This talk is part of the Fountain Fundamentals Conference, July 10-11, 2013, Kansas City, MO.

Art and Infrastructure: Restoring the Futuristic Fountain and Reflecting Pool by Margot Brunn and Henry Zuehlke

Church: Our next speaker is Margot Broom who is a conservator for the Royal Alberta Museum, a provincial museum covering Alberta’s cultural and human history, biological diversity and geological and paleontological history. As an objects conservator, she has expanded her field of training for furniture and ethnographic conservation for over twenty-five years and has published a range of topics arising from her work.

Brunn: Thank you, Jason. You will notice that the title is a little different. I was overly optimistic about the project. I thought that, well I did have a deadline of spring 2013 but it’s way behind, so I’ll talk a little bit about that.

The outline I will talk about the background the artist commission sign condition, a little bit about the roadblocks for the project and the team. This is the fountain this is an image from 2012. At first it came to my attention in 2003 when the museum started planning redevelopment and the landscaping for the sight did not include the fountain and it was to be dismantled and taken to the warehouse. There were jokes about the dump but it would have been the warehouse. So I became interested in this project and it’s one of the sculptures that is always sitting there but there is no plaque, there’s no description, there is no information whatsoever and even though it’s been popular, there was no information about it. So the local paper had a readers contest about favorite outdoor sculptures, and I managed to get the fountain onto the front page and from there a few years later I wrote an article in the Museum Journal magazine and you know no good deed goes unpunished, so a year later it became an infrastructure project. From there it became a little bit more serious for me.

Olle Holmsten Fountain

Olle Holmsten Fountain

The fountain was commissioned in 1965 and it was made for the centennial of Canada. It was commissioned by the Cabinet and the information that we have is that the provincial cabinet members were impressed and were supportive of the fountain. The artist was Oliver Holmsten. He was a Swedish sculptor who immigrated in the late 1950’s to Alberta. He worked mostly in granite and bronze and he became an instructor in Alberta and he taught figure sculpting and he was quite influential for over twenty years or so that he worked in Alberta.

The province commissioned several other artworks by him and these are mostly bronzes and concrete and these were mostly figures, life size figures. He also created the reliefs for the new museum. So this fountain is located in the Government House Park. This is a large site, about 12 acres and it has natural tree groups for weddings and graduation photography mostly but generally it has very large plaza’s that are generally empty at dusk and an Edwardian garden.

So over the last few decades, two decades possibly, it was very minimally maintained. So you can see by the dates, the original construction was in 1913 when the government house was built. Then the new museum was built in 1967. There are carvings of petroglyphs from southern Alberta. There is an iron statue by a local artist professor. There is another large bronze by Holmsten and that was it until the 1980’s when the site had a totem pole given to it during the University games. Then there is a Korean pavilion and we can see that this is the site of the totem pole at the Korean pavilion, the government house, somewhere there is the carriage house, the lumberjack, another Holmsted and the Storyteller, a large iron abstract that was left from a show. The artist didn’t pick it up and the petroglyphs, well there is no sign so, we don’t know who did it or who we should contact.

The petroglyphs and a very large plaza there that is generally empty and in the center is the fountain. The fountain is 16 feet tall and it’s actually the most popular feature in the park. It is on the south side and it sort of anchors the heterogeneous elements of that large space. Its design was a departure from the artist’s previous works which was all figures, traditional figure based. It was commissioned as public art but it was never accessioned. None of the artwork on the ground that belonged to the province and that have been purchased publicly by the province are accessioned but you know it was created for this particular space and it has a public function and the artist himself was influential in the art history of Alberta and the 1960 vision was the optimism of the era. He represented that very well so it also has an educational kind of purpose. The artist’s intent was to point to the river, the North Saskatchewan River that is just south of the sculpture and also connects it with the museum where the historic and the natural history of Alberta is explained.
The condition of the sculpture, the bronze work is dull but there is actually very little staining.

