Restored Copper Statue Celebrates the Germanic Roots of a Midwestern Town
Historically, Germans immigrating to the United States have settled primarily in the Northeast and Midwest. Between the mid-19th century and 1945, nearly six million arrived in the U.S. In New Ulm, MN, settled in 1854, the residents dedicated a memorial to the preservation of German heritage and culture – a 102-ft.-tall sculpture topped with a 32-ft. copper depiction of Hermann of Cheruscan, a military leader who defended Germany from Roman conquest. By 2004, the 100-plus-year-old statue was badly deteriorating and Conservation Solutions, Inc., of Washington, DC, was commissioned to restore it.
Julius Berndt Sr. (1832-1916), a surveyor, architect and engineer, was among the settlers who founded New Ulm. He designed the Hermann monument and statue, basing his design on a monument already under construction in Germany. While Berndt designed and built the memorial's octagonal base, pillars and cupola and was largely responsible for collecting the funding, Alphonso Pelzer of the W.H. Mullins Manufacturing Company of Salem, OH, sculpted the statue. It was completed in 1889, but the entire piece was not assembled until 1897. In 1929, the New Ulm Sons of Hermann Lodge gifted the monument and the land to the City of New Ulm. The Hermann Monument was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
One round of repairs was made to the Hermann statue between the 1950s and '70s, focused on the shoulder, wrist and the hilt of the sword. And in 1999, workers removed lead-based paint and repainted the base. However, Hermann still required attention. In 1998, strong winds tore many oak leaves and one of the wings off the statue's helmet. "The impetus for the 2004 restoration was the windstorm that tore off a wing from Hermann's helmet," says Mark Rabinowitz, vice president of Conservation Solutions, "but there were many other issues, too." Other pieces, such as the chain around Hermann's waist and his right foot, had been lost, and some, including the Roman shield and helmet under Hermann's feet, were damaged. Bullet holes as well as stress cracks and open seams were found in various places on the statue.
The city of New Ulm had removed Hermann from his perch and restored the base of the memorial before Conservation Solutions became involved. Rabinowitz, the director of analysis and planning, along with his partner Joseph Sembrat, worked on site with workers from Conservation Solutions and some local coppersmiths. "We first restored the steel armature just beneath the copper sheeting," says Rabinowitz. "This involved removing the rust, cleaning the metal and coating it with a corrosion-inhibiting paint." Like a wire cage, the ribbed armature is typical of large copper statues like Hermann. (The Statue of Liberty in New York City is an example of the style, as well.)
An addition was made to the steel pipe frame, which extends from both feet to the head of the statue. "We reinforced the statue with the addition of a 'third' leg," says Rabinowitz. "The leg extends the armature and is hidden with the shield, additionally bracing the figure against the winds."
The majority of the team's time was spent repairing and replicating the copper skin. "Heavy winds and the harsh Minnesota climate had created stress cracks," says Rabinowitz. "The statue would rock in the wind, and the solder joints couldn't hold the pressure." In some cases, stress cracks led to open seams. "Some of the cracks opened. The joints were pulled apart," he says. "So we re-soldered the cracks and seams where necessary." Rabinowitz acknowledges the skills of the coppersmiths. "This project required expert craftspeople studied in the traditional techniques of copperwork, and I was lucky to be working with them."
Another stroke of luck was that historical photographs were available to help Conservation Solutions determine historical accuracy. "We had images of the statue being manufactured and from post-installation," says Rabinowitz. "This was extremely helpful when it came to determining what pieces were missing."
"One clue that something was missing was marks left on the soldered copper," says Rabinowitz. "We formed wings, the helmet and shield under Hermann's foot and other pieces. We also re-formed crushed areas on the cloak, hand, face and elsewhere." The coppersmiths, including Gene Olson of the Mettle Works in Elk River, MN, used the remaining oak leaves on Hermann's helmet to make aluminum molds for additional leaves.
Hermann's right boot, which had almost been destroyed in previous restorations, was also re-created. "Previous contractors working on the sculpture had cut holes in the top of the boot in an attempt to get at mounting bolts without unsoldering and removing the boot," says Olson. "They mainly made a mess. They also seem to have trimmed about 1½ ins. of material from the bottom edge of the boot." Olson built a mock-up of the frame and copper leg and made flexible patterns using tape to capture shape from damaged parts. The new copper was stretched and shrunk until it matched the patterns and then twisted into position to match the original. Conservation Solutions trimmed the bottom of the new boot to fit and soldered it in place.
Several previous repairs had not been historically accurate, such as those made to a Roman shield on which Hermann's left foot rests. "The position of the shield was changed at some point," says Rabinowitz. "We removed and re-created the shield based on historical photographs.
"After we re-soldered, we chemically patinated the new material to match the old copper. Now the restored Hermann looks like the original Hermann of the 19th century."