Re-gilding Chicago’s Alexander Hamilton — the statue
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Long before that Founding Father by the name of Alexander Hamilton became a Broadway sensation he was a towering bronze statue. Standing 13 feet tall and weighing in at about 3,000 pounds, he struck a confident, elegant pose from atop a giant pedestal as he gazed southward into Lincoln Park near the intersection of Cannon Drive and Diversey Parkway. Dressed in a formal waistcoat, and holding a tricorne hat in his left hand, he looked particularly handsome on sunny days when his gilded surface caught the light.
These days you will find Hamilton in a somewhat less distinguished position as he is being prepared for his re-entry into society. Lying face down on a platform in the massive garage-like workshop of The Conservation of Sculpture & Objects Studio, Inc. in Forest Park, master conservator Andrzej Dajnowski, and his son, Bartosz, are in the process of giving the statue a thorough overhaul. This involves the use of a unique new laser cleaning system devised by Bartosz, to be followed by the application of a whole new coat of gold leaf.
As it happens, the cleaning of the statue was a fortuitous coincidence, which was scheduled to get underway a full year ago. That was well before it was announced that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical, “Hamilton,” was to have a sit-down run here beginning Sept. 27 at The PrivateBank Theatre where it already has generated something close to box office hysteria.
But before describing the cleaning process, a bit of public sculpture history is in order. And essential to the story is Kate Sturges Buckingham, the Chicago philanthropist and arts patron best known for commissioning the grand Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park. According to a 1951 story in Time Magazine, Buckingham had“two consuming interests – “art and Alexander Hamilton.” She considered Hamilton (who forged his career in New York) “one of the least appreciated great Americans,” who had not only secured the nation’s financial future, but made it possible for her own family to make its fortune in banking, and as operators of massive grain elevators.
Before her death in 1937, Buckingham commissioned a Hamilton statue from the much-admired English-born sculptor, John Angel, as well as a massive, expensive (and controversial) 80-foot-tall column “setting” for the work by Finnish artist Eliel Saarinen that was never executed. She died before the project was realized, but left $1 million in her will to the Art Institute earmarked for the creation and maintenance of the Hamilton memorial.
“The statue was cast in 1939, just as World War II began, but it spent the next 12 years in storage because bronze and copper were needed for making bullets, and their use for a statue would not be looked on favorably,” said Andrzej Dajnowski. “Then, in 1952, it was installed in Lincoln Park, with a huge, ship-like plinth of limestone and black granite [designed by Samuel A. Marx], behind it. In 1993, engineering studies revealed design flaws in that setting, and it was replaced by the simple red granite base on which Hamilton has stood ever since.” (The care of the sculpture is now handled jointly by the Art Institute and the Chicago Park District.)
The Dajnowskis’ laser cleaning process is a groundbreaking technique that makes the use of chemicals and mechanical abrasives unnecessary. Faster and more economical than earlier techniques, it also is more ecologically sound, and (as long as great care is taken with protective goggles) far safer for the restorers’ health. In addition, with a size not much larger than the canister of a vacuum cleaner, the laser can be easily carried up scaffolding and be applied to difficult-to-reach surfaces.
“The process is simple but also complicated,” Andrzej Dajnowski explained. “Every material on Earth absorbs light, but they do so differently, depending on such properties as color and chemical composition. So the corrosion layer, and the layer of primer on this bronze sculpture, absorbs light differently from the metal itself. We target the absorption properties of the layer we want to remove without affecting the bronze surface. And after the lasering [the team was working on Hamilton’s upper back during my recent visit], we mist it with distilled water to rid it of any salts that might remain beneath the surface. This makes the final coating and gilding of the statue as stable as possible, and will prevent future corrosion.”
As Dajnowski noted: “This the first time in the world that a laser has been used to clean a bronze monument in preparation for gilding. We have been working with scientists from around the country, especially Jennifer Mass, an amazing chemist and internationally renowned conservation scientist based in Delaware who specializes in the analysis of corrosive products affecting art. During 13 years of using the laser technique we’ve cleaned the facade of the Driehaus Museum in Chicago, and the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., and dozens of other monuments and structures, and we have ongoing research projects in Egypt and the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. We’ll be presenting our work at international conferences in Scotland, India and Poland this Fall.”
While there is still a great deal of work to be done on the Hamilton statue – including the painstaking application of a few thousand sheets of gold leaf – the hope is that it will be ready for re-installation by Sept. 27. And here’s news that will turn some heads. Although Angel’s Hamilton originally faced North, when he was re-installed in 1993 he was turned to face South so he could be seen in better light. This mean most people saw him from a posterior view, so now, as a result of public pressure, he will be rotated 180 degrees again and face North, making him visible from the front.
Meanwhile, Lin-Manuel Miranda is to give his final Broadway performance in the title role of his musical on July 9, and rehearsals for the Chicago production are set to begin in August. So expect an announcement about the cast here to be made very soon. Word of any festivities surrounding the re-installation of the Hamilton sculpture in Lincoln Park is pending.