A state review board has unanimously approved a plan for removing the Lee monument near downtown Richmond — with the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and the horse he is riding to be cut into three sections for eventual reassembly in a different setting and historical context than on Monument Avenue.
The plan depends on court review of Gov. Ralph Northam’s authority to remove the 130-year-old monument, erected in 1890, early in the Jim Crow era of racial segregation. A Richmond judge has halted the process indefinitely to consider two legal challenges to the governor’s order on June 4 to remove a monument that had become the target of street protests over racial injustice.
“The governor is committed to the removal of this statue,” Joe Damico, director of the Virginia Department of General Services, told the Art and Architectural Review Board on Friday. “From my perspective, as soon as the lawsuit is settled and the way is clear, we will work very quickly to remove the statue from the pedestal.”
The removal plan has cleared review by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, but with the recommendation that the state consult with the National Register of Historic Places, a program of the National Park Service, to prevent the immediate removal of the monument as a national historic landmark, and also as a “contributing resource” to the state and federal designations of Monument Avenue as a historic district.
“Removal of the Monument from its historic location constitutes, by definition, an adverse impact to historic resources,” Julie Langan, director of the state historic resources agency, told Damico on Wednesday in a detailed response to the plan.
Damico said the agency’s recommendation of consultation with the federal agency is not a requirement of the board’s approval of the state plan.
“My plan is to have a discussion with Ms. Langan on this point and how best to move forward,” he said.
Board member Tom Papa, a Richmond architect and developer who represents the Virginia Museum of Arts on the review panel, acknowledged that the Lee monument would be removed from national and state registers of historic landmarks, but said, “I think the general good is that it be removed and given a new context.”
Papa praised the beauty and craftsmanship of the statue, made by French sculptor Marius-Jean-Antonin Mercie, but he said, “I am certain that the historical reference is a false history.”
“It was put up in a context that was very, very different than what we recognize today as the truth,” he said.
Portsmouth architect Ian Vaughan and Helen Wilson, senior landscape architect at the University of Virginia, said the removal of the statue is necessary for public safety as Confederate monuments attract potentially violent protests, both in support and opposition to allowing them to remain in public places.
Vaughan said a protester was seriously injured in an effort to topple a Confederate statue in Portsmouth on June 10, while Wilson reminded the board of the death of counterprotester Heather Heyer in August 2017 after a Unite the Right rally of white nationalists in support of the Lee statue in a public park in Charlottesville.
“These monuments have no place in public places,” she said.
The Lee statue “should be used to tell the history of the Civil War and the Jim Crow era, but in an appropriate setting,” Wilson said.
She and Vaughan also encouraged the state to consider a design competition to determine the best way to use the 200-foot-diameter circle where the monument currently stands at the intersection of Monument and North Allen avenues.
Cutting the bronze
The plan the board approved has two parts — first removing the 21-foot-tall sculpture and then its 40-foot-tall granite pedestal, along with two attached bronze plaques.
The state’s outside conservator, Pennsylvania-based B.R. Howard Conservation, said a crane would remove the 13-ton statue from its pedestal in one piece after removing 16 bronze pins that appear to anchor the sculpture to its base. The harness and reins on the horse, attached by bronze screws, would have to be removed first to allow the statue to be strapped properly for lifting the sculpture without damaging it.
However, the height of the statue would make it impossible to transport safely in one piece out of Richmond because of bridges and other overpasses that generally are no higher than 14 feet.
(State records indicate that the sculpture does not depict Lee riding Traveller, his most famous horse during the Civil War.)
Howard said the statue appeared to be assembled from three sections, so the removal plan would require cutting the bronze, “when possible, along original casting joints or along the edges of cast elements or sculpted folds.”
The first section would be the base and horse’s legs. The second would be the horse’s body and head, as well as Lee’s lower body. The third would be Lee from the waist up.
“Removal and disassembly of the bronze sculpture, if performed as outlined, will allow for proper reassembly, in the future,” the conservator said in the plan. “The process will cause minimal damage to the bronze and leave little evidence of cutting and reassembly, once completed.”
Both the conservator and Damico emphasized public safety during the process of removing, disassembling and packing the pieces for safe removal to an undisclosed location for storage.
Howard wants a partition or barrier around the site of disassembling the statue. “These procedures need to be conducted away from the view of the public for their safety and protection of the crew,” the firm said.
The granite pedestal would be documented photographically by a three-dimensional scan before scaffolding is assembled to remove the base. Each granite block and decorative element would be catalogued by its original position as part of an inventory. The blocks would be placed on pallets with protective padding for transport, and the decorative elements would be put into custom crates with proper padding.
Damico said the state has not identified a site outside of the city to store the statue and pedestal. Once a location is arranged, its identity “will be handled as secure information and at the appropriate time will be made available,” he said.
Langan, the state historic resources director, agreed with the state’s proposed “two-part approach to ensure the safe and respectful removal” of the sculpture and pedestal by Brown, which she described as “a qualified conservation consultant.”
However, she wants the department’s archaeological conservator, Katherine Ridgway, at the site for the monument’s removal. She noted that the pedestal could contain a time capsule or “other purposefully placed materials” that would be stored in the state repository for archaeological collections at the agency or at the Library of Virginia.
Langan asked that her agency be involved in a public process for future actions on the monument, including its potential acquisition “by another entity or institution.”
If the monument is installed in a new location, she said, its eligibility for the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places “could be re-evaluated.”
Vaughan, one of two African American members of the board, thanked Damico and his team for “doing the right thing.”