BOSTON (CBS) – Under cloudy skies threatening rain, a group of masons tried to figure out the mystery behind a masterpiece.
“The conjecture is that this piece may be possibly 32 different pieces assembled together in that fashion,” said Jude Clary, a supervising mason with Allegrone Construction, the Lenox based company is leading the restoration work. “Outside it’s finished but on the other side it might look like the ribs of a ship.”
Known as the 54th Shaw Memorial, the 11×14 foot bronze sculpture is an American treasure, and August Saint Gaudens’ most celebrated work. But the monument is more than a century old and water damage has weakened its brick core. A $3 million restoration is now underway.
“It’s not in danger of falling is not that level of danger. But it is deteriorating and we needed to rebuild the foundation in concrete,” said Liz Vizza, executive director of the Friends of the Public Garden. As one of the oldest public advocacy groups in the nation, they’ve been caring for the monument since 1981.
Friends partnered with the City of Boston, the Museum of African American History (MAAH) and the National Parks Service. The federal agency funded half of the money needed. Vizza says they are considering the renovation one of the highest preservation priorities in the nation.
“That is an indication of how important this monument is artistically, historically and politically,” Vizza said. “When you think about civil war monuments and the debates we’ve been having about removing them, the beauty of this story is not only are we not removing it but we are lifting it up.”
All of the bronze and stone will be removed from the plaza level up and taken offsite to a conservation studio. New waterproofing will be installed and a new foundation will be built. The restoration is projected to be complete by the end of November.
“It is a war monument like others in the world but it is different, as it is putting forth people who are fighting for their freedom,” said L’Merchie Frazier, an artist, educator and historian.
Directly across from the State House, on the corner of Beacon and Park Streets, life size figures in bas relief depict Colonel Robert Gould Shaw leading a group of African American soldiers from the 54th Massachusetts Regiment towards the Boston Harbor — to leave the city and fight in the South. The volunteer group of more than 1,000 men, was one of the first all black squadrons to fight in the Civil War and the first African American regiment to be raised in the northern Union states.
“Frederick Douglass is one of the recruiters. The major ports of recruitment in Boston are the African Meeting House and Hyde Park. These recruiting grounds become the camps for the men to enlist,” said Frazier, who also serves as the Director of Education and Interpretation for MAAH. “Its significance in viewing it helps you to realize that there is history that you might not know.”
In the next two week, Friends and the MAAH will be installing 900 linear feet of interpretive signage around on the fencing surrounding the monument. “It tells the story, with museum quality images, the story of the Civil War, the story of Emancipation Proclamation. This is going to be an exhibit without walls,” Vizza said.
The exhibit will be up for the entire course of the construction and will also feature archival images of the individual soldiers.
“There’s history and a narrative that has been diminished and now needs to come forward. The beauty that this sculpture represents is a mark for humanity and humankind,” Frazier said.