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MORTAR ROUNDS

A passerby paused mid-cell phone conversation and mouth agape, as he stared at a group of people hammering and chiseling away at a mammoth slab of granite. Pieces of stone flaked off like cake crumbs. Bits of mortar pirouetted through the air.
Visitors to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park probably hadn’t seen such a flurry of activity at the park’s Vatican Bench since it was installed for the 1964 World’s Fair.
Officially known as the New York City Parks & Recreation Department’s Citywide Monuments Conservation Program, the Monuments Crew is a public-private partnership founded in 1997 to augment the city’s Capital Projects Division and maintenance forces.
The Crew monitors the city’s collection of around 1,200 monuments, though its precise definition of a monument is not set in stone as the program also tends to playgrounds and works of pure art. The Crew makes its rounds in the warmer months, inspecting each monument at least once a year and returning to those that merit maintenance or a complete makeover.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Parks Conservator Christine Djuric and Monuments Conservation Manager John Saunders led the symphony of stonemasons at the Vatican Bench. They worked alongside summer graduate school interns clad in stone-blue t-shirts bearing the Monuments Crew logo on the back.
Think of the Monuments Conservation Program as a carefully calibrated mixture of hard labor, history, science and educational enrichment. Jonathan Kuhn, the Director of Art and Antiquities for the Parks Department, used the following scenario to encapsulate the essence of the program:
“You go to a park and someone might be trying to use a 2,000-year-old column as a goalpost.”
Kuhn laughed but his message was clear. In this 21st century city, many people are too absorbed in the present to recognize the past, let alone respect the monuments that pay homage to it. Vandalism and even the guiltless human hand, paired with pollution, the outdoor elements and the occasional dose of slapdash recreation - like kicking a soccer ball against a fragile antiquity - are chronic foes of the Monuments Crew.
“People sometimes only notice things when they don’t look good - when there’s graffiti on it or when the steps aren’t aligned,” Djuric explained. “So it’s really a goal of our program to keep things well maintained, to address conditions. And when they are looking incredible maybe people will look at them again, rather than complaining that they aren’t looking as good as they could,” she added with a laugh.
Over a three-day span in the park, the Monuments Crew split its time between the Vatican Bench, a papal gift to the city; the Column of Jerash, a marble column from 120 A.D. bestowed upon Robert Moses by King Hussein of Jordan; Free Form, an abstract stainless steel sculpture created by Jose De Rivera for the Fair; and Albino Manca’s 1968 ornate bronze Gates of Life.
The Crew replaced old mortar with new. They repainted letters. They re-pointed stones that had shifted and installed crack meters to monitor movements in ancient marble. They power washed, waxed, polished and buffed.
However, none of the work would have been possible without a thorough understanding of the monuments’ history and the materials used to create and preserve them.
Take mortar, for example. “There’s no way we could replace a mortar or match a mortar without knowing what the history of the mortar was,” said Xiousha Flandro, a graduate student at Columbia’s Historic Preservation Program for Architecture.
Flandro and her counterparts said their summer job amounted to open air edification, with a dose of sweat and muscle. Admiring her paint job on the Vatican Bench’s engraved text, the Colorado native nodded in approval after reading the “very wordy” inscription.
“Well you have to think, whenever somebody put up a monument there’s a reason, you know. These things aren’t cheap,” said fellow intern Steven O’Banion. “I think they reflect the interests of the people that put them there.”
Kuhn hopes that preserving the historical circumstances of the collection “reflects our city at large and the creativity of the city at large.”
His objective is not lost on intern Lindsay McCook.
“A lot of the monuments have been here for quite some time and some are newer so it’s only fair to keep ‘em in good shape so other people get a chance to see them too,” she said, mortar dust on her shorts and a broad smile spreading across her face.

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