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Grand Army Plaza

The Daily Plant : Monday, August 11, 2003

RESTORING SHEEN TO A PHYSICIAN NAMED SKENE

The list of major public works restored by Citywide Monuments Conservation Program since its start in 1997 will climb to 43 this week as conservation technicians nurse back to health the 98-year old statue of Brooklyn-based physician, medical researcher, and college and hospital administrator Alexander Skene. The statue, located along the intersection of Flatbush and Vanderbilt Avenues at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, is receiving several different treatments, including the removal of paint and corrosion from the bronze bust, the repatination of the bust, and the cleaning and repointing of the statue’s marble pedestal.

"At the time of his death in 1900, he was considered the most important physician in the entire city of Brooklyn," said Parks & Recreation Director of Art and Antiquities Jonathan Kuhn, whose division oversees the conservation. Indeed, although he was born in Scotland, Alexander Johnston Chalmers Skene, MD (1838-1900) made a huge mark after ultimately studying medicine and establishing himself in New York. He was a founding member of the American Gynecological Society, Professor of Gynecology at the New York Post-Graduate Medical School, and Consulting Gynecologist at the Kings County Hospital. He also founded a hospital for "self-supporting women " in 1899. His most notable medical discovery was of the para-urethral glands, later named Skene glands.

After Skene’s death on July 4, 1900, this monument was commissioned by a committee of concerned physicians. The larger-than-life portrait bust depicts the bearded Skene in an academic gown draped over a modern coat and neckwear and is one of two statues remembering physicians in Parks & Recreation’s permanent collection. In addition to this piece, sculptor John Massey Rhind (1860-1936)—also born in Scotland—received numerous public commissions in New York City and beyond, including the Astor door of Trinity Church, the over door figures of Grant’s Tomb, the statue of General Alexander Stewart Webb on the campus of City College, and the doughboy relief for the Twenty-Third Regiment Armory on Brooklyn’s Bedford Avenue.

After nearly a century, the Skene monument lost much of the original lustre and prominence intended by Massey Rhind. In addition to years of braving rain, sleet, snow, and pollution, the sculpture also suffered from well-intentioned graffiti. In fact, in the past 98 years, a well-meaning citizen painted the bronze bust green two times. Conservation consists of the sensitive removal of the paint as well as corrosive streaking on the bronze bust. Instead of paint, the bronze is given a light green hue by the chemical process of patination which, according to head Conservation Technician Jon Cole, is capable of transforming bronze into virtually any gradation or hue. "We are using a combination of chemicals and heat to get the color we’re looking for," said Cole. "You’re going to see who he is a lot better." On the marble pedestal, copper staining will also be pulled out of the marble, much like a facial, and failing mortar joints will be raked out and re-pointed with a "lime"-type mortar. Additional funds are sought to replace the adorning garland that originally existed on the front of the statue. The conservation team, under the direction of Parks & Recreation’s Art & Antiquities division, has conducted archival research to ensure that the conservation is historically correct.

Restorations such as this one don’t just give honor to the person they are dedicated to though. "You dignify the neighborhood," said head Conservation Technician Martha Seelenberger. "You make people realize that their neighborhoods and their surroundings are important."

When the Skene restoration is completed, the Citywide Monuments Conservation Crew will pack up and move to the Bronx where work on the Puerto Rican Sun statue will start in late August. In addition to the three major restorations conducted this summer, hundreds of sculptures are cleaned and maintained throughout the year.

Support this summer for the Citywide Monuments Conservation Program is provided by the American Express Company, the National Architectural Trust and Samuel H. Kress Foundation.

QUOTATION FOR THE DAY

"A smile is the chosen vehicle for all ambiguities."

Herman Melville

(1819-1891)

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