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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Historic Sites Spa Treatment

by Bryan McAuley, Site Manager for the San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site.
Photos by THC staff, except for historic image of statue (from TxDOT library collection).

Over two weeks this past October, The Gilder’s Studio (in contract with the Texas Historical Commission) completed a significant conservation/restoration treatment to the heroic bronze statue of Stephen F. Austin at San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site. The statue was originally staged in 1938, having been commissioned as part of the centennial preparations for 1936. A mostly forgotten bit of this statue’s history: it was intended for placement in Brazoria County, where Austin died and was originally buried. Efforts by San Felipe Park Association President George W. Hill convinced the Commission of Control for Texas Centennial Celebrations to redirect the statue to San Felipe de Austin.
SFA Memorial Statue as it appeared in the early 1940s (original installation in the fall of 1938)

Architect Donald Nelson planned the design of the monument at San Felipe - an outer frame with granite curbs enclosing a “tool-finished paving.” Inside this framed walkway, atop a mound, sits the monument itself — a six-block base made of Marble Falls pink granite in the form of a truncated pyramid, supporting the bronze of Austin created by sculptor John Angel.

The Gilder’s Studio staff set out to strip away uneven layers of waxing and to address areas of wear on the surface of the statue. In addition, the monument’s base was re-pointed and original lead shims were removed and replaced with lime-based mortar.
Over the decades considerable wear and discoloration had occurred, giving the statue a mottled and sickly appearance.

Over the course of his “spa” treatment, the Austin statue was enclosed in scaffolding to provide easy access to the work surface. The granite base was wrapped in plastic to protect it from the chemical applications and washing done to the statue. After testing several solvents on the bronze surface of the statue, a chemical peel was applied (under plastic) and allowed to work overnight. The statue was cleaned with medium force pressure washing (water) and with non-ionic detergents and bristle brushes to remove fine dirt. The San Felipe-Frydek Volunteer Fire Department generously supplied water for the project as the site has no water source.
Scaffolding and plastic covers are in place in preparation for the work on the statue.

Gilder's Studio conservators begin applying a chemical peel to remove layers of wax and oxidation. The entire statue was plastic-wrapped overnight.

Gilder's Studio conservators are shrouded in mist as they pressure-wash the statue to remove the chemical peel and layers of buildup and grime.

Re-bronzing the statue in progress. The left side of Austin's forhead shows the "before" condition, while the right side has received the bronze colorization.

The San Felipe-Frydek VFD provided much-needed water for the conservation project.

Last, the statue was coated with microcrystalline wax to seal and protect it. The wax will need to be reapplied in approximately 18 months. Once the scaffolding was removed, the stone work was done in one day. A pressure-wash of the outer walkway had a dramatic effect, removing years of dirt build up and returning the color to a pinkish gray from what had become a dark, sooty black/brown.
A masonry contractor removes original lead shims which had been installed between the granite blocks.

A final dramatic improvement involved lithochrome highlighting that was applied to the lettering in the monument base. What had previously been undecipherable can now be read with ease from the outer walkway.
The application of lithochrome highlighting to the carved lettering in the base of the monument. Application is from top to bottom, so effect can be seen on the upper letters (November 3, 1793, ie).

Project manager William Hayden of the Gilder's Studio puts the finishing touches on the lithochrome highlighting.

The final phase was landscaping. In years past, an effort to stop erosion of the soil at the monument’s base had involved placing landscape timbers (held in place by bare rebar) and a bricked platform near the monument. These elements were removed, as was a chain metal, black stanchion surrounding the monument. New sod was installed, with eco-friendly buffalo grass, to return the monument’s appearance close to its 1938 staging. Despite a late day of storms, the statue/monument project was completed on Thursday, October 29 – just in time for the annual Father of Texas celebration that weekend.
Installation of new buffalo grass sod in progress. The remnants of the landscaped timbers and bricks that were removed can be seen in the foreground.

Ready for my close-up and to welcome many year's of future visitors. Stephen F. Austin looks resplendent with the conservation project complete.

**The San Felipe de Austin is located west of San Felipe on FM 1458 in the Texas Independence Trail Region

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