As Upper Valley statues deteriorate, their futures remain in doubt

  • After a cleaning before winter, Rich Adams covers the monument in front of the Soldiers Memorial Building in Lebanon, N.H., on Thursday, Nov., 18, 2021. Made of zinc, the monument is deteriorating and will need to be restored. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Cannonballs that were originally on the USS Maine are part of the monument in front of the Soldiers Memorial Building in Lebanon, N.H. The Maine was a Navy battleship that sank in Havana, Cuba, in 1898. While no one took credit for the mine explosion that sank the ship, it eventually led to a naval blockade of Spain-occupied Cuba and to the start of the Spanish-American War. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Before covering it up for the winter, Rich Adams scrapes and vacuums moss from a cannonball monument in front of the Soldiers Memorial Building in Lebanon, N.H., on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. The monument is deteriorating and will need to be restored. Adams works in facilities and maintenance for the City of Lebanon (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

  • Copper paint chips off the rifle on “The Infantryman,” a zinc soldier statue in front of the Soldiers Memorial Building in Lebanon, N.H., on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/28/2021 6:41:44 AM
Modified: 11/28/2021 6:43:12 AM

LEBANON — The cannonball statue across from Colburn Park is something of a downtown icon.

Along with an accompanying Union Army soldier in front of the Soldiers Memorial Building, it’s meant to honor those from the Lebanon area who served during the Civil War and in the years since has served as a reminder of their sacrifice. The building and the statues date back to the 1890s.

Now, a tarp covers the cannonball statue to protect it from the coming winter’s harshest elements. An inspection last summer found that the fused pyramid of copper-colored orbs is coming away from its concrete base and needs repairing.

“Our concern is that ... they’re deteriorating, and we want to preserve them,” said Jim Donison, Lebanon’s director of public works. “They’ll eventually need to be sandblasted, but we’re worried sandblasting will destroy them or deteriorate them further.”

The cannonball statue, made up of munitions from the Battleship Maine, the sinking of which started the Spanish American War, is accompanied by a zinc alloy soldier statue known as “The Infantryman” that was modeled after a sculpture made by Henry Jackson Ellicott, according to a report compiled this September for the Colburn Park Historic District Update Project.

The Soldiers Memorial Building — and its statues — contribute to the district’s designation.

“They’re really, really common,” Nicole Ford Burley, Lebanon’s historian and a member of the Heritage Commission, said of statues honoring Civil War veterans. “The high-quality ones were bronze, but they were really expensive.”

(A similar statue in Claremont is cast in bronze. At the time, a bronze version would have cost around $5,000, while the zinc alloy version likely would have cost around $150, Ford Burley said.)

Over the years, its rifle went missing and was replaced by one given to the city by Henry Emery. In 1973, the statue was vandalized: Both of its legs were broken, causing it to lean backward, according to an article published in the Granite State Gazette. That’s when the city discovered the statues were made out of zinc.

“At the time ... no one was clear about who was going to pay for the work, which came to about $200,” Ford Burley said. The City Council gave the OK for the statue to be fixed, “but approving the restoration didn’t mean they were approving the funding to go along with it.”

The price of preservation

To fix the cannonball pyramid, Donison plans to look into applying for a Moose Plate grant through the New Hampshire Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, which helps communities preserve historic properties. He is uncertain what the cost for repairs will be, but knows that the yearly maintenance budget for the city-owned building, $1,100, will not be enough to cover it.

“If we’re going to do anything we’re going to address the soldier, we’re going to address the cannonballs that’s starting to peel and we’re going to address the shell where that started to delaminate,” he said.

The building itself was finished in 1888, said Bob Therrien, its caretaker. The effort was led by Union Army veterans and it was built to house those from Lebanon who served in the Civil War.

“It took a while for them to get the money and build it and the city put some money in too,” Therrien said.

Nestled between Roger’s House and Lucky’s Coffee Garage, the building is open to the public a handful of times a year and is something of a museum that honors veterans who have served in conflicts throughout U.S. history. It underwent an extensive renovation in 2008, Therrien said. The monuments are considered an integral part of the building, and those involved with its upkeep are determined to make sure they are seen at their best.

Finding the funds to restore a historic monument is not unique to Lebanon. As statues erected decades — or centuries — ago continue to age, municipalities must find ways to keep up with repair work.

“If you truly want to preserve them you have to find a specialty contractor who knows how to restore copper, who knows how to create new copper artifacts,” Donison said. “There are not that many people around who can perform that line of specialty work, so they’re able to charge more money.”

Last summer, as renovations to City Hall were finished up, Donison learned that the four copper finials at the top of the clocktower needed to be recast.

A craftsperson recast the finials and reinstalled them for around $20,000.

“When the responsibility has sort of transitioned over time, your town Selectboard today might not really embrace the idea that they have to care for a monument that was placed a long time ago by other people. And making it a priority for a community is hard when you have so many conflicting priorities,” said Tracy Martin, Vermont Historic Sites section chief.

That can be complicated when the organization that erected a statue no longer exists. That’s the case in Hartford, where for years the Hartford Historical Society has been in possession of the pieces of a World War I monument bearing the names of all who served in town.

