Originally created 05/12/00

Pulaski project stalled



SAVANNAH - The centerpiece of Savannah's once-scenic Monterey Square is a tall column wrapped in plastic, boarded up in plywood and caged in a rusty iron frame.

Right now, that's the only payoff for almost $900,000 and four years of stop-and-go work on the Pulaski Monument.

No new work is getting done on the Revolutionary War general's memorial, which sits in one of the historic district's most frequently visited spots.

After bickering over money, the city and the job's main conservator no longer have a contract.

Both are waiting on the results of an independent study to see if James Wermuth's Conservation Technology Group caused cracks in the monument's stone while putting it back together in December. The firm has headed the project since work began in 1996.

"The square in front of my yard looks like an unkempt construction site," said Alex Raskin, who lives above his antique shop on the square. "At the same time the city and county have seen fit to double my taxes, everything they have done has devalued my property. And there's no end in sight."

He's not alone.

Stakeholders in the preservation effort have gone from publicly upbeat to openly angry. Residents in the neighborhood of the famed Mercer House to Polish heritage groups have raised more than $200,000 for the memorial to Casimir Pulaski, who was killed during the siege of Savannah in 1779.

At least two building and stonework professionals have said the damage looks like it was the contractor's fault.

Even if Mr. Wermuth's work is cleared, the restoration would still be stalled. The city won't accept a replica of the memorial's Lady Liberty statue from another company, saying the artist made it the wrong color and performed poor workmanship.

Meanwhile, the column is damaged again. Rust stains from an iron frame surrounding the monument are spreading on the stones. Mr. Wermuth says they could cost another $6,000 to clean.

IN SEPTEMBER 1996, preservationists took the monument apart to fix damage caused by almost a century and a half of neglect and misguided treatment. At that point, 70 pounds of marble had broken loose and crashed to the ground.

It was supposed to cost $190,000 and take about six months.

But every step of the way, conservators found new problems with the monument that caused its price tag to spiral up and its completion date to get further away.

The stones sat idle for a year at the Historic Railroad Shops while the city council looked for money to continue a project they said they couldn't afford anymore. Eventually, a $1 tax on tour buses - like the ones that line up to circle Monterey Square - got work going again.

After a string of blown deadlines, the monument was almost finished in December.

But when workers started restacking stones on the 54-foot marble column, molding above the monument's base cracked in several places.

Mr. Wermuth said the cracks were caused by hairline fractures already in the stone, which he believes was dropped at the quarry in the 1800s. In a letter to the city council, he said rusty iron joints, which pushed up the corners of the stone, could have contributed.

It's an explanation that doesn't satisfy everyone.

"The strength of that rock appears durable enough to handle that load," said Ray Willingham, a certified geologist who wrote City Manager Michael Brown in January. "I think the reason it cracked is that it was loaded improperly."

Mr. Willingham, who analyzes stone for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers building projects, said pads placed unevenly between the marble stones may have caused the rock to bow and crack.

He's the second person to publicly question the work. In December, structural engineer John S. Kern called the explanation of stone defects "absurd" in a letter to Mr. Brown.

Mr. Wermuth, whose Rhode Island company has overseen Savannah's monuments since a 1995 survey, said the 43 structures needed $3 million in repairs and cleaning. He downplayed the concerns.

"I have full confidence that we have a superlative team here," he said.

He said neither Mr. Willingham nor Mr. Kern had enough expertise or information to understand the engineering project. But their questions were enough to lead the city to hire an outside review of Mr. Wermuth's work.

THE CITY HAS PAID more than $16,500 to Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc., a company that helped move North Carolina's Cape Hatteras lighthouse, to find out how the stone was broken and if it's safe to continue reassembling the monument.

Results of the study are expected in the next two weeks.

City facilities maintenance director Billy Jones, who has overseen monument work since Park and Tree Director Don Gardner resigned in January, said the firm hasn't given any indication what its findings may be.

But it didn't give the city clearance to go ahead with work after looking over paperwork from the job, as officials had hoped they might.

And in letters to the city, acquired through the federal Freedom of Information Act, Mr. Wermuth repeatedly attempted to withhold information from Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, saying it could give trade secrets to his competition.

"I don't want to teach them how to take down a monument and how to put it back up," Mr. Wermuth said. "It's (like) mama's home cooking; it's her recipe and she doesn't want to give it to the neighbors."

The city agreed to limit which sections of certain work plans were showed to the firm.

Mr. Wermuth's contract with the city expired in December. After a dispute over how much he was owed, the city settled with him. They currently have no professional ties.

Mr. Jones said the city may allow other companies to bid on doing the rest of the Pulaski Monument work. Mr. Wermuth would be considered, he said.

If the report clears Mr. Wermuth, the city still won't be able to go ahead. Mr. Jones and Mr. Wermuth agree that a new replica of a statue that once sat on top of the monument isn't good enough.

The "Lady Liberty" removed in 1996 was too brittle to return to its perch and stands now at Savannah History Museum. General Porcelain Manufacturing, a New Jersey company, was hired to produce a replica.

But after a December inspection, the city found that the replica was too dark in color, corners of its base were crooked and patches and seams were still visible on the statue.

Mr. Jones said the city never got a response after asking the company to start over. The city has since contacted the company holding a performance bond, which is money General Porcelain set aside to insure they completed the job as agreed.

"They have not agreed to recast and they have not submitted the appropriate documents for our review," Mr. Jones said. "We feel like we're in the corner here. We don't have any choice."

Officials at General Porcelain couldn't be reached for comment.

And new rust stains on the monument will need to be cleaned before it's ready to reveal to the public.

An iron frame used to put the monument back together has started to rust. Some of the rust got on the monument and, with no one caring for the stone, has continued spreading.

Mr. Wermuth said it would cost about $6,000 to clean, but Mr. Jones said he expected the work could be done much cheaper.

"That's not a biggie," Mr. Jones said. "I know we're going to need to do a little cleaning and touching up on the monument."

ORANGE PLASTIC FENCES block off the square. Tall grass and weeds grow everywhere, except where tourists and residents have walked a dirt path along the edges of the fence.

One morning this week, a pair of workers appeared to be headed toward the monument. Instead, they tested a power generator, grabbed two fishing poles from beneath a pile of equipment and left.

The wait is getting a little too long for some city council members.

"We wish we could snap a finger and it be done, but things are not done that way," said Councilman David Jones, whose district includes Bull Street near the park. "We want our monument back."

But the slow, expensive process has soured another alderman toward the restoration and made him wary of undertaking another big monument project.

"I don't know if they should ever go in depth with another one like this one," Councilman Clifton Jones said. "It's just too difficult."

But to Mr. Raskin, who says his business has suffered while the work has dragged on, it's the city's responsibility to fix the historic structures - especially one in such a high-profile location.

"Savannahians don't like comparisons with Charleston," he said. "But I can't imagine (Charleston Mayor) Joe Riley allowing the most visited place in his city to look like this for over four years."