Putting the pieces BACK TOGETHER: Conservator restores Anderson Fountain

Ted Monnich works on patching part of the General Robert Anderson Fountain with resin at the Hanna Westside Extension Campus. The final fountain will stand 18 feet tall and be a glossy black. [Sarah Bates Anderson Independent-Mail]
This cast iron pedestal to the Robert Anderson fountain was orginally cast in Columbia and brought to Anderson when it was built. [Sarah Bates Anderson Independent-Mail]
By Nicholas Charalambous
Anderson Independent-Mail

9/29/2002

The first time Ted Monnich saw the Gen. Robert Anderson Fountain, he couldn't believe his eyes.

The restoration specialist had been told by county officials that the fountain was in "storage," so he was confused as he and county museum director Paula Reel walked along a muddy trail at the White Street dump. Then he saw it. The once-gleaming tribute to civic pride was strewn in dozens of pieces across the ground behind a shed, caked in grime.

Nearly two years after the group Save Outdoor Sculpture brought Mr. Monnich to Anderson to see if the fountain could be saved, the conservator was in a temporary workshop at the Hanna-Westside Extension campus last week showing off five weeks of his handy work.

The fountain was now in three large pieces, ready to be painted with black enamel and then assembled outside the rear courtyard to the new Anderson County museum on Greenville Street.

"It's come a long way," said Mr. Monnich, who until this summer was chief conservator at the state museum in Columbia.

Mr. Monnich, 41, had spent 20 years restoring some of the "finest of the finest" of metal objects in the world. As the one-time conservator with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, he had worked on a suit of armor once owned by England's King Henry VIII as well as a Rodin's sculpture called The Shade.

When he accepted the assignment in Anderson, he said he didn't know much about the 96-year-old fountain's history as a gift from the Anderson Civic League or its claim to fame as the first fountain in North America with underwater lighting.

"I don't need that to get me excited about a piece," he said. "Whether its working on an old bed pan from a state hospital or the Mona Lisa, the pieces get the same treatment."

Mr. Monnich said he was attracted to the project from a restoration viewpoint because of its size and scope.

The restoration of the Gen. Robert Anderson Memorial Fountain took about five weeks. Here are the steps that conservator Ted Monnich took:

Cataloging: Gather and log each remnant of the fountain that survived its dismantling to determine what parts were missing. Include a precise description of each piece to aid putting parts back together. 3 days.

Cleaning: Use soft brushes with a PH neutral solution, neither acidic nor alkaline, to loosen and dissolve dirt and grime. Use a pressure washer to remove stubborn dirt. 3 days

Restoring: Use wire brushes to remove heavy corrosion and old flaking paint. Treat with a polymer mixed with a tannic acid solution, similar to a rust convertor available at home improvement stores, to convert rust into a stable iron oxide. 2 weeks

Rebuilding: Remove any extraneous modifications or additions to the fountain made over its lifetime. Use epoxy resin to fill in holes or rust spots and reconstruct small areas that are damaged or missing. 1 week

Refinishing: Add two coats of industrial primer as a base and follow with industrial black enamel gloss paint. 3 days.

Reassembling: Bolt or weld smaller parts of the fountain back together. Add new electric pump and piping. Transport larger parts to future fountain location, and use cranes, forklifts and other heavy equipment to put it in place.
The fountain, which altogether weighed more than 1,200 pounds and stood 18 feet tall when assembled, had to be pieced together from a jagged jumble of parts which was the result of it being "hacked up" and removed from behind the historic courthouse in the early 1990s, he said.

"It was not taken apart with the intention of being put back together again," he said. "While you're working on it, you're thinking, ‘Why did they do this?'"

In a corner of the workshop, there is still a small pile of bolts, pipe and decorative wrought iron pieces that he originally thought belonged to the historic structure.

Surprisingly, only two pieces were missing: a plaque on the fountain's four-sided pedestal commemorating its construction and one of the cherubs that stood atop the large bowl. Mr. Monnich said a new plaque will be added to commemorate its restoration. He's still seeking a replica of the cherub.

Working with two other colleagues, Mr. Monnich spent most of his time cleaning the metal pieces, treating them for corrosion, filling in odd bolt holes and rust holes with resin, welding broken pieces and finally bolting the different sections of the fountain together.

But Mr. Monnich also had some some delicate work. Using a putty-like resin and a piece of wire, he hand-sculpted a new thumb to replace one that had broken off the female figure that stands at the top of the fountain.

He also had to rebuild part of her skirt, forming and molding the same resin into a flowing fold that was barely indistinguishable from those rippling next to it.

"We don't want it to look like a different fountain," Mr. Monnich said. "We want it to be what it was."

Fittingly, the rebirth of the fountain also represented a renaissance of the community spirit that led to its original construction. The restoration was paid for by hundreds of readers of the Anderson Independent-Mail who donated $45,000.

The outpouring of affection seemed to be a collective mea culpa for the community's past neglect.

The community kept up its interest by visiting the workshop three days a week for a chance to see Mr. Monnich at work.

"I think they appreciated it. They enjoyed being able to see the process and to learn about the work that Ted does," said Catherine Bergstrom, museum curator.

Ms. Bergstrom said she expected the fountain to be assembled on site within a few weeks. A grand unveiling will then occur, where the honored guests will be those who donated money for its restoration.

The rise, fall and rise of a treasured artifact is a cycle conservators celebrate. For Mr. Monnich, it's also humbling reminder of art's false permanence together with a tantalizing hope that it can cheat time.

"All of these objects will turn to dust one day," he said. "My job is to slow it down."

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