In the 1980’s it had been repaired. The form of the bronze does not fit completely into the cradle of the cement so there are gaps in between it and apparently there had been birds nesting and the solution was to fill the gaps with polyurethane foam. That then has created the staining that you see of the bleached out area. The foam is now totally crumbled but the runoff has bleached. The cement base with a very thin stucco overcoat and has various losses and it has tinting but generally just on the northeast side. There is actually very little staining otherwise on the stucco that is exposed to the wind and rain. It’s actually a little weathered but it doesn’t have a lot of lichens or things like that. Here this is during the winter when we took climb up to see what is happening in the hollow and the top. I was concerned about the stability of it before I knew how to get into it. Because of the hairline cracks, I didn’t really know how deep they would go or if the interior of the sculpture was affected. A little close up, it really is the hairline cracking and then this is from the top view, very little lichen on there so overall it’s fairly clean. This is just ice that was brushed off. Other than the cracks which, I didn’t know what they meant, the surface seemed fairly stable. We did some cleaning tests. An dry ice company offered to do some tests for us and did some work on the darker biological areas but it didn’t work quickly enough and gently enough so there was abrasion of the stucco and so this was not a cleaning solution.

This is the underside, the belly of the sculpture and you see the water spout, the water comes out up here, splashes against the shield and then runs off the granite base and does actually fairly substantial damage down here. When we dismantled that, the spout was full of pebbles and we thought children have been here because they have put these little stones into it because the fountain has not had water in it for the last two years and this was also one of the reasons why it needed the water just to protect it. Water is a protection against people climbing up and pulling things apart but we did find out that for some reason which I don’t really understand, all the irrigation spouts contained pebbles and they need to be cleaned out. This is what our landscaping people told me that every year they have to clean out the irrigation heads that for some reason are full of pebbles and this was one of them. So now we knew why there was just a trickling of water coming out just like we heard before.

The project team and scope of work, so what we had was the infrastructure project manager, we had the architect, we had the water engineer, we had the general contractor, the facility manager who is funding the project. We have the site property manager who looks after the maintenance and then it was me. So I basically was there by default and you can see the composition of the team was because there was no preservation architect in it, there was no curator or historian who would actually do the research. Infrastructure was doing feasibility studies for their work but there was simply nobody else to do any kind of background or even looking at how the fountain fits into the site or give it some weight. The infrastructure, the money that was put towards it was $520,000 and at the present this stands at $493,000 and that only covered the mechanical issues, basically the water circulation and the tides of the pool.

Inspecting the Holmsten Fountain

Inspecting the Holmsten Fountain

So there were major roadblocks in the project. One was that this was really an infrastructure project and it was funded through infrastructure which is a huge department of course versus Alberta Culture that I work for but the major roadblock was whose fountain is it and who is really responsible for it, who does it belong to because it was not accessioned as an artwork. My museum said well we are not responsible because it’s not accessioned it’s not in our collection. The infrastructure people are demanding they said, “Well it’s the maintenance that we are responsible for,” and that has not been resolved and it’s really a sticking point that the province hasn’t had an inventory of outdoor sculpture fountains since 1980 and even though there is on paper a person responsible or a program responsible, the Historical Resources Foundation in reality this has just not been worked out. So the directors are still apparently discussing who will pay for it and as my conservation budget is $7000 for the year, it simply did not cover it.

The original proposal was to patch the losses and clean the bronzes in situ. But in the meantime, we’ve decided that this was just going to be a stopgap measure and that something more substantial is needed. So first of all, there are responsibilities and so I needed to look at the mandates and really the infrastructure mandate is landscaping, it’s the system, it’s public safety and maintaining the pool basins which they actually hadn’t done in decades. Even though the government house is the richest Alberta resource and does have the funding of the Historical Resource Foundation, it’s their 100 anniversary so there is quite a lot of restoration going on. They simply were not prepared at this point to fund something that was not on their list. So this is what I’m working on and this is why I’m so excited to be here in this conference but we need to have a better approach to these kind of projects and I think I already read quite a bit that will help me do that.

Going back a little bit, the site has a long history of being unsupported. There was a previous fountain in 1917 that was dismantled before the abstract fountain was built and when the museum was built. I found these drawings but the fountain was actually there. Documentation is very, very hard to come by. I went through the provincial archives and boxes and boxes of government records but actual construction details take a full time job to find those and this is a volunteer job.

Okay so health regulations, I beat myself up after I put this picture into the museum magazine, the Mammoth Track, because I thought okay now I did it, I actually showed people this is the daughter of a curator colleague who got married at the museum and she and her husband were taking pictures in the pool and she said, “Here have a great picture” and I thought well the pool is used, people are interested, and it seemed like a wonderful picture to include for the friends. After I did that I sort of beat myself up because now it became a whole issue because I actually had a record of somebody stepping into the untreated water and I felt very bad about it until I looked on the internet and then I saw this one with the description, “Groom Drops Bride Into the Museum Pool” and so now it’s out on the internet so it’s not just me. Okay so I don’t feel too guilty now. So that became a major expense point and when I’m talking about the preservation, not hiring the preservation architect, that was a problem because the original cost projections, he didn’t know that there would be a health problem with the water and that the water needed to be treated and that caught the team by surprise. While the original fund was still there it now went over that it became a funding nightmare.

