Preserving and restoring our nation’s monuments


((Photo: Jason Newman))

When vandals splattered green paint on the Lincoln Memorial last summer, it was Catherine Dewey’s job to determine how to carefully repair one of our nation’s most beloved monuments.

As an architectural conservator for the National Park Service, Dewey oversees the care of all of the statues, memorials and monuments on the National Mall, as well as dozens of historic sites and Civil War battlefields located in Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.

With millions visiting these sites each year, Dewey understands the important role that she plays as the custodian of our country’s most cherished icons.

“I enjoy being the caretaker and preserver of these national monuments and memorials. They have great meaning and speak to our identity as a nation,” said Dewey. “I like knowing that I am saving them for the American people now and for the future.”

In the case of the Lincoln Memorial, Dewey led the two-week process of removing the paint splatter from the statue of the president and the marble floor around it. This required her to carefully test a multitude of different paint strippers to determine which would be the safest and the most environmentally friendly.

“It was painstaking work,” said Dewey.

Last summer’s incident was the first time that the Lincoln Memorial had been vandalized since its dedication in 1922, and Dewey noted that it is “pretty rare for the monuments and structures to be defaced.”

“Wear and tear and the weather are two of the primary causes of deterioration,” she said.

Dewey and the National Park Service staff regularly assess more than 1,300 historic structures to determine if they are in good, fair or poor condition.

“I am always looking to see if there are things that need to be addressed,” said Dewey. “I very often find myself spending the weekends walking around D.C. looking at structures.”

During the assessments, Dewey said she and her colleagues examine how the condition of a structure has changed. This can range from broken windows or peeling paint to significant features of the structure that are missing.

Once the problems are identified, Dewey has a wide-range of repair options at her disposal. But with each project, Dewey said, her biggest challenge is “ensuring that whatever treatment I perform is the best for the structure and its existence for future generations.”

For example, the Burnside Bridge at the Antietam National Battlefield recently lost a portion of its wall due to the significant freeze-thaw. In this case, Dewey said the park is working with the Historic Preservation Training Center located in Frederick, Md. to do the emergency repair work while she is focusing her efforts on making sure this damage doesn’t happen again by ensuring the proper studies are done.

Simone Monteleone, a cultural resource manager at Rock Creek Park in Washington, has seen first-hand how Dewey’s work has substantially helped her park’s statues and memorials.

According to Monteleone, Dewey played an integral role in the repair of the Joan of Arc statue located in the nearby Meridian Hill Park, which included working with conservators to develop a new sword and spur for the statue.

In 2007, Dewey finished restoring the McClellan Statue on Connecticut Ave in downtown Washington. Monteleone said this restoration ranged from cleaning, painting and waxing the statue to researching and identifying how to replicate the missing shield that was around the base of the memorial.

“Catherine has been a great asset for us here at the park,” said Monteleone.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/fed-player/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference. To recommend a Federal Player of the Week, contact us at fedplayers@ourpublicservice.org.

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