Conservation of American Zinc Sculpture

Authors: Mark Rabinowitz & Carol Grissom

From the mid-1850s through the early 20th century zinc statues proliferated in the United States, with a few even dedicated after World War II. Most were purchased for smaller towns or organizations without the financial resources to purchase unique and more expensive bronze statues that they were intended to resemble. While the zinc can be remarkably stabile in the outdoor environment, more so than bronze in some ways, deterioration from structural failures and accidents are often found in addition to the expected corrosion. The authors draw on their knowledge of the history of these works and numerous treatments that they have been involved with to demonstrate the specific engineering and manufacturing methods used in the creation of zinc statuary, the deterioration and loss that they are subject to, and the successful restoration means that have been developed to treat them.

This paper covers the three main types of zinc monuments: statues sandcast in small pieces, assembled with lead-based solder, and painted or plated to imitate bronze or stone; stamped sheet-zinc statues for architecture, often painted to imitate stone and sometimes gilded; and sand-cast “white-bronze” monuments made by joining large thick sectioned assemblies finished with sandblasting to imitate stone. Many of these works have suffered from deterioration specific to the nature of the material and the different fabrication methods. Through case studies of several works that the authors have studied and treated, this paper will explore the history of the production of these monuments, the causes of deterioration, and means and methods for treatment.

The Soldier’s Monument (1890) near the sea in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, is one of nearly 20 replicas of citizen-soldier statues produced by the German immigrant Moritz Seelig in a foundry in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and sold by the large cast-iron company, J.W. Fiske. Severely damaged in a hurricane in 1938, the work had been through several well-meaning if inept repair campaigns before being restored in 2000 by the author. After removal of corrosion, replication of numerous missing elements, installation of an internal armature and other repairs, a high-quality dark brown paint was selected to imitate the monument’s original nineteenth-century bronze-like coating determined through paint analysis.

Stamped-zinc statues of Justice and Liberty made by W.H. Mullins in Salem, Ohio, are lighter in weight and more suitable than cast-zinc counterparts for display atop domes on the 1902 City Hall in Goldsboro, North Carolina. They also suffered losses from high winds but were more vulnerable to denting and distortion than the tearing of the Fiske work. Severe corrosion leading to loss of the skin, was tied to the integration of the statue with the roofing system. During restoration of these issues the original rudimentary armatures of simple wood posts were replaced with galvanized piping prior to re-gilding and reinstallation of the statues on the building.

Citizen-soldiers and other figures were also made in the uniquely American “white bronze” of the Monumental Bronze Company and its affiliates. With large architectural bases made to resemble stone ashlar, these monuments can reach 10 meters in height. Weight and size of these grander monuments had lead to significant creep and fracture of the brittle zinc on a number of works. Further damage was caused by inappropriate remedies such as filling the monument with concrete. The restoration of several of works required disassembly, removal of the previous repairs, casting and re-creation of missing elements, and Installation of stainless-steel armatures strong enough to support the large zinc bases, figures and obelisks. Design and fabrication of the armatures entails adjusting to the idiosyncrasies used during the original fabrication. Several examples of different solutions will be presented.