One week ago, a crew carefully removed the bronze George Washington statue from its pedestal across from Milwaukee's Central Library on West Wisconsin Ave. Erected in 1885, the 10.5 foot tall monument is being cleaned up and repaired by an Illinois-based expert.
Diane Buck watched the painstaking removal. She made a name for herself in Milwaukee’s civic monument world. Buck co-authored a book about Milwaukee’s outdoor sculpture.
“I’m very big on the fact that as a community you need to relate to your neighborhood or your community and public art helps you do that when it’s good,” Buck said. “If it’s done correctly, it also reflects the culture and the history of that particular community."
In the 1990s, Buck zeroed in on twelve monuments in desperate need of attention – her Dirty Dozen. The George Washington statue was among them.
On one of the hottest days of summer, George headed south and finally, Buck could cross him off her list.
Like a parent watching over a child, Buck kept her eye on the moving crew’s every move. She said part of the sculpture’s magic is its history.
“This monument has not been restored since it was put up and it is the first public art piece in the city of Milwaukee," Buck said. It was purchased by Elizabeth Plankinton – daughter of John, a successful Milwaukee meat packer of the day.
“She had graduated from Milwaukee College, which is the old Downer College. (She) took the grand trip to Europe. When she was there she met Richard Henry Park who had a very big studio in Florence,” Buck said. "She came home to Milwaukee and decided she wanted to give Milwaukee its first civic monument."
Her dad said okay, and the statue was built in Florence and brought to Milwaukee by ship and train.
Buck describes the style of the day as “super realism."
“So here George Washington is captured as the 43-year-old head of the Continental Army,” she said.
Beneath Washington at the foot of the pedestal stand two bronze figures, specially requested by Elizabeth Plankinton.
“Because in the late 19th century there were a lot of immigrants coming to Milwaukee to live. So she encouraged him to add these two figures. It’s a mother and a child. The idea is she is showing her child the father of our country,” Buck said.
“There’s a heavy duty crane that’s going to lift it up. The monument itself was filled with concrete in the 1950s or 60s (when the statue was moved east to make room for the freeway) Andrzej imagines it might weigh over 2000 pounds,” Claude Krawczyk said. He's president of Westown Association.
The project was pulled together thanks to multiple partners and a great deal of fundraising, Krawczyk said.
“The City Department of Public Works is providing its lift truck and their scaffolding and crew, along with the crane operator from Hennes Services,” he said.
So far $50,000 has been raised.
That amount will cover the cost of mending the Washington statue. But Krawczyk says $100,000 will tend to the entire string of monuments stretching to our west - called the Court of Honor, starting first with the figures at Washington’s feet.
“We want to finish off with the mother and child and then down the street is the Spanish American War hero. It’s not quite as old, it was erected in 1932, but he’s also in need of significant work,” Krawczyk said.
Victoria’s Charge, the Civil War Monument, is further down the street.
“It was fully restored about 15 or 20 years ago, but needs some cleaning and some waxing, so we’re going to that as well,” Krawczyk said.
Ironworker C J Teska ore a hard hat on his head and a frustrated expression on his face. He saod he’s worked plenty of big projects, and this guy from Chicago is being way too cautious.
The guy from Chicago is conservator Andrzej Dajnowski. He's in charge of bringing the statue back to its full splendidness.
“We started getting it up and he said, ‘oh we’re bending it.’ Well you’ve got to fix it anyway, you know what I mean. If we put a little bend in it, it’s his job to straighten it out, right,” Tarka said.
As Dajnowski climbed down from the scaffolding, deliberation continued on how best to loosen Washington from his perch.
“I know that the sculpture has a lot of concrete in it, which is a big problem, but what I’m trying to do is remove this sculpture and we want to only drill and cut whenever we have to,” Dajnowski said.
“I have a plan, but that plan may chance dramatically. I want to remove the concrete by going through the feet. And if I will not be able to do that, we’ll have to cut an opening somewhere and remove the concrete that way,” he said.
The sculpture must be completely clean on the inside to allow condensation to run out, Dajnowski added.
Aside from the concrete, he discovered something is amiss with the sword positioned below Washington’s right hand.
“It is more probably a replacement because it’s slightly too short; it’s about two inches shorter than it should be. It should be resting against the bottom of the hand and it’s about an inch or two away from it. They made a extension for it on the inside; you don’t see it from the street.” Dajnowski added, “It is 100 percent true that it is a replacement.”
Finally, after more than three hours of work began, George Washington floated up and over to the flatbed truck in a matter of moments. It took a few more minutes to lay Washington comfortably on a bed of foam.
As workers strapped the statue securely in place, Dajnowski said he’s now rethinking his sword – he says it might actually be original, after all.
But before he can get to the bottom of that, Dajnowski must tend to the bottom of the statue - its rusty base.
“The rust is a big issue because they inserted a 1 inch rod in both of his legs and that’s why one of the legs is already splitting,” Dajnowski said.
You can hear the voice of CJ Teska in the background. The once disgruntled ironworker, lingers after his work is done. He’s become Andrezej Dajnowski’s biggest fan.
George Washington, Tarka proclaims, is in good hands.
If all goes well George Washington will return to his pedestal next spring, and the bronze mother and son “at his feet” will be restored “in situ.”