surface dirt and debris. Regrettably, graffiti in blue chalk and acrylic paint was notable on the horse’s neck and flank, as well as lower sections of the base. Much of the graffiti defacing the bronze had bonded to the existing protective wax layer. In those areas the wax had to be carefully removed in order to eradicate the graffiti. Once corrected, the conservator used a propane torch to heat the bronze before a new application of wax was brushed onto the surface, allowed to cool and harden, then given a final buffing to achieve an even sheen. Watching the conservation, a class of elementary school students listened to Zach describe the treatment and were clearly fixated by witnessing the magical transformation and renewal progress!

A generous grant from the Achelis & Bodman Foundation made critical maintenance of this noble monument possible. The major goal of the Adopt-A-Monument program is to establish continuing care of these commemorative works of art that imbue our parks with history and beauty. The idea of permanence implicit in a monument commissioned 125 years ago can be ensured by rare and thoughtful patrons like the Achelis & Bodman Foundation, who understand the importance of conservation.

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