Monumental Disgrace

Can S.F.'s rusting, weathered statues be restored by purchasing a whole new line of sculpture?

Like the man begging beside it, the century-old sculpture celebrating America's national pastime is a victim of compassion fatigue. Shrouded in car fumes that swirl around its spot on John F. Kennedy Drive, the life-size Baseball Player is cracked and scarred, a forgotten blip on S.F.'s historical radar. The neglect has been aggravated by regular dousings from Park Department lawn sprinklers nearby. The result? Baseball Player, created by Douglas Tilden, a deaf-mute who was one of California's most gifted artists, is in desperate need of a $13,000 face lift.

“We approached the owners of the Giants for help,” says Debra Lehane, collection manager of the Civic Art Collection for the San Francisco Art Commission, “and one person sent in a check for $100. At this point, either Park and Recreation waters less, or we'll have to move it.”

Baseball Player is not alone. Corrosion and decay are endangering at least half of the 125 outdoor sculptures that fall under the care of the city of San Francisco. In Golden Gate Park alone, 38 pieces require a staggering $1.5 million in restoration and maintenance costs.

“At the time they were built, no one said, 'How do we take care of these things?' ” says Lehane. “One hundred years later we recognize we have an outdoor collection representing our cultural heritage that is falling apart.”

The fight to save these endangered works of public art has pitted preservationists against those who argue that S.F. should do more to recognize contemporary artists.

“My pet peeve is to obtain new art for the city,” says Stanlee Gatti, president of the San Francisco Art Commission. “I have cried inside at the lack of important sculpture. New sculpture would help maintain these historical pieces. Energy comes from the big picture. The more you have, the more notice you receive, and the public will get behind all public sculpture.”

But Lehane worries that soliciting, installing, and caring for newer works will overshadow the needs of existing older ones, which may not spark the public imagination the way they once did.

“Who cares about Garfield?” Lehane asks. The monument to our 20th president, killed by an assassin who shot him four months after taking office, needs a hefty $34,000 in repairs. “There was a tremendous outpouring after his death. It was a way of mourning, reflecting a sensibility of the time, but his time has passed, and the piece has become an orphan. Very often people are quicker to fund something new than to take care of older sculptures. It's exciting and sexier.”

Some orphans have found supporters in nonprofit organizations and corporations with which they have an affinity. The local chapter of the Questers, an international women's study organization with an interest in antiques and the preservation of historical landmarks, is raising $5,000 for The Pioneer Mother at Golden Gate Park's Stow Lake. “This monument symbolizes women who came West,” says Margo Peterson of the Questers' San Francisco chapter. “It is the only statue in Golden Gate Park which specifically commemorates women and the role women played in settling the West.”

A 16th-century bronze Buddha in Golden Gate Park's Japanese Tea Garden benefited from the reawakened concern of its original donor. A gift to the city from S&G Gump Co. in 1948, the Buddha attracted $10,000 in donations at a fund-raiser Gump's held on its behalf last year. That's about $70,000 short of the cost for a complete restoration of the streaked and mottled sculpture, whose surface is riddled with cracks.

The 10 monuments lining Market Street have found a savior in Gannett Outdoor of Northern California. Under a 15-year agreement with the city, Gannett allocates $150,000 a year from bus shelter advertising revenues to clean the statuary between Van Ness Avenue and the Ferry Building.

Those volunteer efforts, though, fall far short of what must be done not only to preserve the past, but to prevent disasters altogether. Take the 24-foot-tall Lotta's Fountain, named after Lotta Crabtree, a noted entertainer of the late 19th century. The 120-year-old sculpture sits at the busy intersection of Kearny and Market streets.

“Lotta's Fountain is severely corroded inside and a big concern,” warns Genevieve Baird, a conservator with Baird/Reif Art Conservators. “It is the same as with a car. If you don't actively wash and wax the surface, corrosion results. An earthquake or a jolt of some kind could weaken the interior further, and if anybody happens to be in the way there could be a problem.”

And what exactly can be done?
“Sculptures [like Lotta's Fountain] are made up of a series of cast-iron pieces attached to a frame like a skeleton,” Baird explains. “Each piece has to be taken off and cleaned and the skeleton replaced.” Baird estimates the work could take as long as six months and cost as much as $150,000.

But, Lehane explains, no money has been budgeted for any maintenance — emergency or otherwise — for the nearly 3,000 photographs, paintings, murals, and monuments that fall under the city's care. To make up the shortfall, the Art Commission recently initiated the “Adopt-a-Monument” Project with the Recreation and Park Department and Friends of Recreation and Parks. It is modeled after the New York Municipal Art Society's preservation program for its 700 outdoor sculptures and is part of a nationwide effort to preserve public art.

“We have counted 30,000 outdoor sculptures nationwide so far in need of support,” says Susan Nichols, coordinator for the Washington, D.C.-based Save Outdoor Sculpture (SOS). Started in 1990, SOS is in the process of cataloging works and spearheading “adoption” campaigns around the country. SOS expects to complete the first step, a comprehensive inventory of all municipal outdoor sculptures, by the end of the year.

“Our hope is to save 10,000 of them by the year 2000,” Nichols says, “a gift from our generation to a new generation.”

Here in S.F., conservators for the Art Commission assessed the different monuments and gave each one an adoption “price.” It reflects what it will cost to repair the work and endow a long-term maintenance fund for it.

“Art in the public arena benefits the mind and the soul,” Lehane says. “It represents the political spirit of a time, the priorities of an era. We need markers for our age, but if we don't take care of them, their time too will pass.

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