At the heart of Saratoga Springs is Congress Park, a National Historic Landmark comprised of 17 acres of green space that echoes the splendor of Saratoga Springs’ rich Victorian past. Prominently placed at the northwest corner of Congress Park is the Spencer Trask Memorial. The Memorial and, more specifically, the bronze Spirit of Life sculpture have become a defining symbol of our city. In many ways, the winged female figure embodies the health and history of our community which draw residents and visitors to the park. Completed in 1915, nearly a century ago, the Memorial is now in need of restoration and conservation. The Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation, as an advocate for our city’s architectural, cultural, and landscaped heritage, has partnered with the City of Saratoga Springs to undertake this important restoration project.
The current restoration effort follows an earlier restoration by the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation and the City of Saratoga Springs that took place in 1983. Qualified historic preservation professionals completed a historic resource assessment of different aspects of the Memorial — the bronze sculpture, masonry surround, and landscape—and developed a conservation/restoration plan. The restoration at that time primarily focused on the bronze Spirit of Life sculpture and the immediate architectural masonry surround. The restoration effort in 1983 also was accompanied by a public education program.
Three decades after that initial restoration, citizens once again voiced concern about the deteriorating condition of the sculpture, its architectural surround, and landscape setting. In December 2010, in response to this concern, the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation, as an advocate for our city’s architectural, cultural, and landscaped heritage, chose to spearhead the effort to undertake a complete restoration of the Memorial.
In 2011, the Foundation formed an official partnership with the City of Saratoga Springs and a Restoration Campaign Steering Committee to guide the campaign. The Steering Committee has prepared a detailed campaign plan, project timeline, estimated budget, requests for proposals outlining the scope of work, as well as initiated fundraising efforts in support of this high profile restoration project.
The restoration will include all aspects of the Memorial: the Spirit of Life sculpture; the masonry surround, including the east balustrade and reflecting pool; and the landscape setting including plantings, pathways, lighting, and the rambling creek. The effort will be a multi-phase project and will include a variety of education programs. Total project cost is $650,000. The restoration will be completed for the Memorial’s centennial in June 2015, the same year the City of Saratoga Springs will also celebrate the centennial of its incorporation.
In 1914, the architectural setting that Henry Bacon designed for Daniel Chester French’s sculpture Spirit of Life was completed, one year prior to the placement of the sculpture. This setting includes the niche, wing walls, reflecting pool, and seating overlook. The major masonry materials of the architectural setting include: Indiana limestone, concrete and stucco, cast stone, and brick.
By 1963 the reflecting pool had deteriorated. The Department of Public Works thought it was too expensive to repair and raised concerns that the pool was a hazard to children and that it attracted trash and debris. The Department of Public Works filled the reflecting pool with dirt and planted a rose garden in place of the pool. Following public protest, City officials determined that the rose garden was not in keeping with the original design intent of Daniel Chester French and Henry Bacon. The rose garden was removed and the reflecting pool was resurfaced and new power lines were installed for the pump.
The 1984 assessment of the masonry elements identified several areas that required attention: drainage and water penetration; inappropriate and unsightly repointing and surface repairs; structural movement and cracking; damaged balusters; and, surface cleaning and vine growth. The subsequent restoration effort removed inappropriate and unsightly repairs and patches; repointed all joints of the retaining wall, basin and reflecting pool with the proper mortar mix; replaced damaged cast stone; and, restored the balustrade and walls. Since 1984, the Trask Memorial has been the subject of periodic inspection and maintenance. Unfortunately, no maintenance manual was prepared as part of the 1980s work. Consequently more recent repairs were not always executed in the most sensitive manner.
In early 2014, Daniel J. Wilson, a preservation architect from Albany, presented a comprehensive restoration program for the masonry elements of the Memorial based on his existing condition assessment. Work began in 2014 and includes: stabilizing and reconstructing the north portion of the east seating area; replacing damaged balustrades and coping stones; repointing of all joints; removing all unsound stucco and inappropriate patches and repairing the stucco to a uniform finish; and addressing fountain infrastructure. The City of Saratoga Springs hired PCC Contracting Inc. of Schenectady, New York to complete the masonry restoration this spring.
