Living Monuments

  • William Shakespeare receives a touch up from Seasonal Conservation Technicians on Literary Walk.
  • Conservation Technicians replacing grout on Robert Burns's base.
  • A team of Conservation Technicians at work on Christopher Columbus.

Even while sweltering in a Tyvek suit and strapped to the Park's statue of William Shakespeare on Literary Walk, Brooke Young welcomes questions about her work in Central Park. "You don't get that when you're working in a conservation lab," she says, "but when people see you apply fire to a sculpture, that raises a lot of interest." The monuments of Central Park are not the timeless structures many of us imagine. This summer, a group of Seasonal Conservation Technicians, participating in a program funded in part by The Charles Evans Hughes Memorial Foundation, Inc. and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, are working with the Central Park Conservancy's Preservation and Conservation staff to keep the sculptures as impressive as they were when first built.

"We have environmental conditions that are so diverse, and anything can impact a structure's condition and deterioration," says Mayank Patel, another Seasonal Conservation Technician who, like Brooke, is studying historic preservation at Columbia University. Sculptures are coated to prevent oxidation and corrosion, but the coating eventually breaks down and has to be replaced. Pollution from nearby roads discolors many of the Park's statues, and UV radiation also causes gradual damage. Water works its way into the mortar beneath the sculptures, freezing in the winter and leaving behind salt crystals that expand in the summer.

These damaging effects may not be obvious to the Park's visitors, thanks the constant effort of the Conservancy’s Preservation and Conservation staff, with help from the Conservation Technicians. While the technicians work with the Conservancy during the summertime, the Park's monuments never cease to need care or to change. "You look at these sculptures as inorganic, dead kinds of objects, but they are living and breathing. There's biological growth. They age the way people do," says Brooke. "These sculptures require a lot of TLC every year to keep them looking as good as they do."

After a pressure wash, the technicians scrub the sculpture with non-ionic detergent and water. "These sculptures are very ornate and very detailed, so there are a lot of nooks and crannies to get into," says Brooke. The sculpture is then heated with a torch before hot wax is applied. "You've got a propane tank going, you've got stuff all over your face for protection, and people are going to come up and ask you questions. So you're monitoring not only your own personal safety, but you’re monitoring the safety of the monument that you’re working directly on and the safety of the general public." One recent challenge, Mayank says, is that "the color of the sculpture's patina has completely changed" after cleaning, and so the team has experimented with various solutions in order to keep the statues looking consistent.

Having worked on most of the Park's 55 monuments with their team, both technicians agree about the importance of the Conservancy as steward of the Park. "There are a lot of people working here every day to keep the Park in great condition, and I think a lot of people don't realize it and just take it for granted," says Mayank. Brooke adds, "Supporting the Conservancy is absolutely a necessity, because you see the direct influence. Basically, you put money into the Conservancy, you're putting money directly into Central Park."

"I think if Olmsted were to see the Park right now—and Vaux—I think they would be absolutely beaming from ear to ear."

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Things to See

  • The Mall and Literary Walk

    The Mall, a quadruple row of American elms, is Central Park's most important horticultural feature, and one of the largest and last remaining stands of American Elm trees in North America.