And so now we tried to figure out what exactly, well not I but the architect and the engineers tried to figure out exactly what the regulations were and so we explained that the pool is an artistic sculpture and it is not intended for bathing and we’ll comply with the regulations as a wading pool. This went on for like email to email and so then they answered that they don’t have any regulations for reflecting pools and that as long as its labeled and maintained for decorative purposes, it doesn’t need all the pool systems even if a few people are wading in it. Well that was still a response and I don’t know if you can read it but it went on and on and talked about the filtration rate and the anti-entrapment and all of that which I’m sure many people here will understand totally and the response of the Alberta Heath, went back to saying, “As I said before, a wading pool does not blah, blah, blah, however if you consider it a pool and it went on nobody would…so the architect, it’s not intended but if we would leave any water in the pool, it would need to be designed to swimming pool standards. So this is why we now have a fully treated pool even though the water level is minimal. In the picture before you saw it was at least twelve to eighteen inches high and now I think it’s down to four inches. However, we have a swimming pool quality system.

So that went on so then the project manager said, “Well we need the permit, we designed it for Alberta Health Regulations even though it was never really clear if it needed that and we’ve gotten all the approval if we need it. So it took a life of its own. So now, when you saw before the totem pole and the carriage house in Tudor style, the petroglyphs, so now we’re getting a very large pump house. I just loved the mechanical systems that were underground. Ours is now adjacent to the sculpture and it’s basically the same size more or less. The sculpture itself was really, really well constructed. The pool had twelve inches of cement, there was nothing, it was perfect. The underlay, the rim around it and underneath the granite that had been previously repaired, the plumbing had been repaired, tiles were pulled out and never put back together so the water leaking was really basically just bad repairs and the tiles and those kind of things were my contribution really. We don’t have this delft style or swirly kind of design so the architect redesigned the pool and we had some trouble finding something that matched the original tiles from the 1960’s, Japanese tiles which were absolutely beautiful, bubble glaze, very, very reflective and we tried to get them reproduced but it was simply too expensive. We could not afford that and these are the Fujiwa that are similar. Here is the only original photograph during its construction. The steel and wire sculpture and this is the new museum that’s been built.
Here we find the hatch to go into after we took the splash thing off. This is the inside and so the inside was actually, it looked right, we had just had torrential rains and there was no water inside. The flash was stained, this is on the bottom, this is looking up and now we could see how the bronzes were attached by rods, iron rods painted, corrosion paint on top. That explained the copper staining on the outside so this wasn’t just from the interior of the bronze and the polyurethane; it actually corresponded to the fasteners.

Okay so the last slide. The cost estimate that we now have is for the removal of the bronzes, which as a bronze conservator, is $10,000 and once they come off then to remove the stucco and we stuccoed the whole of the sculpture and that was estimated at $16,000.

I want to thank the organizers for this excellent learning opportunity and for giving me a chance to present this work and progress.

Construction of Holmsten Fountain

Construction of Holmsten Fountain

Church: We have time for one question before our break? Yes.

Unknown: What kind of dual chemistry system did you go with?

Brunn: Good question. It’s not completed. My co-author didn’t give me that information. I was not at work the last week. We had a river flood in a museum so I couldn’t press him on that.

Unknown: So has anything been chosen yet, specifically.

Brunn: Yes.

Unknown: Because we’ve had problems with different systems too.

Brunn: Yes, I think its chlorination.

Church: Alright so we’ll take a fifteen minute break now so we’ll start back at …



The sculpture fountain, named Futuristic by the artist, was commissioned for the grounds of the new provincial museum, now the Royal Alberta Museum, on the occasion of Canada’s centennial in 1967. It was created by Ole Holmsten (1915-1987), a figure sculptor who was born and educated in Sweden. After emigrating to Alberta, Holmsten taught traditional figure sculpture and the province commissioned several other public artworks by him.

