The Philosophical and Technical Challenges of Conserving the Alexander Hamilton Monument

Tuesday, October 28, 2014: 9:00 AM
Presenter: Jennifer Schork , Integrated Conservation Resources, Inc., New York, NY
As architectural conservators, we rarely encounter buildings or monuments that have not undergone previous interventions. Occasionally, past treatments have successfully protected these structures or functioned properly as repairs, but more often they prove to be incompatible over time and have actually caused damage to historic material. Removing inappropriate interventions can lead to a host of challenges, both technical and philosophical.

The Alexander Hamilton monument was completed in 1806, two years after his death. Located in the southern burial ground at Trinity Church in lower Manhattan, it is composed of a neoclassical white marble funerary memorial sitting atop a tiered brown sandstone plinth. This presentation reviews the conservation of the monument, focusing specifically on the challenges associated with conserving the sandstone plinth.

The plinth had been covered with a cementitious parging; research indicates this may have occurred around 1929. This impermeable material was visibly trapping moisture and the parging itself showed signs of failure. To evaluate the condition of the sandstone below, the parging was carefully removed, uncovering damage that had been inflicted on the stone at the time of parging application. The stone was deeply scarified and scored (likely as a means of increasing adhesion), and cuts and divots remained across the majority of the original sandstone surface. However, isolated areas of original striated tool marks remained.

The high level of significance of the monument as the resting place of such an important historical figure in U.S. history necessitated careful consideration of available options for preserving the plinth. To leave the stone in its scarified state was not only aesthetically unacceptable, but would have left the monument in a physical form that could lead to further decay. Fully replacing these stones would have meant a complete loss of a large portion of the Hamilton monument’s original fabric.

The conservation team was left to consider the feasibility of re-dressing the stone. This approach would require considerable creativity and expertise in order to replicate original details that still appeared appropriately aged. Using the extant original tool marks as a guide, a series of mock-ups was undertaken in an attempt to recreate the tooled surface. Historic photographs were also used to further understand the original appearance. An assortment of chisel types and honing tools were used in these mock-ups, which in the end were successful in meeting the aesthetic and philosophical goals.

Retention of original material is undeniably the cornerstone of conserving historic and artistic objects. However, previous interventions frequently present circumstances that are less straightforward and require creative solutions. Although some stone was lost during the re-dressing process of the Hamilton monument, it was an acceptable compromise to salvage the original fabric.

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