Pittsfield Civil War monument: Appreciating public art


Standing 25 feet above Park Square and representing the ultimate sacrifice made by 108 local soldiers during the Civil War, a Union soldier, cast in bronze, faces west, bravely carrying the American flag into battle.

For 141 years, this soldier also has been one of the city's most prominent and important pieces of art.

It was created by sculptor Launt Thompson of Albany, N.Y., considered a genius in his time, who also crafted such monuments as General Winfield Scott at the Soldiers' Home in Washington, D.C., and Napoleon I at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

"It is a magnificent monument. It is a centerpiece, a gateway to Pittsfield. It was then, and it is to this day," said Arnold Perras, commander of VFW Post 448 and co-chairman of a committee of local veterans who raised money over the past year to restore the monument to its original condition.

The recently restored Civil War monument will be rededicated to the city Saturday, Sept. 21, the anniversary of its original dedication in 1872, in a ceremony beginning at 10 a.m. The ceremony will feature a reading of the Gettysburg Address by an Abraham Lincoln re-enactor, the singing of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, laying of the wreath and presentation of the monument by Mayor Daniel Bianchi.

The project was the vision of the late Col. Gregory Young, who also successfully aided in the efforts to restore the Pittsfield Veterans Memorial, just off South Street on Veterans Way three years ago. That monument was dedicated in 1926, in honor of World War I veterans. It was known as the Peace Memorial, commemorating the war that was supposed to end all wars, said Jeff Thompson, who chaired the committee that restored that monument, and co-chaired the latest restoration.

Last December, less than one month before he passed away, Col. Young asked Perras and Thompson to co-chair the Civil War monument restoration project.

After his death, they took on the project and vowed to bring it to completion in less than a year. Over the past nine months, the committee raised more than $40,000 to restore the monument to its original condition, as well as to fund regular maintenance in the years to come. The city contributed $5,000 toward the project and the committee received a $5,000 state grant.

"We want the public to know that there are 108 names on that monument," Thompson said. "If today there was an event that killed 108 Pittsfield people, the community would be floundering. We are not forgetting the sacrifice that was made, and the historical significance of what the country underwent for the cause of freedom."

"You cannot believe the detail in this sculpture," Thompson added. As he recently stood on the fourth level of scaffolding, 6 inches from the soldier's face, he noticed for the first time the wrinkled creases of the knuckles, the cuticles on the soldier's fingers gripping the flag and the edges of his long underwear peeking out from beneath the sleeves of his Civil War jacket.

The monument was created from melted Civil War cannons, molded and cast in Philadelphia and placed atop a 15-foot-tall block of granite from a quarry in Connecticut, explained Perras.

"After the Civil War, virtually every town in America built a monument," said Williams College art professor Michael Lewis.

"There are few that are superior," he said of Pittsfield's, adding that he has been admiring the sculpture on his weekly trips through Pittsfield for the last 20 years.

"It is well-sighted with a splash of gray at the end of a long open space of park. It has an exquisite sense of scale," Lewis said. "It strikes the right note of sober simplicity and tragic dignity."

Lewis said monuments were the first works of art, used to make bold statements, long before museums existed to house paintings and sculptures of a smaller scale.

"A monument is the expression of a single theme or idea in a large, bold and simple scale," said Lewis, who has made it a personal hobby to study monuments. "It conveys an idea to the mind and a physical impression to the body."

But unlike other works of art seen in museums, monuments are exposed to the elements of nature, and sometimes the misdeeds of humans, both of which take a toll over time.

"Maintenance has been deferred for many years," said James McGrath, the city's parks and open space manager, who worked closely with the veterans' group to ensure completion of the project.

A company called ConservArt, from Hamden, Conn., was hired to do the $18,500 restoration and has been working this month to clean the bronze of dirt and residue, chemically restore the color and apply a protective sealant and wax coating to bring out the detail, McGrath said.

McGrath and members of the committee spent part of last week working with ConservArt to choose the color the bronze would appear after a process called patination, which restores color to metals.

"It was like being in a paint store," Perras quipped.

The project ran over budget by at least $4,000 when it was discovered the monument was coated with lacquer in a previous preservation effort. The lacquer had to be removed before it could be refurbished, Perras explained.

After this first extensive restoration, the monument will be inspected every other year for damage, corrosion or vandalism and cleaned thoroughly. Also with the funds left over from this restoration, the monument will undergo patination to restore its color every 8 to 10 years, as needed, McGrath said, expressing gratitude for the efforts of the local veterans who made this project possible.

"As much as this is a war memorial, it is a piece of public art. We hope that people will take pause when they are in the park and understand its significance," McGrath said. "This monument tells an important story. It is an important landmark in Park Square. We want to make sure it stands proudly for another 150 years."


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