Losing our marble

Two days ago, I parked in front of the county courthouse so I could renew my vehicle registration. (It was due back in January, which is when my birthday is, but they give a month’s grace period. I really hadn’t meant to wait until the very last day of the grace period, but then I forgot about it.) At the other end of the lawn in front of the courthouse, there were a bunch of people gathered around a statue, which appeared to be wrapped in a harness and suspended from a crane.

I couldn’t tell if they were putting the statue up, or taking it down. I tried to remember whether I had seen the statue before, but my attention is more commonly drawn to the nearby cannon and pile of cannonballs. I remember how eagerly I used to get in line to climb onto the cannons on the grounds of Trinity College in Hartford, CT. (They had weekly carillon recitals in the summer, and while the grownups relaxed on picnic blankets or in lawn chairs, the children had fun rolling down the grassy slope or sitting on the cannons.) I wondered if children ever played on this one.

Yesterday I read in the local paper about the removal of the 135-year-old statue. A close-up photo shows a face so eroded that a mustache is the only easily identifiable feature. (As I glanced at it Monday, the mustache made me wonder if it was Mark Twain, who at one time worked for the newspaper here.) Indentations show the location of the eyes and mouth, but just barely. I was amazed to learn that this statue is made of marble.

I always thought marble was so durable. Apparently the people who first put up the statue thought so too. “Back then, they thought marble would last forever,” according to the commander of the local VFW, who is also on the Civil War Memorial Committee (which hopes to get a new soldier for the memorial).

Advertisements for marble floors and counters speak of the “epitome of beauty and everlasting durability” of marble. I’ve seen photos of marble statues that are centuries old, and their features are very well-preserved. Even statues from much longer ago, from ancient Greece and Rome, are in better shape than our crumbling Civil War soldier.

Of course, those statues I’ve seen in textbooks and in museums are no doubt among the best-preserved examples of the art of their times, while others probably have long ago crumbled into dust. Statues that were displayed in palaces didn’t face the wind and rain as outdoor memorials do. And my guess is that even outdoors, statues in the warm, dry Mediterranean climate fared better than in eastern Iowa.

This website on historic preservation explains the mineral makeup of marble (CaCO3, formed as a result of the recrystallization of limestone under the intense pressure and heat of geologic processes) and its vulnerability to rain, snow, temperature, wind and atmospheric pollutants. I didn’t find anything specifically comparing the climate here to the climate in Greece or Italy (just putting the word “climate” in google brings up too many hits about global climate change). But having spent some time in a Mediterranean country (Spain), I know how different it is.

The average high temperature in Muscatine in July and August isn’t much different from Athens, Greece – about 90°F. But the average low temperature in Muscatine in January is only about 10°F (with a record low close to -25°F), compared to 43°F in Athens. Precipitation in Muscatine is more than double that in Athens, and a significant portion of it comes down as snow rather than rain. Humidity in Muscatine ranges from about 58% on an afternoon in April or May to 90% on a July or August morning. In Athens, the range is from 47% in August to 70% in December.

Air pollution hasn’t done our statue any good either. Muscatine is not a big city, but it does have industry. One company in particular produces emissions that make the air smell bad all over town. (We live miles away and it’s merely unpleasant. Near the factory it can be nauseating.) I’m sure our marble soldier wasn’t bothered by the smell, but he probably suffered from it in other ways.

This article explains the chemistry behind the pollution-related deterioration of marble.

The growth of cities and their use of petroleum fueled cars has only continued to intensify the problem that leaves no marble statue (ones that are left outside) or building (or ruin) unscathed. Nothing made of marble that is kept outside can avoid the wrath of acid rain, which can be easily explained in chemical terms. Marble, as it is composed of calcite limestone, contains the element calcium, which makes it a basic compound (basic, as in the opposite of acidic). Acid rain is formed when water molecules (such as those in rain clouds) absorb one of two types of sulfurous compounds, SO2 or SO, two chemicals that result from the burning of gasoline. When clouds contaminated with these compounds start to rain down on the earth and the surface of marble sculptures, a chemical reaction ensues that is analogous to mixing baking soda and vinegar. This reaction actually eats away some of the marble– permanently destroying the marble surface.

In our town, the choice was made to move the statue indoors to prevent further damage. In Queens, NY, some people are hoping to restore a statue so that it can remain a local landmark. But it would take about $2 million, and the borough president would rather see that money spent on streets and schools. Besides, “Triumph of Civic Virtue” has been controversial since it was first unveiled in 1922. Virtue triumphing over vice is a good message – but when virtue is represented by a nude male, and vice by two female sirens, many people consider it misogynistic.

At least our soldier is fully clothed – though he did lose his musket when he came down on Monday.

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