When Dirt Covers Kansas City's Neighborhood Statues, Who Cleans Them Up?

Jul 27, 2017

Paul Benson says he can’t help but assess the outdoor art he passes every day on his way to work as a conservator at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. A lot of it is dirty. Some of it’s broken.

Just recently, he noticed that marble statues near 68th Terrace and Ward Parkway of Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt, and Hippocrates, “Father of modern medicine,” weren’t looking so hot. Fortunately, he’s in a position to help.

Benson volunteers with the Adopt-a-Monument Committee, which is part of the City of Fountains Foundation. He worked on Diana and Hippocrates in 2009 and didn’t know whether they’d been touched since, so he made a call.

An 18th century statue of Hippocrates was originally owned by the Sears family, owner of textile mills in Weston, Massachusetts, according to the Romanelli West Homes Association.
Credit Anne Kniggendorf / KCUR 89.3

The two statues are among 46 outdoor figures in the Romanelli West neighborhood, which stretches from Ward Parkway and State Line to 64th Terrace south to Gregory Boulevard. The developer, J.C. Nichols, named the area for Rafaello Romanelli Studio in Florence, Italy, and adorned it with statuary.

On Saturday, Benson plans to teach a group of Romanelli West homeowners how to care for Diana and Hippocrates, as well as any other statues that need attention.

Joanie Shields, chair of the Adopt-a-Monument Committee, says it’s often unclear who is responsible for outdoor art.

“(Romanelli residents) think it’s on an island that the Parks Department mows and maintains, that the Parks Department is supposed to take care of the piece,” Shields says. “But J.C. Nichols donated it to the homeowners’ association.”

Shields has volunteered with City of Fountains Foundation for 20 years and was president of Historic Kansas City before that. She can’t say definitively, but she’s pretty sure Kansas City now has more fountains than Rome. Still, she has a tough time keeping track of who cares for which ones. Cities in the metro are charged with particular pieces; various parks departments care for others; and City of Fountains cares for others.

Benson wants all of them to look good.

So, about twice a year since about 1994, he’s been gathering supplies, free of cost to residents, and teaching a short class next to whatever outdoor art has caught his attention. He’s worked with neighborhoods, businesses, parks and recreation departments, schools, and even the Kansas City Zoo.

The Romanelli West Homes Association says this sculpture of Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt, is from the workshop of Luca Arrighini at Pietrasanta, near Carrara in Northern Italy.
Credit Anne Kniggendorf / KCUR 89.3

His goal, he says, is to “make sure that if anybody decides to go out there and clean the sculpture they’re going to do it in a safe way; they’re not going to use any high-pressure water or anything like that, any metal brushes.”

When a marble or concrete sculpture has organic growth on it, he advises tackling that first. He uses a biocide that kills lower life forms but won’t harm grass or flowers when it’s rinsed from the art. In a pinch, he says, clear Ivory dish soap is safe, too.

Metal statues are another matter. But as the man who cares for Kansas City’s famous Shuttlecocks on the lawn of the Nelson-Atkins, he’s happy to teach people how to care for metal statuary as well. According to the Romanelli West neighborhood's website, Diana is “from the workshop of Luca Arrighini at Pietrasanta, near Carrara in Northern Italy.” Hippocrates is an eighteenth century piece “originally owned by the Sears family, owner of textile mills in Weston, Mass.”

“They’re not in perfect condition,” Benson says. "Diana may be missing an arm, or part of an arm, so they’ve had some damage over the years.”

But soon they’ll each sparkle white, and people who enjoy them every day will know what to do when they grow dull.

Romanelli West maintenance class, 9 a.m. Saturday, July 29, at 68th Terrace on the west side of Ward Parkway (the rain date is August 12).

Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf