With a chisel and rubber mallet in hand, Stephen Grant delicately chipped away at the intricate sculpted face of a 103-year-old concrete goose.
Grant is part of a Los Angeles preservation team that has spent the past few weeks restoring four long-neglected fountains at the corners of Atascadero’s historic City Administration Building.
On Thursday, as the team worked to clean and restore the statues, details in the concrete began to emerge. Each fountain has a mermaid — with two sets of fins — blowing into a conch shell to signal the geese to flight. Around them, adorned on each fountain’s ledge, sit turtles, crabs, squid, octopuses and lotus flowers.
The 1917 building is reopening Aug. 20 as Atascadero’s city hall, nearly 10 years after damage from the San Simeon Earthquake forced its closure in 2003. With the project to retrofit it in its final days, workers Thursday were busy laying sod, installing historic photos on the walls and working on the parking lot. But amid the flurry of work, the fountains are getting special attention. Their renovation, costing about $160,000, is coupled with the return of the city’s historic Wrestling Bacchantes statue in the Sunken Gardens on Sept. 22.
The three-woman statue featured in the 1904 World’s Fair was brought to Atascadero by colony founder E.G. Lewis in 1916. The artwork has been undergoing its own renovation in Cambria since the earthquake.
The four fountains, which are marine life-inspired artworks, were crafted with the city hall building but haven’t been used as fountains in decades. At one point, their pools were filled with dirt, and they were converted to planter boxes. The passage of time wasn’t kind.
“There’s four of each, but every one was worse off than the other,” specialist Denise Parish of Los Angeles-based Preservation Arts said as she pointed to a west-side fountain featuring a mermaid with billowing hair. “It was just destruction.”
The mermaids were missing arms, hands and — on all but one — their faces. Grant and Parish were able to make a mold from the remaining mermaid face for the other three statues. But the geese were in the worst shape. Wings and heads were missing. The intricate statues eventually looked more like concrete mounds covered in years of paint and sludge, Grant said.
“You couldn’t even tell what the birds were,” he added.
Luckily, a resident had in her backyard one of the very same bird sculptures, from which the specialists were able to make a mold. That statue was from Lewis’ estate near downtown that burned down years ago.
The restoration team worked to affix rubber molds of the missing pieces — such as turtle heads — to the original artwork. Then they poured rapid-set cement into the molds to later reveal the detailed shape of the turtle’s neck and face. Later, they chiseled the concrete away to perfect the look, making the repair seamless. After all the missing pieces are restored, the statues will get a fresh coat of protectant and color still to be decided so they match. Water should once again flow in the fountains by the end of summer.
Grand opening on Aug. 20
The city of Atascadero will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 10 a.m. Aug. 20 for the restored city hall. Tours will also be offered. Go to www.atascaderochamber.org for more information.