By the People, For the People

Cleveland’s elaborate Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument stands restored, thanks to architects, artisans, and volunteers

Photographs by Ascherman Photographers

With unabashed Victorian zeal, the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument rises 125 feet above Public Square in downtown Cleveland, topped with a triumphal stone column supporting the statue of the Goddess of Freedom. It's hard to miss. But until now, asking the average Clevelander to identify the memorial would have elicited only a puzzled stare.

This is not surprising. For years, the landmark was grimy and uninviting, its interior—a shrine to Cuyahoga County veterans of the Civil War—drab and decayed. What is surprising is how beautiful the memorial appears today, following a comprehensive restoration. "Like Chartres Cathedral when you walk inside," says just-retired county architect Berj Shakarian.

Veterans of "the War of the Rebellion" built the monument with county and state funds in the early 1890s, choosing Cleveland native Levi T. Scofield, an engineer who served in the 103rd Ohio Voluntary Infantry, to design the whole work—even the sculpture. "One brain, one talent did it all," says Peter van Dijk, architect in charge of the restoration for the firm of Westlake Reed Leskosky. "He must have been amazing."

Scofield wove art and architecture into a story of pathos and patriotism, referencing the events as well as the sentiments that drove the war. He piled up granite and sandstone in an exotic ziggurat teeming with military imagery, from army badges to piles of cannonballs. Four realistic bronze sculpture groups depict naval, artillery, infantry, and cavalry battles, each scene frozen at an instant of high drama.

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The memorial room inside offers "a place of repose and remembrance," says Neil K. Evans, president of the Cuyahoga County Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument Commission. "The contrast between war and peace is abrupt and clear." At the perimeter, 38 marble tablets list the county's more than 9,000 veterans. In the center are four bronze panels in deep relief; in one, Abraham Lincoln arms a freed slave. The story continues with bronze busts of county heroes (including Scofield), medallions of Ohio notables, stained-glass windows, bronze door grilles, and a richly patterned floor.

The interior was sumptuous and impressive when it opened on July 4, 1894, but the space grew "dull and depressing" over time, Evans says. High temperatures, moisture, dirt, harsh cleaning, and clumsy touchups robbed color and contrast from the polychromatic setting, and bad lighting made it even worse. "When you walked in and saw those fluorescent fixtures," says Shakarian, "the whole thing looked like a warehouse."

Although the exterior had recently been cleaned, Evans and Shakarian pushed for a complete overhaul using public and private money. They hired Westlake in 2006 and, Evans says, "started the real research of what needed to be done." An early revelation: Leaks through the sandstone roof had rusted the steel beams, staining the marble ceiling. By gently shifting stone slabs out of the way, workers were able to repair the beams. Then they waterproofed the roof. To prevent further damage to the marble wall tablets, many of which had bowed out, they replaced old steam radiators with new fin-tube heating (under restored bronze covers), added air conditioning, and installed softer grout in place of mortar.

Scant evidence of the room's original colors survived. To revive them, Evans and the architects examined all the contemporary documents, collated the descriptions of each architectural element—tablets, floor, ceiling, moldings, and so forth—and studied the color remnants that they could physically observe. Through these clues, and some judgment calls, van Dijk developed the final colors.

After the tablets were cleaned, decorative arts expert Robert Dasher reinstated the original color scheme (which featured classic Victorian faux painting atop the inexpensive white marble) by applying a separator coat to prevent new tint from penetrating, then adding three coats of color wash plus veining and other details. He also re-inked the veterans' names. "The interpretation is really a parchment, a paper on which you find names," says Westlake's managing principal, Paul E. Westlake.

Dasher retinted other marble, too, including the ceiling (blue and green), pilasters (ocher), fasces (ocher and rose), and upper wall (gold, tan, pink, rose). The sandstone floor retains its natural plum and grayish white. Whitney Stained Glass Studio enhanced the room's new glow by replacing the windows' lost or broken pieces (including 110 cast-glass "jewels"), repairing leading, cleaning, and correcting severe bulging.

Finally, van Dijk replaced the harsh fluorescents with lighting "that doesn't make you aware so much of where it's coming from," he says. Subtle fixtures now carry LED spotlights and T-5 fluorescent tubes, and corner chandeliers mimic gas-and-electric originals. Outside, he installed historic poles with urn globes in place of 1990s "lollipops on a stick."

In all, says Shakarian, "we did everything." And it shows. After long obscurity, Cleveland's proud tower is once again gaining notice, even before its public reopening on June 5. During construction, he says, people would walk in and stand in awe of how the job was going. "What a difference. What an absolute difference. It's the talk of the town."

A Monumental Job: An Interview With Architect Paul Westlake on the Soldiers' and Sailors' Project

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