As was promised when the iconic La Jolla Recreation Center turned 100 years old in July, a restoration of three plaques honoring the center’s founder, Ellen Browning Scripps, and the center’s early leadership was undertaken in just a few days in December. Now with their luster restored, these fixtures of La Jolla history are expected to shine again, as intended, for years to come.
Admittedly a heavy critic of his own work, Barry Feinman, founder and CEO of Restoration ArTechs and the specialist tasked with the restoration, made one final trip to the Rec Center on Sunday, Dec. 20. He’d already spent time there Dec. 5, when he applied his process to the three plaques in time for La Jolla Christmas Parade & Holiday Festival visitors to enjoy their renewed look.
Contracted with the city to restore the bronze, Feinman just had to assure himself that La Jollans would be pleased with his work. A number of locals had expressed concern, he said, that the plaques hadn’t received enough attention over the years. Apparently, they had good reason for feeling as such, he said.
“Typically, what people will do (knowing it’s metal) is take metal polishes and metal cleaners to it and try to remove the tarnish and make it more presentable,” Feinman said. That appears to be what happened with the Rec Center’s plaques for years, he added. “In time, it makes them look worse. It leaves a residue everywhere. It looks good for the moment, maybe, and then because there’s ammonia in metal cleaners, that ammonia actually aggravates the copper. It turns it green. But no one meant any harm, I know.”
A compromise of the metal surfaces was evident the moment Feinman arrived. Using chemical and abrasive techniques, he exposed raw bronze, then restored the color highlights, particularly along the plaque edges and raised letter surfaces.
Valued at $1,175, the plaque restorations meant their patinas — the desired colors of the metal — could be seen for the first time in years. Feinman said a special covering of color oxides helped uniformly restore the brown pigment in the background of the plaques, which in addition to Browning Scripps, honor Archie and Agnes Talboy, playground directors from 1919 to 1952.
“Then we took chemicals to remove the oxidation and expose the tops of the letters — those features we want to highlight,” Feinman explained. Several coats of a clear protective finish completed the process.
But beyond the contract, Feinman said, the community received a bonus.
Looking to honor an artist with whom he had become friends, as well as a few La Jollans and the community, Feinman also restored the life-sized sculpture onsite at the Rec, for free. Informally referred to as “the girl,” but officially named the Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial, the bronze sculpture depicts a young girl, staring somewhat dreamily into the water feature situated in the Rec Center’s west lawn.
A friend of the artist — North Park-based sculptor Mary Buckman — Feinman had recently enrolled in a series of sculpting classes taught by Buckman. It was there he suggested to her an idea for the gift — a gift he felt could make the Rec Center job seem more complete.
“I thought that was pretty remarkable of him,” Buckman said. “We discussed it, and I had a sculpture that had a nice patina on it, and the original patina on the little girl looked about the same.”
Already armed with the will, Feinman then had something to model a look after.
Among those he looked to honor were former La Jolla residents and area clients he said have kept his Carlsbad-based business busy in La Jolla for years. From the restoration of metal and stone surfaces to a specialty in stainless steel restoration using his own product, Scratch-B-Gone, Feinman said the loyalty he’s received in La Jolla made the gifting of the sculpture restoration an easy offer to make.
“Sheila and Hughes Potiker were huge philanthropists in La Jolla,” Feinman said. “The family still lives there. We cared for their private collection for over six years, and she has one of the premiere sculptural collections in San Diego.”
Feinman’s fondness for and connection to La Jolla seeped through as he continued to provide reasons. “My significant other’s parents were longtime residents of La Jolla, Gordon and Gloria Johnson,” Feinman said. “They’ve both passed, but my intention was to honor them and honor the Potikers, and to honor the residents and businesses that have supported our company over these many years.
“Since the center reached out to us for the plaques, I wanted to gift the sculpture in time for Christmas, and for the kids as well, the children of La Jolla.”
Had he performed the sculpture restoration under normal pricing, the work would have totaled around $3,500, he said, including the work to restore a pair of plaques that make up part of the memorial. The sculpture has endured direct sunlight since its creation in 1996, when it replaced another occupying the space since 1926 by sculptor James Tank Porter. Also depicting a young girl but on a smaller scale, the older sculpture had been stolen from the site.
The green discoloration of Buckman’s bronze girl, and its red oxidation, were telltale signs of reactions to regular irrigation spray, ultraviolet light and salty air, which Feinman said helps create an acidic rain that’s particularly reactive with bronze. Left unchecked, the corrosion could have over time compromised the integrity of the bronze.
“I tried to retain as much of the patina (as possible).” Feinman said. “I didn’t take it down to raw metal everywhere. I left some of the color, so it could look sort of authentic.”
Although the sculpture is fewer than 20 years old, Buckman said now was a great time to give it some needed attention, especially if it can coincide with the centennial celebration of the Rec Center and its plaques. “I’m very excited about it,” Buckman said, recalling the young neighbor, “Chrissy” that she had asked years ago to model for her when she sculpted it.
Feinman added, “A lot of people have seen green patina on sculptures, and they like the way it goes to green. If you go to Rome, you have a lot of green sculptures; a healthy green that’s caused just by a typical process of aging. But sometimes, there’s a cancerous green, that’s a result of the copper sulfate. It has a different nature to it.”
Feinman said he was able to retain about a third of the sculpture’s original patina. During that final trip to the Rec Center Dec. 20, he had expected to make some final touches in restoring an authentic look to the piece. To his pleasant surprise, that expectation was a little off. “I got to the sculpture, and I’m quite content with the way it looks, with the antiquity,” he said.