Without question a critical component of the current restoration is the surrounding landscape, which serves as the backdrop of the Memorial and is intrinsic to the original design and viewing intent. Charles Leavitt’s design included 94 different tree and plant species, each placed with the aesthetics of the Memorial in mind. The current landscape is not in keeping with the original design and therefore detracts from the viewers’ experience. Much of the original plant material has been lost and what remains is overgrown and no longer in scale with the Memorial. Non-original plantings obscure views of the Memorial and the original pathways have shifted over time or disappeared all-together. The landscape needs extensive work since only a small portion was addressed in the 1983 restoration effort. In addition, a comprehensive landscape restoration/conservation plan was not developed at that time.
In October 2011, Finch Forestry Management, Glens Falls, did an assessment of the trees that surround the Memorial. They determined the white pines, planted in 1915, behind the Memorial were in poor condition and nearing the end of their expected lifespan. The age and relative health of the trees combined with potential extreme weather conditions, falling trees and branches posed a significant threat to the nationally significant sculpture and architectural surround. The trees were removed in March 2014. Martha Lyon, the project’s preservation landscape consultant, conducted research, a current condition assessment, and made restoration treatment recommendations. The landscape will be restored to the historic 1915 plan to the extent practical. Work will include removal of aging and diseased plants and trees and restoration of plantings, pathways, lighting, and benches.
No documentation can be found regarding the care and treatment of The Spirit of Life sculpture between its dedication in 1915 and 1983. During this period the elements took their toll on the sculpture. In 1982, a well-intended cleaning of the sculpture was initiated by the Department of Public Works, but was halted after concern was expressed that the treatment was inappropriate. The Foundation arranged for Heidi Miksch, a decorative arts conservator from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, to evaluate the sculpture’s condition and recommend a course of conservation treatment. The Foundation spearheaded a campaign to underwrite the restoration of the sculpture, the landscape, and the architectural surround. In 1983, Phoebe Dent Weil, chief conservator at Washington University in St. Louis, was hired to undertake structural repairs, remove surface corrosion, clean, and repatinate the sculpture. As part of her contract, Ms. Weil also recommended cyclical maintenance measures that Department of Public Works has taken in the intervening years to protect the sculpture.
In anticipation of the current campaign to restore the Trask Memorial and Spirit of Life, in 2011 Heidi Miksch again examined the sculpture. Thanks to the thoroughness of the 1983 treatment and periodic maintenance, Ms. Miksch found the sculpture, overall, to be in good condition with no signs of structural damage. This spring, the fine arts conservation firm Daedulus, Inc. of Waterford, MA was hired by the city to remove extant protective coatings and any surface corrosion, repatriate and apply a new protective coating to the entire sculpture. The contract also requires the preparation of a maintenance manual and training program for Department of Public Works personnel.
As part of its mission and ongoing commitment to preserve the cultural assets of Saratoga Springs, the Foundation will monitor the City’s efforts to maintain the Memorial as well as advise the Commissioner of Public Works of any special issues or concerns (e.g. acts of vandalism) in the future. The formal agreement between the City and the Foundation recognizes that the Foundation possesses not only a special interest in restoring and preserving the Trask Memorial, but also important technical expertise which has been critical to the project’s success. To insure that the restored Memorial is properly maintained in the future, the consultant contracts call for the preparation of cyclical maintenance manuals. These manuals will be given to the Department of Public Works and will contain detailed information about the procedures for annual inspections, maintenance treatments, and materials and products to be used to care for the masonry, landscape and sculpture elements of the Memorial.
As an enduring symbol of the springs of Saratoga Springs, the restored Memorial will give residents and visitors enjoyment, highlight nationally significant public art, provide a source of pride in our city, and renew hope in its future. Located in Congress Park, a National Historic Landmark, the Memorial is the setting for many weddings and other special occasions. The restoration of the Spirit of Life & Spencer Trask Memorial will benefit the more than 27,000 residents of Saratoga Springs as well as the hundreds of thousands of annual visitors to our community.