The restoration of the three medallions that grace the south façade of Radio City Music Hall was a major undertaking, involving considerable scholarship and metallurgical expertise. These ornate metal-and-enamel plaques – each measuring an impressive 18 feet in diameter – were created in 1932 by the American mosaicist and painter Hildreth Meiere in collaboration with the master metal worker Oscar B. Bach. It was a felicitous pairing of artistic talents. Meiere, one the few women of the time working in the field of architectural decoration, was at the high point of her career. Bach, the redoubtable technician, was one of the few people able to realize her elaborate – even audacious – designs. Interestingly enough, Meiere’s medallions, which celebrate Dance, Drama, and Song, were among the first artistic works completed for the center and they have served as enduring emblems of Radio City Music Hall.
“What’s unique about these medallions,” notes Steven A. Tatti, who served as conservator on the project, “is that Meiere and Bach used the natural finishes of metals – which include copper, aluminum, brass, steel, and an aluminum alloy called duraluminum – to achieve their desired coloring effects.” In execution, the medallions are wonderful examples of “high Art Deco,” he says. The classically inspired figures, symbolizing the performing arts, are “highly stylized and theatrical, and their movement and energy manage to capture the whole feeling of Radio City and of the art of the 1930’s.” The Meiere-Bach triptych, he adds, “is one of the truly great exterior sculptures of New York City.”
The medallions required attention because they had begun to show the effects of more than six decades of exposure to the elements of New York City. In places, the artist’s brilliantly colored enamels were fading. Portions of the steel armatures that secured the plaques to the Music Hall’s limestone façade had deteriorated. So had areas of the steel frames that held sections of the design elements together.
The project, managed by Rockefeller Center’s Architecture, Planning, and Construction Dept. under the direction of vice president Alan Hantman, began in June 1993 and took four months to complete. Hantman hired Tatti, a noted art conservator who has worked for the Smithsonian Institution and Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, to supervise the restoration, and he selected Tallix, Inc. of Beacon, New York, to handle the highly specialized metal casting and fabrication work. Tallix, one of the world’s largest and most respected foundries, fabricates metal sculptures for such noted artists as Frank Stella and Roy Lichenstein.
The first challenge was to dismantle the medallions safely. All three plaques were constructed in steel sections attached to steel support armatures. The armatures, in turn, were anchored to the building façade with brass sleeves set in lead. These sleeves had to be removed carefully so as not to damage the sculptures or the building façade. A hydraulic crane with a safety cage was used to remove the elements, which were then wrapped individually and transported to Tallix for restoration.
At Tallix, the hundreds of individual pieces of tarnished, and in some cases oxidized, metal had to be stripped, cleaned, refinished, and reassembled in new corrosion-resistant steel armatures and frames. A reinforced fiberglass polyester resin was used to repair any holes or cracks in the design elements, and a silicone gasket material was applied to those areas where it was felt there might be potential for future ionic transfer and galvanic corrosion of metals.
As a final step prior to the medallion’s reinstallation, the Music Hall’s limestone façade was re-pointed and washed.
Because Rockefeller Center has been designated a national historic landmark as well as a New York City landmark, the National Park Service; the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation; and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission all took an active interest in the project, from its inception to its happy finale in October, when Hildreth Meiere’s medallions were replaced in their familiar spots 60 feet above street level, overlooking 50th Street.
“Nobody has ever done any restoration work on a mixed-metal sculpture of this scale before,” says Hantman. “We’re very pleased with the high level of professionalism and cooperation exhibited on this project by the whole conservatorial team.”
The Art of Restoration, of Illumination, by C. Torello, D. DeCrette & M. Friedman, The Center Magazine of Rockefeller Center, Jan./Feb. 1994.