When you’re 84 and live in the park, you’ve got to be tough. You’re going to get drenched, frozen, and sit through the sunniest and windiest days. You’re going to shift a bit, crack under the pressure, and start to show wrinkles — all a natural part of aging.
When you’re 84 and live in the park, sometimes you don’t get the respect you deserve. Kids come along, and they just don’t get it. These whippersnappers get out their pens and pocket knives and leave their mark, not even taking the time to get to know you or your history.
But when you’re 84 and live in the park, there are tons of people that have your back. They keep you shiny and clean, put together and graffiti-free. With their help, you have a chance at staying as handsome as when you first came to live in the park so many years ago.
On a soggy December day, a handful of staff from the Parks Conservancy and the City of Pittsburgh were audience to a crash course in graffiti removal at a landmark that’s been living in Schenley Park since 1930: Westinghouse Memorial. Led by Tom Podner of McKay Lodge Fine Arts Conservation Laboratory, a nationally renowned art and artifacts conservation center and the studio that worked magic on Mary Schenley’s fountain and the Highland Park entry gates, this training also included an extensive walk-through of the construction of the memorial. If you’ve never really looked at this beautiful tribute to George Westinghouse, we recommend getting up close and personal next time you’re visiting. The bronze “The Spirit of American Youth,” intricately detailed panels, and all of the amazing details that went in to the entire work — just outstanding.
For those of us that work to maintain and restore the parks and their many historic landmarks, it’s hard to understand vandalism. In the short time between when the men of McKay Lodge had done their first day of assessment and cleaning and the second when they were giving us the lesson, there was already new graffiti on the memorial. Luckily, Tom and his crew are pros at finding the right tool for the job. Lucky for us, one of those tools was a blowtorch.
Starting with the gentlest solvent first, Tom took a couple swipes across the surface of the memorial at a spot where graffiti had literally popped up overnight. He always starts with the weakest solutions first to judge to depth of the scratch or mark. Like washing a child’s scribble off a wall, he took the first marks off pretty easily.
The center panel on the front-facing portion of the memorial was the real task at hand.
A botched graffiti cleanup in the past (not done by McKay Lodge) had left a large white streak on one of the most visible parts of the memorial. As Tom soaked a clean cloth in that same base-level solvent, he explained the different layers of the memorial — the actual memorial, a clear protective coat, and a layer of wax on top. This layer of wax, which takes the hardest beating from the elements, optimally should be refreshed every few years. (Until now, the memorial has seen many years of neglect. The Park Conservancy is actively working to raise funds for a long-term maintenance plan.) This layer keeps memorials looking crisp and clean. And holds pen and marker inks.
The first solvent a wash, Tom reached for the tool we all secretly wanted to see him use: the blowtorch! The discoloring, he explained, wasn’t on the surface-level wax; it looked to him to be moisture that was caught between the wax and clear coat. By using the torch, he was melting the wax and wicking away the moisture from the clear coat. It started to disappear like magic; he invited us to touch the metal right after he worked on an area — the metal was completely cool. He finished the job by buffering on a fresh layer of wax where there once was a big white splotch.
There’s always work to do in upkeeping wonderful park places and features such as the Westinghouse Memorial. The memorial has a long way to go, as we plan to clean and repair it, shore up its foundation, and restore the surrounding Lily Pond. On a larger scale, the memorial will tie into our Panther Hollow restoration work as we plan perimeter landscaping and restoration. If you love this 84-year-old in the park, please consider a donation to keep it looking its best.