Preserving the dream at Martin Luther King High School, New York City

John C. Scott

Abstract

First introduced to the U.S. market in 1933 as “U.S. Steel CorTen,” weathering steel received special attention as an architectural and civil engineering material during the period ca. 1960-1975. By the middle 1960’s weathering steel’s rich patina colors had entered the lexicon of sculpture. Today practical and aesthetic factors have tempered earlier enthusiasm, but this very interesting material is still widely employed.

Soon after the 1969 assassination of spiritual leader and statesman the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., a New York City public high school, planned for construction using weathering steel next to Lincoln Center in Manhattan, was chosen to commemorate the great civil rights thinker, activist and orator. Already commissioned for a major sculptural fountain at the school, sculptor William Tarr suggested his contribution be redesigned as a memorial to Martin Luther King. In 1973-4 the huge weathering steel sculpture was fabricated and erected around the primary HVAC air intake at the corner of 66th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. A 1968 sculpture, perhaps Tarr’s masterpiece in weathering steel, already stood at the entrance to a Harlem grade school.

During the early 1980’s, these two weathering steel sculptures deteriorated visibly. They became public hazards as applique’ surface features began to drop off. Massive corrosion attack occurred in scattered locations of each sculpture. These developments paralleled similar problems with weathering steel sculptures and architecture worldwide.

By 1985, the New York City Board of Education and the Art Commission of the City of New York had begun consultation with conservator John Scott, later joined by engineer Joseph Crosson, on the preservation of these and other local weathering steel sculptures. Conservation of the Martin Luther King. Jr. Memorial was complete in late fall of 1991. Earlier that year, the Harlem sculpture had been removed.

Conservators and allied professionals involved in team projects for preservation of large and complex structures need information about enhancing the success of such projects. Conservators of weathering steel structures need information on the physical and aesthetic qualities of this unique kind of steel, as well as technical details of its application and handling.

This talk outlines John Scott’s experiences, observations and suggestions for the conservation of weathering steel sculpture, and for enhancing the effectiveness of large public conservation projects. The presentation comprises a brief account of team efforts to preserve William Tarr’s New York City legacy of public art in weathering steel.