After it fell into disrepair, the names were given to any family member who requested them and the rest ended up in piles in the basement of the historical society’s headquarters at Garipay House in Hartford Village where they remain to this day.

“There were many missing and we have no idea where they are or who might have them. So it’s really a very sad thing,” said Mary Nadeau, a member of the historical society.

The restoration work is daunting, expensive and difficult.

“There have been attempts to revitalize that monument, but nothing concrete has been done as of yet,” Nadeau said.

As monuments require work, it raises questions about what to preserve and how to go about doing so.

“Different municipalities deal with this in different ways. Some have budget lines for upkeep of their public art,” said Ginnie Lupi, executive director of the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts.

But sometimes that can be a hard sell for taxpayers, as restoration projects aren’t inexpensive.

“Local taxes are high and there isn’t a lot of assistance from the state for this ongoing responsibility,” Lupi said. “Local governments can only do so much.”

That might mean it falls to volunteers to figure out the best ways to preserve their collective past.

“I think in New Hampshire we really value our history and our communities are built around that shared history, so I think the impulse is to try to save things,” Lupi said.

In Martin’s community of East Hardwick, Vt., there is a granite water tub that was erected by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which is no longer active in town. Her husband mows the grass around it, and each spring a group of women spruce it up with flowers.

“Everybody in the village looks after it,” Martin said.

Three approaches

There are three different approaches when it comes to taking care of aging monuments: conservation, restoration and stabilization, explained Luisa Dispenzirie, acting curator at Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park in Cornish, which is home to dozens of statues.

Stabilization “is intended to stop or minimize an object’s deterioration while also maintaining its integrity,” Dispenzirie said.

That does not involve using any chemical agents or making any drastic changes. The goal is just to mitigate the effects of time and the elements.

With conservation, specialists will make “deliberate alterations” to do what they can to keep the statue in good care.

“A really important one is that any action they take is always going to be reversible because they’re constantly learning and doing more research on methods and materials that they use,” Dispenzirie said.

With restoration, specialists aim to restore the object to a former state.

Twice a year, staff at Saint-Gaudens clean its renowned collection of outdoor statuary, said Maggie Canfield, curatorial fellow. A specialized, museum-grade vacuum cleans off dust and dirt. Once a year, a thin layer of protective wax is applied.

Unlike indoor sculptures — where people can use systems to control humidity and other air quality concerns to keep them safe — outdoor works are exposed to the elements.

“Atmosphere pollution can be really damaging to outdoor sculptures or really anything that’s displayed outside,” Dispenzirie said.

Climates with big swings in cold temperatures like in the Northeast are a particular hazard. If a statue is covered with snow and the snow melts into cracks “it can enter into any one crack or fissure” and then refreeze when the weather turns cold again, expanding and causing more damage.

Ideally, organizations caring for outdoor statues would consult with a conservator about the best ways to keep them clean. But Dispenzirie said that that’s not an option for every organization or municipality because of the cost.

“It can be better in the long run, but everyone’s capacity to do so varies,” she said. “If you don’t have the capacity to do that routine cleaning based on what a conservator has advised, it can be hard to maintain it and later down the road you can be faced with a more costly endeavor.”

Taking charge

Ben Wilson, director of the Division of Historical Resources in New Hampshire, said the state does not track the number of statues or war memorials in the state. Usually, it is left up to a municipality or nonprofit organization to keep them maintained. Recently, the state’s parks department took over maintenance of a bronze plaque affixed to a stone in Dover, N.H., as the group’s elderly members were no longer able to do the upkeep.

“The state doesn’t like to take over maintenance of these historic sites, but when push comes to shove the state is the last place to find help,” Wilson said.

Of all the Moose Plate requests the state receives, restoration work for monuments or statues is among the rarest causes, Wilson said. That doesn’t mean they’re ignored: When renovation work is being done on a building, accompanying statues are also examined. They also take into account the architectural details on a building, like Lebanon did when restoring the finials on top of the clock tower, or the eagle perched atop the Statehouse in Concord.

“It’s all in the details and ... when you start losing those, you start losing some of the value in the architecture, and I think that would go with statuary as well,” Wilson said. “They’re designed by artists and the artists have a vision for what they’re trying to create, and if you start removing bits and pieces it starts to lose some of its meaning.”

In many ways, statues and monuments have gone out of vogue. Instead of statues, veterans memorials are more likely to contain a list of names like the ones in Colburn Park near the Soldiers Memorial Building.

“We don’t put up monuments very often these days,” Wilson said. “A lot of monuments were put up ... to make a political statement as to where the country was going and where they wanted it to go,” he added, referencing the so-called “Southern Heritage Movement” that resulted in dozens of Confederate statues across the south.

Currently, Martin is trying to coordinate a repair to Bennington Battle Monument, which has as its focal point a 306-foot tower. A bronze statue of General John Stark was added to the site in 2000 and this year, his sword went missing before being returned to its base.

“It’s a vulnerable part of the sculpture because there’s just not that much bronze material there,” Martin said.

Whatever the city of Lebanon decides to do, the options abound for how the work can be approached. What remains clear is making sure the statues remain and support the Soldiers Memorial Building’s mission.

“To educate the youth of the city on the sacrifices the veterans have made,” Therrien said.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.




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