Arts & Leisure

Silas Wright monument gets a makeover

STONE RESTORATION EXPERT Francis Miller stands on a mechanical lift to reach 40 feet up to the top of the Silas Wright Monument on Weybridge Hill last week as he sprays a biocide onto the marble to clean the 170-year-old memorial. Marsha Rooney and her mother, Millicent Rooney, worked for years to get the monument cleaned and restored.

WEYBRIDGE — Exactly 170 years ago today, on Aug. 27, 1850, a gathering of Vermont and national luminaries spoke to between 4,000 and 6,000 spectators assembled on Weybridge Hill. Marsha Rooney, who grew up nearby but now resides in Washington state, has studied the event and reason for the unusually large crowd in rural Vermont a decade before the Civil War. In talking about it she wonders aloud about all the wagons and carts needed to bring the throng to this country setting.
“Imagine all of these carriages, all the colors, and the ex-president speaking,” Rooney says, her voice filled with animation. “That’s fascinating to me.”
The ex-president who spoke that day was Martin Van Buren. The reason he and the others were there was to honor Weybridge’s favorite son, Silas Wright. The event was the setting of the final stone of the now iconic monument that stands across from the Weybridge Congregational Church. A 40-foot-tall marble obelisk with a carved cameo of Wright, it honors the man who grew up in Weybridge, graduated from Middlebury College in 1815, then went on to become a Congressman, U.S. Senator and governor of New York, as well as a Democratic nominee for Vice President of the United States.
“It’s interesting that Weybridge would feel so passionate about this man,” Rooney said. “This was a time with all kinds of factions, parties and attitudes — not unlike today … This man did not represent factions and was good at pulling things together keeping a lid on things.”
The monument is still a symbol of Weybridge, but it is even more closely associated with Rooney and her family, who founded and still operate Monument Farms Dairy, which takes its name from the Silas Wright Monument across the street from the company headquarters. Maybe that’s part of the reason why Marsha Rooney and her mother, the late Millicent Rooney, took such a great interest in the monument. And also civic pride. And a keen interest in the past.
After the monument had stood watch over Weybridge Hill for a hundred years and become perpetual part of the landscape, Rooney mother and daughter noted how the white marble had grayed in many spots and the sculpted face of Silas Wright had become weathered. They began looking into how they could restore the monument to its original glory.
The Monument was featured in a 1976 Vermont Department of Historic Places survey, and in 1993 it made its way onto the group Save Outdoor Sculpture’s inventory of public sculptures that needed restoration. An estimate of the cost to clean and conserve the monument came in at as much as $17,700, and momentum to restore the monument flagged. “Mom and I just couldn’t get it off the ground,” Marsha Rooney recalled.
So the graying of the monument continued. Rooney explained that molds and other biological agents glom onto the marble and dim its beauty. “Marble as a crystalline structure that is pretty susceptible to spoors and other biological stuff in the air,” said Rooney, who recently retired from a 40-year-career as a museum curator.
In recent years, Marsha has ramped up the effort in her hometown. She undertook a two-pronged effort to find a conservator who could restore the beloved monument and to raise the money needed to do the work. Rooney reached out to members of the extended family of Richard and Marjorie James, the founders of Monument Farms Dairy (and Rooney’s grandparents), and raised approximately $16,000 to restore the monument that has played such an important part of the family business. In addition, the dairy provided a lift and water to be used in the cleaning process and other in-kind contributions.
On the hands-on front, she reached out to state historic officials, asked everyone for references and talked with a colleague who is a stone conservator in the Midwest. “It’s kind of a word-of-mouth thing,” Rooney said. Once she had identified some candidates for the job, Bob James helped her interview them, and her sister Pam came up from her home in Amherst, Mass. (incidentally, the 1895 birthplace of Silas Wright) to lend a hand.
Eventually, a preservation group in Windsor, Vt., put Rooney on to Francis Miller, a stone conservator in Connecticut. Last week Phase One of the restoration began. Miller gently washed the stone monument, bottom to way up there at the top. He also applied a biocide that kills the mold and is designed to provide ongoing protection against future bioinfestation. He took special care with the cameo, which is a different kind of marble and has deteriorated more quickly than the rest of the monument. Miller took samples of some pink growth on the marble to test and figure out how it can be treated. He also mortared joints around the relief sculpture to bolster it.
Miller will return next spring for Phase Two, which will include further restoration of the Monument. “He’s also committed to helping to train a selected person or three locally to take care of this monument,” Rooney explained.
Stuck in Washington because of the pandemic, Rooney doesn’t know when she will get to Weybridge to see the results of the work she has orchestrated. But she is excited to see the Silas Wright Monument restored to its Anti-bellum glory, and to sharing a piece of Vermont history with both neighbors and visitors. She loves history and is happy to bring some of it alive for others to enjoy. “It’s an appreciation for what people have done before, and what they think is significant — what they put in public places,” she said. “I just love caring for things.”

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