The Story of the Finial in the Ripley Garden

December 14, 2012 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

For a long time I have been thinking that the Ripley Garden needed something special to replace the birdhouses that have been at the Northern Entry of the garden for many years. The birdhouses have been great—the public loved them and those ‘in the know’ appreciated the nod to Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley (he was an ornithologist). However the birdhouses were looking a bit worn and I was ready for something different. But what could I put there? I wanted it to be unique to the Ripley Garden and have meaning, but what? I had no idea, but was hoping I would know it when I saw it.

There it was – it literally flew over my head – attached to a 200 ft construction crane.

For the past year I have been mesmerized with the entire process of the restoration of the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building. I have always loved this historic building and watching the restoration process has been incredibly educational. It seems like every day something fascinating is happening.

I had been watching the various pieces of ornamentation coming down off the rooftop and was totally astounded by not only the size, but the beautiful details and complexity of some of the pieces. For example, the finials for the corner towers soar to over 9’ tall and that doesn’t include the cap that slides over the point!

After working adjacent to this building that I adore for over a decade, I thought I knew it, but I was seeing things that I had never noticed before. I had not realized that there were so many different types on ornamentation on the roof. Amazing! And I also did not realize that they were all made of galvanized sheet metal! Even the sculpture of Columbia which stands atop the North Door is made of metal! I always thought they were carved out of stone.

Bingo. The special piece I was looking for which was beautiful, but also with a story behind it, was a finial off the Arts and Industries Building! This would help tie the Ripley Garden to the museum it nestles up against, and also give me a chance to tell the public about this gorgeous building and the wonderful restoration process that is ongoing. It would be PERFECT!!

Only one problem; the reason the finials were being removed was so they could be sent out for restoration before being returned to the roof. And yes, they would miss one. (Don’t worry, I asked!)

So, I asked one of the restoration specialists what it would cost to create a new one for the garden. (Never hurts to ask you know!) His ballpark estimate of the number of man-hours it would take to replicate the ornate details squelched any further inquiry on my part. It was out of the question due to cost. My dreams of a finial in the garden were fading fast.

However, Pat Ponton, the Smithsonian liaison for the project, told me that there was one piece that would not be going back up and that he might be able to get it for me. He told me that it was lacking the detail of many of the others, and was not a historical piece. Apparently, there had been some construction in the 1970’s on the roof and one of the original finials had to be replaced so something similar, but not as detailed as the original, was created very quickly. This is the piece that Pat was thinking about.

Although it had left the property, through much perseverance Pat was able to retrieve this finial and have it returned to the site. On the morning of June 21st, with the able assistance of Sammy, the Tower Crane operator, and a couple of members of the wonderful Grunley Construction team, the piece of ‘Architectural Salvage’ from the Arts and Industries Building found a new home a little closer to the ground.

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There are still a few mysteries behind this piece, including why is it missing the top point, but I am so delighted to have this little piece of history on the ground!

None of this would have happened without the efforts of my new friends who are restoring a historical gem. I am very thankful to the crew working on the Arts and Industries Building who have been so kind to me and careful with the garden.

Janet Draper
Smithsonian Gardens

Entry filed under: Collections, Garden History. Tags: , , , .

25th Anniversary of the Archives of American Gardens Thank You to all of our Smithsonian Gardens’ Volunteers!

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