As Ben Franklin gets older, his face and features are getting smoother and smoother.
More than 10 years of alternating colorful paint jobs on the Franklin College statue followed by new coats of standard gray paint are erasing the definition of Ben’s face, clothes and hands and damaging the limestone base underneath.
Starting Monday, a contractor will begin a long process of applying paint stripper, power-washing off old coats of paint, meticulously scraping paint out of joints and wrinkles and repairing the underlying stone. The statue has stood outside Franklin College for 50 years and hasn’t had any major restoration work done since 2003.
After all the paint is gone and repairs are complete, the contractor will put on a new sealant to protect the statue. The sealer ideally will prevent moisture and paint from seeping into the stone to cause new damage. But no one is sure whether that sealant will just make it easier to clean Ben in the future or whether paint would no longer stick to the statue.
The college isn’t trying to discourage people from painting the statue, but wants to take steps to protect it so that it can remain a landmark on the college for another 50 years, said Franklin College director of facilities and energy management Tom Patz.
“We’ve grown to love our statue of Ben, and he’s been on campus since 1963. We’re hoping to have him here for many, many years in the future; hopefully we’ll be pleased with the results,” Patz said.
Before any restoration work can be done, the contractor will need to strip away hundreds of layers of paint, said Dennis Drake of Drake Construction and Remodeling, which is doing the work. Workers will apply the paint stripper, which then has to dry for three to seven days before they can go back and power wash the statue, he said. Since paint is built up from more than 10 years of coats put on the statue, Drake isn’t sure how many applications of paint stripper will be needed.
Workers also will have to apply stripper by hand to try to get into small, detailed areas, such as around the features of his face, the waves of his hair or in between his fingers. That will add more time to the process because workers will then need to go in and carefully scrape out the paint from those finer details, he said.
Once all the paint is gone, Drake will be able to get a better idea of how extensive the damage is to the marble statue and limestone base. Damage to the limestone occurs when moisture seeps in and breaks down the stone.
The most noticeable damage right now is on the rear of the base, which is engraved with a 1929 dedication by the Indianapolis Typographical Union. The base gets the most paint on it as it runs down off the statue when applied. Stone workers will make a new piece with the same inscription that will be attached in place of the damaged area, Drake said. If there are other parts of the statue that are beginning to crumble, they’ll have to survey the damage and decide whether it can be addressed with some minor fixes or also will need to be replaced, he said.
The noticeable limestone damage is what prompted Franklin College to do restoration work this year before any more of the statue crumbles, Patz said. The additional weight from all the layers of paint are putting stress on the base of the statue, also causing damage more quickly, Patz said. The college doesn’t know how much the project will cost, since it will depend on how much work Drake needs to complete as well as how much restoration will be done.
Once the restoration work is complete, Ben Franklin also will get a new cane, Patz said. The statue originally had a cane when it previously stood above the International Typographical Union building in Indianapolis before coming to the college. The cane was broken by vandals before the statue ever arrived at Franklin, according to newspaper articles about the statue’s arrival in town kept at Hamilton Library.
With the cane in place, the statue will be painted its usual gray and then covered with a sealer that will hopefully keep moisture out and protect the stone in the future. But neither Patz nor Drake was sure how exactly it would affect future painting.
The sealer might repel paint that could prevent people from painting the statue or at least make it so the paint won’t permanently adhere and could be easily washed off, Drake said. But it may not have any effect outside of protecting the statue underneath, he said.
He’s never done a project like this before, because a person who seals a building or concrete walkway isn’t anticipating it will be painted hundreds of times in the future. Ideally the sealer will just make it easier for the college to clean off paint and do more regular maintenance, Drake said.
“My goal is to try to get it where nothing will stick to it anymore, kind of like a concrete sealer where when you put (paint) on there you could just wash it off,” Drake said.