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Civil War Hero Statue Gets its Annual Checkup and Cleaning

By Mary Johnson | October 25, 2011 4:21pm
Cameron Wilson, of Wilson Conservation, applied two coats of wax with paint brushes on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011.
Cameron Wilson, of Wilson Conservation, applied two coats of wax with paint brushes on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011.
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DNAinfo/Mary Johnson

FLATIRON — Admiral David Glasgow Farragut was a Civil War hero who helped prevent New Orleans from falling into Confederate control at the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864, famously issuing a brazen directive to his troops: “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

His likeness now stands 15-and-a-half feet tall in Madison Square Park — a stoic tribute which, on Tuesday, was getting a much-needed bath.

Renowned 19th century sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens created the bronze statue, which was dedicated in 1881. The piece is now part of the Municipal Art Society’s Adopt-a-Monument program, which has funded the restoration and maintenance of 51 works of public art throughout the five boroughs.

“We choose things that have historical significance,” said Phyllis Samitz Cohen, director of the Adopt-a-Monument/Mural programs. “And this, because it was so famous, just yearned to be restored.”

The Paul and Klara Prozelt Foundation adopted the Farragut sculpture and financed its restoration in 2002. Graffiti scrawled across its rear was removed, and the admiral was given a new sword. His original weapon had been stolen at some point in the monument’s lifetime, Samitz Cohen explained.

The restoration was performed by Cameron Wilson, of the Brooklyn-based group Wilson Conservation, who was on site on Tuesday to perform the annual checkup and cleaning.

The maintenance consisted of a deep cleaning of both the sculpture and its base, which was designed by Stanford White. The area around the sculpture is a popular lunchtime respite, and Samitz Cohen said the crew had to remove quite a bit of oil from its steps.

Throughout the day, Wilson kept a pair of bamboo skewers in his back pocket, which he planned to use on a troublesome wad of gum smeared into the base’s crevices. His team also used brushes to apply two coats of wax, followed by a hand-buffing with cotton cloths from Admiral Farragut’s boots all the way up to his hat.

“You actually see the wind blowing his drapery,” said Wilson, pointing to the edge of the admiral’s coat that appears to be flapping in an imaginary breeze.

“And I love that one button is unbuttoned,” he added. “It’s not perfect.”

Samitz Cohen estimated that a full day’s work on maintaining a monument like the Farragut statue can run about $1,000, which comes from the Municipal Art Society’s maintenance endowment fund.

“That is critical,” she said. “You undo what your best intentions are if you don’t maintain the work.”