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Twenty-six Thousand Dollar Fender Bender Ends With Statue Unveiling At Old State House

A Bump To A Plaque Resonates Into A Yearlong Ordeal To Replace A Gold-Plated Icon On Flagpole

By SUSAN DUNNE

July 18, 2012

It was the fender-bender that costs an insurance company $26,000.

At around 9 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2010, a man on his way to the farmer's market in downtown Hartford accidentally backed his van into a plaque attached to one of the eight flagpoles surrounding the Old State House at 800 Main St.

The van got dented but neither the driver nor his passenger was hurt. The flagpole wasn't damaged. The plaque was damaged so lightly that the damaged spot was banged and buffed out easily, and for free.

But the vibration from the tap resonated up the 30-foot flagpole, which is thinner at the top than at the bottom, so the top of the pole is less resistant to shock. By the time the vibrations hit the top of the pole, they were sharp enough to knock loose a 3-and-a-half-foot-tall, gold-plated statue bolted to the top.

"The statue broke. Most of it fell down. The rest of it stayed up there," said Eric Connery, events manager at the Old State House. "We filed a claim and it took about a year to get the insurance company to agree to pay in full. We even had to turn over the pieces of the old statue to the insurance company so they could reclaim the gold for its value.

"They kept making offers to pay less. We kept turning them down. They really dragged their feet. They waited so long that the price of gold went up and we had to increase our claim by $1,000. We finally got the full amount."

Almost all of that check will be handed over to sculptor Randall Nelson, whose new statue of early Connecticut Gov. Jonathan Trumbull, identical to the broken statue, was installed at a ceremony at the Old State House on Saturday, July 14.

The unveiling was sparsely attended. As dozens of bizarrely costumed youths wandered the streets taking a break from the nearby ConnectiCon to grab lunch at various downtown restaurants a costumed interpreter of Joseph Trumbull spoke with the few who stood on the Old State House lawn to watch Nelson take the sheet off his creation.

Beautification Project

The original statue was put on top of the flagpole in a Old State House beautification project that started in 1996. It was spearheaded by Wilson Faude then executive director of the Old State House because he felt that the grounds looked too reserved and unwelcoming. That beautification project also included seven other statues of other figures from Connecticut history on top of seven other flagpoles surrounding the historic landmark.

Randall made them all, molding them with polyester resin and limestone dust with an added hardener, then adding a coat of epoxy primer, before sending them to a gold-leafer, who painted them yellow and then covered them with gold leaf. (A video available for viewing inside the Old State House shows a gold-leafer at work.)

The other seven figures are George Washington, who met French military commanders at the site of the Old State House; Joseph Cinque, an African who led a slave revolt aboard the ship Amistad; Oliver Wolcott, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and Connecticut's first governor; Marquis de Lafayette, a French ally of the Continental Army, who toured Hartford after the war; Adriaen Block, a Dutch explorer who charted the Connecticut River in 1614; Capt. Joseph Wadsworth, who rescued the great charter from the site of the Old State House; and Prudence Crandall, who opened the first school for black children in Connecticut.

Trumbull's statue holds a basket of fruit and vegetables, because Connecticut was instrumental in supplying Revolutionary troops with food. The model for the statue was Nelson's neighbor in Willington, Michael Mocko.

Faude said that the statues were gold-leafed, rather than painted, for reasons of beauty and ease of care. "Gold leaf would hold up for many years but paint would have been a horrendous maintenance issue," Faude said. "If every five years we had to hire somebody to repaint George's uniform, it would have been a major maintnenance issue. We didn't want them to look shabby. The simplicity of the gold is quite elegant."

Nelson said that another reason gold was chosen over paint was because of Cinque's inclusion among the eight. "There was one whole committee just for Cinque. It concerned them that he was bare-chested and in chains, and everyone else was clothed, and the paint of the skin would emphasize that," Nelson said. "Gold leaf solved the problem. They're all gold all over."

The installation of the original eight statues took five years; Nelson said he was stymied because the price he negotiated with Faude didn't take into account the rising cost of gold. "I lost a lot of money making those statues," he said. "I fit them in between jobs that paid the bills."

Damage And Insurance

In 2008, the statue of Cinque was damaged in a windstorm. "From what I was told, the flag came lose on the bottom because the grommets had come loose," Nelson said. "The flag furled and snarled itself around the statue. So the flag was pulling at the statue at the time the wind kicked up, and it snapped off."

Nelson, who also teaches art at Quinebaug Valley Community College in Danielson, said remaking the Cinque statue was not profitable for him, either. Nelson would not admit the exact amount he is being paid to replace Jonathan Trumbull, but he said that he is indeed getting most of the $26,000, as Connery stated.

"The insurance guy wanted me to do the project and get paid the same as when I made the originals," Nelson said. "I said no. Why should I keep on losing money? The price of gold has been a continuing cost-killer on the project."

Nelson scoffed at the insurance company's insistence on taking possession of the broken pieces of the Trumbull statue to reclaim some of the gold.

"I've told a couple of people, gold-leaf professionals, and they just laughed," Nelson said. "Gold leaf is thin, as thin as Saran Wrap, so thin it's almost transparent, and it's not a smooth uniform surface, not like scraping gold off a mirror."

Lt. Glen Richards of the Capitol Police, which investigated the accident, objected to the amount of the settlement being published in the paper. "People might think to shinny up the flagpoles and steal the statues to get the gold off of them," Richards said. "They wouldn't care if they only got $300 for it."

Nelson doubted anyone would get even that much. He said the gold is valuable only if it stays on the statue. When scraped off, he guessed it might net someone only a few bucks.

"Whoever tried to scrape off the gold leaf would spend so much time trying to get it off, and they'd end up with just a tiny bit of gold and a lot of fiberglass dust. How do you separate the two out?" Nelson said. "It's going to be contaminated and need to be cleaned by a professional. It would cost more to separate it than it's worth."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
     
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