In Herald Square, a Monument Is Ready for Action
September 17, 2007
Glenn Collins, The New York Times
They hardly have the renown of Lady Liberty or even of Patience and Fortitude, the proud stone lions that guard the New York Public Library. But two bronze laborers with the humble names Stuff and Guff are doubtless the hardest-working statues in New York.
For six decades, these two tireless blacksmiths have been swinging their hammers on the hour in Herald Square to chime the James Gordon Bennett Monument’s bell.
But in recent years they had been toiling a tad too hard, and their situation had become grave indeed: One of them was actually hitting the bell.
This was alarming because since 1940, Stuff and Guff had been perpetuating a grand illusion. Swinging their bronze hammers toward the monument’s five-foot-tall bell, they appeared to make it sound — but never touched it. Instead, two mallets, housed invisibly behind the bell, struck it in perfect synchrony with Stuff and Guff’s sledgehammer show.
However, over the last few years, the seven-foot-tall Stuff statue “was coming too far forward, and it started tapping the bell — and then hitting the bell, which was damaging it,” said Marvin Schneider, the 68-year-old New York City clockmaster, who has been maintaining the bell mechanism and the monument’s pair of clocks for decades.
This faux pas was more than an annoyance. It set in motion the most extensive restoration of the monument in its 66-year history, a $200,000 effort that left it not only silent, but also shrouded in scaffolding for four months, until last weekend.
The restoration is expected to continue until the end of the month, but now the monument — with its heroic 10-foot-tall sculpture of Minerva, depicted with owls and other attributes of the Roman goddess and her wise Greek predecessor, Athena — is finally visible again.
“It’s in its most pristine state since it was installed in the park,” said Jonathan Kuhn, director of art and antiquities for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.
For years, the monument — at the north end of the triangular park, which runs from 34th to 35th Streets between Broadway and the Avenue of the Americas — has been a destination. Tourists wait patiently for the bell-ringers to swivel into action, just as visitors do at the famous mechanical clocks of Europe.
Among the city’s park monuments, the swinging clockwork figures “are unique,” Mr. Kuhn said. Although the Delacorte Clock near the Children’s Zoo in Central Park has whimsical monkeys that also appear to strike a bell, “it’s hard to think of another monument with such large human figures that twist and torque and strike,” Mr. Kuhn said of the Bennett monument.
Several years ago, as the wobbly westernmost blacksmith began actually striking the bell, “we were worried the statues could fall or come loose,” said Phyllis Samitz Cohen, director of the Adopt-a-Monument/Mural program of the nonprofit Municipal Art Society, which coordinated the conservation work.
The bronzes originally stood on the parapet of the New York Herald Building, which was built in 1894 when James Gordon Bennett Jr. was publisher and which stood directly to the north of the square on West 35th Street. A few years after Bennett’s death in 1918, The Herald merged with The New York Tribune, and The New York Herald Tribune continued publishing at 225 West 40th Street. The statuary was removed in 1921 before the Herald Building was demolished. It was incorporated into the 40-foot-tall Bennett monument, which was lavishly unveiled in November 1940.
The restoration has been performed under the auspices of the Municipal Art Society, the Parks Department, the Art Commission of the City of New York and the 34th Street Partnership, which has an agreement with the city to manage Herald Square.
The park underwent a $1 million restoration and reopened in 2000, when the clock mechanism was fixed, after periodic tune-ups and an overhaul in 1989. But the bell-ringing crisis became the cue to fix many of the monument’s other infirmities.
Through the decades it had been attacked by airborne pollutants, acid rain, automobile emissions, pigeon droppings and the freeze-thaw cycle, in which winter ice expands and cracks the joints of the monument’s base of Milford pink granite, which was also soiled.
“And vibration from the subway had caused the stone to move and flake,” Mr. Kuhn said.
The bronzes’ protective coatings were corroded, pitted, eroded and covered in guano. And first aid was needed for a pair of five-foot-tall, illuminated glass clock faces — one on the north side of the monument and one on the south — and their wooden clock hands.
The conservators consulted with American experts and those at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in restoring a proper hue to the bronze, much of it cast in France. “We didn’t want it to look brand-new,” Mr. Kuhn said. “We wanted to have a layered look.”
So the entire monument was de-pigeoned, then the bronze was cleaned and recoated with new patina. This layer was restored by heating the bronze with a torch, then using spray bottles of brown, green and red chemicals to apply the new finish, which imparted color as it evaporated.
“You have to heat the bronze to the perfect point where it won’t bubble the patina,” said Philip Naudé, a bronze conservator who is the project manager for Wilson Conservation in Brooklyn. “We do it all by eye.”
The restorers have cleaned 6,000 square feet of granite and repointed the masonry joints, and repairs to the bell-ringing and clock components are nearing completion. The monument’s mechanism “is complex, with three separate units that regulate the time, the strike and the figures that move,” said Mr. Schneider, the clockmaster, who said that he, like the other conservators, has been unable to determine the origin of the nicknames Stuff and Guff.
He added of the mechanism, “It all has to be synchronized, and when we change something, we have to coordinate everything.” The bell may ring again as early as this week.
Mr. Naudé said the restorers’ due diligence revealed other grand illusions at the monument, including one that dated back to its construction. Measurement of the granite base may have been inaccurate, since the builders knocked out pieces of the stone to enable Minerva’s bronze cape to fit on the monument’s western side.
Another anomaly is a bronze door accessing the interior of the monument near 35th Street. It is inscribed with five stars, an owl and the legend “La Nuit Porte Conseil,” which has been translated idiomatically from the French as “Let’s sleep on it.”
Some have pointed to the attributes of Minerva at the monument as evidence of a connection to a secret society, in the style of “The Da Vinci Code.” And, Ms. Cohen added, no records have been found to explain the inscription on the “lovely — but puzzling — door."