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Graciano Sanchez from the Santa Monica Fence Company works on setting up the chain fence around the 26-foot-tall mushroom cloud sculpture titled 'Chain Reaction' in front of the Civic Auditorium on Monday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

CITY HALL — Timing is everything, particularly when you’re racing against the clock.

The Landmarks Commission chose to put off filing an application to landmark the damaged “Chain Reaction” statue on the Civic Center lawn for one month out of concern that doing so would actually hurt the chances of local activists fighting to save the artwork.

Taking the formal step to file an application gives City Hall the ability to request a full report analyzing the piece from its historic consultant, PRC Services Corp.

During that period, however, no substantial changes could be made to the statue, including important tests authorized and funded by the City Council meant to judge the amount of damage the statue has sustained over its years exposed to the elements and how much that would cost to fix.

That would put community activists fighting to raise money to pay for those repairs in a bind, said Jessica Cusick, cultural affairs manager for City Hall.

“They have until Nov. 15 to do the fundraising. We’re encouraging them to do the fundraising now, but they’re handicapped without knowing the amount to raise,” she said.

Initiating a landmark process would only stall consultants’ ability to move on the tests, which are expected to take a minimum of two or three weeks after their contracts are signed.

It will be tight to get those tests done in the month until the next Landmarks Commission meeting, and results may not be back, Cusick wrote in an e-mail.

In the meantime, activists know that they need to raise a substantial amount of money — anywhere between $227,372 and $423,172, according to City Hall estimates — but not how much.

If they can’t come up with the full amount, city officials will remove “Chain Reaction” from the public art portfolio and either return it to the family of its owners or to another cultural institution.

Commissioners emphasized that they did not want any action on their part to interrupt the work to save the sculpture.

“I feel uncomfortable intervening in that process right now in any way that would negatively impact the ability of us as the community and the family as fundraisers to get the information they need to mount a successful fundraising campaign,” said Commissioner Margaret Bach.

So far, only $450 has been contributed to the effort. Money can be sent to the Santa Monica Arts Foundation, which will manage, track and acknowledge the donations so that they can be tax deductible.

Commissioners also directed city officials to explore whether or not it was feasible to landmark a sculpture in the meantime. It’s never been done before in Santa Monica.

This should be the exception, said Jerry Rubin, the Santa Monica resident heading up the push to save “Chain Reaction.”

“I only wish I would have thought to come here a couple of years ago so that Paul Conrad would be alive to see this iconic sculpture become a landmark,” Rubin said, referencing the statue’s creator, the three-time Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist.

“Maybe his family will have that joy,” Rubin said.

Though noted for his art on paper, Conrad dabbled in sculpture as well. The 26-foot-tall, mushroom cloud-shaped “Chain Reaction” was his largest piece, and meant as a protest against nuclear war.

The piece was gifted to City Hall in 1989 but only installed in 1991 after a contentious public process. The majority of Santa Monica residents disliked the piece, according to old records, but the City Council approved it in a slim 4-3 vote.

Since, it’s stood in the Civic Center, across from what would later be the current RAND Corp. building.

Last year, Building and Safety Division engineer Ron Takiguchi saw children climbing on the piece. Further inspection revealed that there was damage to the statue, and it was cordoned off by a fence.

Tests conducted by conservationist Rosa Lowinger and the engineering team of Larry Bruegger revealed structural weaknesses and corrosion to the inner steel structure from exposure to wet conditions and salty air.

The fiberglass frame that supports the thousands of copper chain links also had damage, although its unclear how long it will be able to support the weight of the structure.

In March, the City Council voted to give $21,000 to test the sculpture. Council members also set the Nov. 15 deadline. If money isn’t raised to save the sculpture by then, it will be removed.

ashley@smdp.com