CITY HALL — A structural engineer hired by City Hall has declared a monumental sculpture in the Civic Center safe, although still in need of repairs and regular maintenance which may cost more than City Hall can afford.
According to a report by Melvyn Green and Associates, a structural engineering and historic preservation firm out of Torrance, Calif., the 26-foot-tall mushroom cloud sculpture “Chain Reaction” is “not an imminent hazard nor should it be considered dangerous.”
That’s a relief to a group of people trying to save the sculpture, which came under scrutiny when Building Officer Ron Takiguchi noticed children climbing on it. There was concern that the sculpture’s structure had deteriorated and may collapse.
Officials began a process to remove the work from Santa Monica’s public art collection rather than pay for repairs, which they estimated could cost between $227,372 and $423,172.
The sculpture is a massive creation with a steel skeleton under fiberglass. On top of the fiberglass are numerous chain links that swarm up the piece to form a mushroom cloud. Three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Paul Conrad designed the sculpture as an anti-nuclear symbol.
It was installed in the Civic Center in 1991, and has stood there exposed to wind, weather and the marine environment without issue until now.
Although mainly positive about the statue’s condition, the Green report did note that fiberglass at the top that was likely sprayed on over a wire frame to form the mushroom cloud shape had deteriorated somewhat as a result of exposure to ultraviolet light, causing it to be more brittle than normal.
“If no action is taken the fiberglass, the connections between the copper links and the fiberglass will continue to deteriorate, probably at an accelerating rate,” the report reads. “It will be like being on a slippery slope.”
Left alone, the sculpture might last another 10 years, it said, and with a basic maintenance program, it could last as long as two more decades.
That would include repairing any leaks in the top of the mushroom cloud, repainting the fiberglass to reduce the impact of ultraviolet light and help reverse some deterioration, ensuring that the chains were supported and removing “inappropriate” connectors like steel wires.
In a memo to City Manager Rod Gould, Takiguchi recommended a much more aggressive approach.
Takiguchi suggested supplementing the “minimum program” of maintenance recommended by the firm to include the removal of the mushroom cloud from the statue so more testing and maintenance could be done, analysis of welded plates and maintenance of structural steel pieces that have shown mild to severe corrosion as a result of the statue’s exposure to the salty air and elements.
Takiguchi also recommended the immediate replacement of the fiberglass covering of the dome, including the base mesh that showed some rust.
According to an estimate by Peter Carlson, whose company originally fabricated the work, maintenance like Takiguchi described would cost between $250,000 and $275,000. A complete rebuild of the exterior of the sculpture for long-term conservation could cost as much as $450,000.
That’s well above the roughly $3,000 that activists working to save the structure have been able to raise.
Dave Conrad, Paul Conrad’s son, did not want to comment for this article on the advice of his lawyer Kenneth Kutcher, a Santa Monica land-use attorney who took on the case.
In past conversations, however, Dave Conrad has expressed frustration with City Hall for giving activists six months to raise money to save the sculpture, but keeping the clock to November ticking before coming up with an accurate accounting of what it would cost to repair it.
That was an impediment for major donors and grants, Conrad said.
Conrad, peace activist Jerry Rubin and Kutcher met with Gould Friday to discuss the future of the piece.
City Hall won’t take over fundraising for the piece, although it might be willing to pay for a barrier or “peace garden” around it if supporters can handle the rest, Gould said Friday.
It wouldn’t even be necessary for them to raise the money if they could get someone to do the work pro bono, he said.
“If you’ve got someone who can do this work according to modern specifications, absolutely,” Gould said. “This isn’t about fundraising. This is about making the sculpture safe for a decade or more.”
In a letter issued Friday afternoon, Rubin said that he was “heartbroken” by the meeting.
Rubin has been fasting for 80 days to bring attention to the need to save and restore the statue.
“I will continue to fast indefinitely, as well as continue to work with the Conrad family and others in the community on this important public art, landmarking and peace-related endeavor,” Rubin said.
On Monday, the Landmarks Commission discussed “Chain Reaction” and City Hall’s responsibility to it as an official city landmark and the possibility of landmarking a piece of ground underneath it to further protect the work.
Commissioners did not take direct action on Monday, instead endorsing a “wait and see” approach.
Commissioner John Berley described the sculpture’s situation as “still in flux.”
“What I would recommend is to have this on the radar as more information becomes available and we understand the nature of how all of this will unfold,” Berley said.