The sculpture fountain is more than five metres tall and features four concrete wings that face NE, NW, SE and SW. Four abstract bronze reliefs depicting classical Greek-inspired nudes are cradled between the wings. The sculpture has four concrete columns and stands on a polished granite base. Its central water feature is short, splashing up against a bronze shield underneath the sculpture and over the base into a shallow, blue-tiled reflecting pool.

Over the years, preventive conservation measures did not kept pace with the environmental impacts experienced by this cultural landmark. Polyurethane foam filler behind the bronze reliefs bleached the concrete and failed to prevent copper staining on the sculpture. The concrete stucco skin developed hairline cracks; in some lower areas this decorative overcoat began to spall. The water feature was shut off for several years due to corroding and leaking water pipes. Subsequent plumbing repairs damaged the pool membrane and caused tiles to heave. While Holmsten had selected traditionally stable materials like bronze, concrete, porcelain tiles and granite and employed durable construction techniques, decades of inconsistent maintenance protocol necessitated a large-scale restoration of this complex and massive outdoor artwork.  The conservator’s role was to determine which features of the artist’s original design and intent needed to be preserved or reproduced.  Stain removal on the concrete and stabilization of the bronze reliefs formed the conservation treatment.

The museum fountain and museum building itself are the property of the provincial government’s ministry of Infrastructure.  Facility and ground operations are maintained through private contracting. In 2011, Alberta Infrastructure resources were put towards structural repairs for the water feature’s plumbing and the restoration process was initiated.

The infrastructure project had three main components–replacing the water circulation and treatment system, repairing and restoring the circular pool and sculpture base, and re-landscaping the surrounding plaza. These formed the basis of a bid package prepared by an architectural and engineering consulting firm for public tender.

One parameter that had to be considered carefully during the design stage was public use of the fountain pool and the need to treat re-circulating water to meet current publichealth and safety regulations. Since its completion, the reflecting pool has been a delight for visitors to the museum grounds during Edmonton’s brief but hot summer days. The restoration design allows for water testing and treatment and ensures public safety by maintaining a shallow water level and creating space for appropriate signage.

This project balances restoration of an iconic landmark with the need for a pragmatic and efficient infrastructure. A new circular pumphouse sited nearby will house water treatment and monitoring equipment and pumps. The uneven pavement of the original surrounding plaza will be softly re-landscaped in lawn, with a poured concrete circular walkway skirting the fountain pool. The restoration team has taken care to match a source of new glazed ceramic tile to the Japanese originals to help maintain the integrity of the original design; many of the original tiles will be salvaged and reused. The pool perimeter and sculpture base covered in polished granite will be retained and repaired where needed. New waterproofing of the pool’s concrete substructure and improved overflow drainage are integral parts of the project.

One of the project’s main challenges is to address the weathering and deterioration caused by Edmonton’s relatively harsh winter climate. Ceramic tile, granite and stucco finishes must be kept dry before freeze-up and protected as much as possible from freeze-thaw cycles. Improved waterproofing, grouting and substrate preparation have been specified. An ongoing co-ordinated maintenance program is envisioned that will enable this beloved public artwork to be enjoyed for generations to come.

Speaker Bio:

Henry Zuehlke is presently working as a project manager for the Properties Division of Alberta Infrastructure. His work specializes in overseeing property and building renovations, upgrades and maintenance projects. Henry studied Architecture at the University of Manitoba, receiving a Master’s degree in 1979. His subsequent career was varied and covered three stages in different parts of Canada; firstly, as intern & project architect in private practice in Ottawa, followed by Design Officer at two military bases for National Defense, and for the past 13 years with the Government of Alberta in Edmonton. Henry’s special interests are Canadian history and architectural heritage conservation.

Margot Brunn is the conservator for the Royal Alberta Museum, a Provincial museum covering Alberta’s cultural and human history, biological diversity, and geological and paleontological history. As objects conservator, she has expanded on her field of training, furniture and ethnographic conservation, for over 25 years and has published on a range of topics arising from her work. She has been instrumental in preventive conservation upgrades of collections for 13 curatorial programs, resulting as well in the provision of professional conservation advice to other branches and departments of Government. Her involvement in the museum fountain restoration project by the Alberta Department of Infrastructure began as part of the Museum’s expansion and relocation plans. Margot is a member of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections and, as member of the Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property, has co-organized three national conferences and professional development workshops.  She is accredited by the Canadian Association of Professional Conservators (CAPC) as conservator of mixed collections.


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