Meier Medallions Restored

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.

Granite Eagle Pennsylvania Station

Tatti conservator Steve Johnson begins cleaning and restoration of one of the famous granite eagles salvaged from the old Pennsylvania Station in New York City.  This eagle, now located in downtown Hicksville, NY, is undergoing a full conservation this summer by Steve Tatti’s Art Conservation Studio.  Check back in August to see it restored to its former grandeur with a newly carved beak in place.

In the Public Eye

Annual Outdoor Sculpture Conservation and Maintenance Newsletter, Spring 2010

Fairmount Park Art Association Intern Ashley Lippolis interviewed Consulting Conservator Steve Tatti, S.A.T., inc. and Conservation Technician Kurt Solmssen about their unique perspectives on the Art Association’s long-term Conservation Maintenance Program. 

After almost three decades of work with the Art Association’s outdoor sculpture conservation maintenance program and S.A.T., Inc., conservation technician (and artist) Kurt Solmssen still hears, “What are you doing?” when treating a selection of sculptures around the city each spring.

By now, Solmssen is used to the annual public scrutiny of his work. Heating a bronze sculpture with a blowtorch can, of course, seemalarming if one is unaware that heat is used to apply a protective wax coating for bronze. Even the careful inspection Solmssen devotes to each piece before he begins pressure washing can se em suspicious to the average onlooker. While the Conservation Program has been in existence since 1982, many still wonder about what they see being done to the outdoor sculptures.

The Art Association Consulting Conservator Steve Tatti, and head of S.A.T., Inc., is the firstto admit that many facets of sculptural preservation can seem mysterious. HIs hope is that people understand how important conservation efforts are and the ongoing care it requires. Tatti compares the idea that outdoor sculptures are like cars: “When you buy a car,” he explains, “you expect that it will need maintenance, right? You couldn’t keep driving it around without treating it or taking it to the shop; it will fall apart. An outdoor sculpture will fall apart too without being maintained.” Outdoor sculptures, without care, fall victim to environmental elements and human interaction – just like a car.

Each year, technician Solmssen looks for traces of wear or damage. Treating Philadelphia’s outdoor sculpture is a month-long operation that requires careful inspection, cleaning, and then a thorough evaluation. “We use a bucket truck to reach the top of thee largest sculptures,” Solmsseen says. “We inspect the sculptures for damage, losses, and any graffiti.” Treatment depends on the material of the sculpture, although most are washed with water and a mild detergent to remove the inevitable surface dirt.

Philadelphia’s sculptures can bestone, wood, and metal, but most of them are bronze, which needs special attention.Solmssen explains: “Dirt that is ingrained in the protective wax coating is removed with a solvent and rinsed with water. Wax is used because it is flexible. The wax saturates the surface and unifies the colors so that it is easier to read the forms. After the bronze has been cleaned and is dry, we use propane torches to heat the metal and apply microcrystalline wax with heat. ALter, after the metal cools off, we buff the pieces with a horse hair brush.” Acid rain causues bronze to appear streaky, light green, and black. According to Solmssen: “People think the sculptures are supposed to be light green because that’s how they’re used to seeing them – but that’s corrosion! They should actually have an even color like bronze sculptures located indoors.”

Both Solmssen and Tatti are quick to point out that Philadelphia not only has the largest collection of outdoor sculpture in the nation, but also some of the best known and important works in the world. “People from around the country and world come to see the outdoor sculptures in Fairmount Park,” Solmssen says. He adds that without the Art Association’s conservation efforts, these treasures would end up like old abandoned cars begging for vandalism.

Carybé – Festival of the Americas & Discovery and Settlement of the West

These murals, by acclaimed Brazilian artist Carybé, were originally created in 1960 as the first and second prize-winning designs for the new American Airlines Terminal at JFK Airport.  Carybé composed each work with vividly colored fields adorned with glass tiles, Mexican coins, with glistening swaths of gold and silver leaf, resulting in an exuberant panorama of American culture.

As the terminal was being prepared for demolition during winter of 2007/08, Steve Tatti was faced with the removal, transport and restoration of the works.  Once each of the 52 ft. x 15 ft. murals was cut out in sections – including the wall onto which the painting was attached – the restoration began where rips, separation & surface deformation were addressed following the removal of the old yellowed and detaching varnish that served to obscure the festive colors trapped beneath.  Once the paint colors had been restored and the missing tiles and coins replaced, the team brushed on a protective resin varnish, re-crated and, after two long years of meticulous work, were rewarded with the reinstallation of these American treasures in their new home in Miami-Dade Airport.

Steve Tatti

Fine Art Restoration, A family Business dating back to the Renaissance