Historic repair: Montpelier man restores Civil War monument’s shattered arm
By David Delcore
Staff Writer | September 28,2012
Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
Granite sculptor Ryan Mays of Montpelier carves an arm using a plaster model, right, to guide him at the Granite Museum in Barre. The arm was broken off a Civil War monument in Gettysburg.
A sculptor by trade, Ryan Mays is feeling a bit like an orthopedic surgeon these days, though the Montpelier man admits he is looking forward to letting folks watch him operate on an arm.
Mays will get that chance in coming weeks as the doors to the Vermont Granite Museum’s Stone Arts School swing open on a limited basis so visitors can witness history repeating itself.
In what might be described as a case of art imitating art, Mays is in the midst of carving a replica of the saber-wielding right arm that sat atop the monument to the 11th Massachusetts Infantry in the Gettysburg National Military Park for well over a century until vandals struck in 2006.
The arm — and there was only an arm — shattered after it was toppled off a 14-foot-tall pink granite pedestal that anchored the Civil War monument. The granite hand was stolen. So was the saber, though the curved bronze sword wasn’t nearly as old, having been replaced by the U.S. Park Service in 1998.
The monument, which was first dedicated in 1885, has been armless ever since, but it won’t be for much longer if Mays has anything to say about it. And, of course, he does.
According to Mays, the “stump” of the original arm, one that was carved out of a Rhode Island granite that is no longer quarried, was shipped from Gettysburg to Barre in a wooden crate last month. So were a replica of the sword and the plaster cast of the uniformed arm, which, like the original, is bent at the elbow.
Mays’ job is to duplicate it with pinpoint precision.
“It does feel kind of surgical,” he said as he was setting up shop in the museum’s Stone Arts School late last week.
Working with a block of Westerly Pink granite that matches the stone used to carve the original monument, Mays said it took about two weeks to rough out the arm and the hand, and he is getting ready to hone in on the details.
That means replicating every crease in the clenched fist and every fold in the uniformed sleeve. The cuff has to be perfect and the angle and size of the arm precise.
“They (the U.S. Park Service) want an exact replica,” he said. “The easy part is over.”
Mays said he is looking forward to completing the hard part in space he and others have suggested is under-used.
Mays said he approached the museum’s board of directors about the possibility of one or more sculptors working in the school portion of the museum earlier this year. He said the board was receptive though there were “complicating factors” — most notably the need to recruit volunteers to deal with visitors when the doors are open and he is working.
“There has to be someone here,” he said.
There will be, according to Jeff Martell, who serves on the museum board and is president of Granite Industries of Vermont. In a transaction that can be traced to a museum-sponsored training for park service preservationists, GIV was hired to replicate the arm and the company, in turn, hired Mays, who generally works out of Celestial Memorials.
With GIV covering the overhead associated with working out of the museum, Mays plans to spend Fridays and Saturdays working there through the end of October. He said he’ll start with the arm and eventually add a monument with a relief of Michelangelo’s “Pieta.”
For now, Mays said, replacing the broken arm has his full attention.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever done anything that will be seen by as many people,” he said, noting the sheer volume of tourists who visit the Gettysburg National Military Park each year.
Thankfully, many of those tourists carry cameras and there was no shortage of photographs of the arm protruding from the pedestal of the 11th Massachusetts Infantry Monument. Relying largely on photographs, monument preservationist Brian Griffin was able to mold the upper portion of the arm after park staff made a plaster cast of the stump.
The clay and plaster model was used to create the plaster casting of the entire arm that was shipped to Barre last month.
Museum board member Patricia Meriam credits the summer training session for park service preservationists for creating the connections that brought the work to Barre.
“They (park service personnel) didn’t know what we could do here,” she said, noting that after touring several manufacturing plants — Martell’s included — and visiting companies like tool-maker Trow & Holden, they had a much better idea.
With Mays starting work, Meriam says her challenge will be to line up volunteers to staff the museum, which is located in the former Jones Brothers granite plant, on Fridays and Saturdays through foliage season.
Meriam said Mays plans to work from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Fridays and 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays.
Those interested in learning more about volunteer opportunities at the museum can contact Meriam at 793-5964.
Mays said he’ll be carving either way and, while he typically prefers a little more artistic license, there’s a challenge to reproducing someone else’s work right down to the millimeter.
“I wouldn’t want to work that way all the time, but once in a while it’s kind of a neat exercise,” he said.