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Materials Conservation Session: “Conservation of cemetery monuments, memorials, and statuary made of zinc”

By Carol A. Grissom, Senior Objects Conservator
Museum Conservation Institute, Smithsonian Institution

Inexpensive zinc cemetery monuments, memorials, and statuary made by several different methods were erected in American cemeteries beginning around 1870 and continuing into the early twentieth century. The fabrication method often determines the type of damage sustained and, as a result, the most suitable conservation treatment.

The most common items were made by the Monumental Bronze Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and similarly named subsidiaries in the U.S. and Canada. Thousands of ordinary markers, many replicas of Faith, Hope, and Charity, a few life-size statues of the dead, and enormous Civil War memorials crowned by statues of soldiers can be easily spotted by their distinctive blue-gray color in many cemeteries throughout the country. Advertised as made of “white bronze,” these products have sandblasted finishes to imitate the mat appearance of stone. Large white-bronze monuments have problems of metallic “creep” on account of their weight, which typically results in sagging between corners and cracking at corners. When necessary, stainless-steel armatures should be installed for support. Filling monuments with concrete should always be avoided, as it almost invariably leads to far more serious damage that is very expensive to remedy. Falling trees and vandalism also lead to breakage of this brittle metal. Seam separations and cracks can be repaired by soldering or welding or with plastic repairs. Corrosion is a potential problem in highly polluted atmospheres, but white-bronze monuments should only be coated as a last resort since coatings destroy the stone-like appearance of their surfaces.

Sold by the J.L. Mott Iron Works and J.W. Fiske, soldiers and firemen made of zinc and painted to imitate bronze were erected in cemeteries by veteran’s groups and municipal governments. Also sold for placement in cemeteries were the occasional naturalistically painted elk made of zinc, encircled by tombstones of members of the Benevolent Order of Elks, and cast-iron fountains with classicizing zinc statues, usually painted white in imitation of stone. Since the largest of these statues is lifesized, repairs usually involve rejoining seams that have come apart, repairing cracks resulting from breakage, and applying suitable paint.

A third type of zinc statue was sold by the Daprato Statuary Company in Chicago beginning in 1913, even as zinc statuary production otherwise waned. The company’s Crucifixion Groups and saints are found in Roman Catholic cemeteries and churchyards, made of copper-plated zinc referred to as “orbronze.” Copper plating on zinc is unstable in an outdoor environment, and severe pitting of the zinc accompanied by loss of the copper plating is common. There are no good options for re-mediation.

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