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Environment

Green Paint Removal

Cleanup Chemistry: Conservators in Washington, D.C., restore vandalized national treasures

by William G. Schulz
August 5, 2013 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 91, ISSUE 31

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Credit: William Schulz/C&EN
Removing vandal’s paint from the Joseph Henry statue.
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Credit: William Schulz/C&EN
Removing vandal’s paint from the Joseph Henry statue.

While the “sexting” Anthony Weiner and others with stained political reputations dominated the news last week, officials in Washington, D.C., were worried about another kind of blemish.

Green paint tossed on some of the nation’s most treasured landmarks—including the Lincoln Memorial—worried conservators and experts in charge of restoration efforts. Historic preservation specialists tell C&EN that when they first heard about the acts of vandalism they feared the worst.

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Credit: National Cathedral
Defaced organ at the National Cathedral.
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Credit: National Cathedral
Defaced organ at the National Cathedral.

Carol A. Grissom, senior objects conservator at the Smithsonian Institution, says she did some testing with organic solvents such as toluene and denatured alcohol before tackling paint removal from a statue of the museum’s first leader, scientist Joseph Henry, on the National Mall. By midweek, Grissom says, the granite statue was cleaned up with paint stripper, which does not damage the stone.

At the National Cathedral, where the funeral service for former president Ronald Reagan was held, more green paint was splattered on walls and the metal pipes of a historic organ. According to experts, metal surfaces should be easier to clean because they are less porous.

Some of the paint in the cathedral was cleaned by week’s end, but conservators haven’t disclosed the exact chemicals used. And the National Park Service is confident that it will be able to remove the paint on the Lincoln Memorial.

Phil Phillips of Chemark Consulting says that silicone-based coatings are available to protect statues and monuments. But art conservators are hesitant to use such materials in part because, once applied, the coatings can’t be removed.

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