Friday, May 21, 1999

To get serious about treasures, hire conservator

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The city has promised to remove the barricade by next month.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
        The ugly green wall on Fountain Square hides more than our beloved Tyler Davidson Fountain.

        Boarded up behind those sheets of Ping-Pong-table green plywood is a prime example of Cincinnati's long history of neglecting its landmarks.

        This wall, in all its ugliness, is a monument to the city being asleep at the switch in caring for public treasures such as Cincinnati's most visible symbol, the fountain topped by a bronze lady known as the Genius of Water.

        It's time Cincinnati changed its mind-set about taking care of its landmarks. Simply maintaining monuments like the fountain — making sure the water runs, the lights work and somebody hoses it down once a week — is not enough.

        The city needs to become more watchful and aggressive in conserving these treasured structures. To me, that means hiring experts to thoroughly inspect monuments on a regular basis — say, twice a year — and take steps to preserve them. The city must take care of its landmarks, not as a janitor, but as a conservator.

Save the lady
        With the fountain, for example, the conservator would: Check the wiring, pipes and pumps. Examine every inch of the metal skin and stone base. Analyze the content of the water. If something's wrong, fix it, restore it — now. And still provide routine maintenance.

        That didn't happen with the fountain. The city's 128-year-old symbol is in terrible shape. The bronze lady on top is listing. The figures and base suffer from stress fractures. The plumbing leaks. The concrete foundation is crumbling. The entire structure is in danger of collapse.

        This did not happen overnight. The fountain has been cracked, leaking and crumbling for years. A 1992 report commissioned by the city found “the fountain in a severe state of deterioration” and recommended nearly $1 million in repairs.

        The repairs were not made. The fountain did not heal itself. Or stay the same. A second report in 1998 found the fountain much worse.

        This report was initiated by Willie Carden Jr. Hoping to reverse the toll years of neglect had taken on the city's most treasured landmark, he had just taken over the job of facility management superintendent. His crews maintain 85 city structures, from police stations and firehouses to City Hall and the Tyler Davidson Fountain.

        The 1998 report put the necessary repairs at $2 million. A drive is on to raise that money, as well as an additional $1 million endowment for future repairs.

Do it right
        The fountain and more of our city treasures will need fixing again unless the system for conserving and preserving these monuments is fixed, too.

        “Fountains like the Tyler Davidson need checkups twice a year, just like we need to go to the dentist every six months,” conservator Andrzej Dajnowski told me from his Chicago studio. “They have to be thoroughly cleaned and examined. If something is wrong, it must be repaired immediately. You don't let a cavity go. You have a dentist fill it, or things will get worse.”

        Until opening his own firm in April, Andrzej Dajnowski was sculpture conservator for the city of Chicago. He was the only conservator of this kind in the country.

        “But in Europe,” he told me, “every country, region and city has a conservator taking care of indoor and outdoor art.”

        In England, Dick Morrissey does that kind of work for his London neighborhood of Westminster. As head of parks and open spaces, he consults with government conservators to keep statues and fountains from falling into disrepair.

        He told me, “You never think of even looking at these landmarks without a conservator.”

        Cincinnati should take the same kind of expert approach that Chicago and London use with their public treasures. We need a trained conservator on board, not just to maintain, but also to preserve and restore Cincinnati's monuments. It's the least we can do for the Genius of Water.

        Cliff Radel's column appears in the Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.