From March 1 thru 11, 2019, my son and I restored a 30-year-old in-ground sculpture, Atrium Garden, by Michael Singer. It took us 11 long days. It’s now good for another 30 years!
Back 30 years ago I was part of the team that installed it.
After 30 years this sculpture of pine and stone needed some serious TLC. The original construction as shown in the photo above was comprised of wood units made of 2x4’s enclosed with ½’’ plywood.
Why PT Was Not Originally Used
Pressure treated wood products had become popular since the 1970s but by the mid-’80s when we constructed this sculpture, research indicated that the chemicals used were too toxic for indoor application. It wasn’t until the 90’s that safer chemicals were used in the production of PT products. So when we built this sculpture we decided not to use PT. Instead, we coated the outside ply with tar and plastic as a safe alternative for protecting the wood from contact with plant irrigation and moist soil.
It held up well but after 30 years the plastic had eroded in many places and the ply had rotted. The rot was so extensive that in many places only a sheet of tar remained! The sheets of ply on the other side of each structure and visible on the inside of each ‘hole’ were coated with glue and dirt to give the impressions of a dirt excavation. These were in good shape except for the bottom of each one where moist dirt created rot. Most of the 2x4’s were pock-marked with rot.
- Art Conservation of the World’s Tallest Buddha
- Conserving an American Eagle in Havana
- Sculpture Installation at the US Embassy in Athens
- Art Repair at the Denver International Airport
- Installation at the American Academy of Arts and Letters
Each hole is about 5 and a half feet deep with a concrete floor that we covered with dirt to look like an excavation. Under the plants are about a foot of gravel and topsoil. Fulling all the remaining space between the concrete floor and the soil were layers of thick 4” rigid foam.
Interestingly, we expected to find small lizards and spiders which we spotted at times during the 1½ year scheduled maintenance visits throughout the past years. We encountered none.
A Dirty Job
The contents of each hole were removed - wood structures and large stones. A manual crane was used to remove most of these stones which were too heavy to lift by hand. Each structure was reconditioned with pressure-treated (PT) wood. Outdoor-grade latex paint and 35-year latex caulking were applied to the seams and bare wood to match the color of the surrounding dirt hole. Outdoor-grade decking screws were used at all times.
Then each ‘dirt wall’ made of plywood and 2x4’s was removed and reconditioned. Old ply and 2x4’s were replaced with PT. Sheets of thick plastic were placed as a barrier between the dirt and plants and the new structures. Finally, the wood and stone elements were placed back into their holes.
The long days were due to the challenges presented by our location. We stayed at a comfortable hotel only 10 minutes away from the BD campus. We started each day leisurely with a nice hot breakfast and drive over to BD in William’s truck by 10 am each morning. We estimated 16 days for this project if we worked straight thru with no days off. We couldn’t make loud noise from hammers, saws or vacuums during business hours. So, we used this time to purchase supplies and prepare everything we needed so that once 6 pm arrived we were ready for a loud and intense 3 or 4 more hours of work.
Keeping It Safe
Because employees were working and walking near us throughout each day, we were very careful to keep our worksite clean and organized and surrounded by safety cones and air filters to maintain a safe, healthy and productive work environment for BD employees. The polished granite and marble floors surrounding the sculpture were protected at all times with moving blankets and thick plastic sheet. And of course, we had to watch our language when faced with the occasional frustrating moment!
BD is the world’s largest producer of non-pharmaceutical medical supplies. Their many inventions include the syringe, the thermometer, ace bandage, and the black leather doctor’s bag. Founded in 1897 and headquartered in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, BD employs nearly 50,000 people in more than 50 countries throughout the world. The founders, Maxwell Becton, and Fairleigh Dickinson were also collectors of art. In 1986 work began to create a new campus in Franklin Lakes, NJ. New buildings would feature large work spaces with natural light and beautiful art.
The architects Kallmann, McKinnell & Wood envisioned a Tuscan villa-style design with stately buildings set among rolling hills made of mahogany, polished stone and copper. Their design achieved every major architectural award. The chief architect, McKinnell placed large atriums within each building and commissioned the sculptor Michael Singer to create 2 large indoor sculptures and another large outdoor one for each space. Singer and McKinnell became friends and collaborated on subsequent artworks and architectural designs.
After about the sixth long and hard day, we’d had it! My son William and I were a bit down and out with no end in sight. So, we called in our friend Al Chapman to lift our spirits and lighten our load. He was just what we needed! Over the next 3 days his skill, energy and good humor got us all back on track. Suddenly, the project was almost finished and we were all ecstatic!