THE WARYAS PARK WHALE

The Waryas Whale, a sculptural installation by artist Judy Sigunick, was dedicated in October of 2002,at the location of one of the two whaling companies in operation on the Poughkeepsie waterfront in the early 19th century.  These businesses sent forth sailing ships to the distant seas, on years-long expeditions, to catch and kill whales, bringing the carcasses back to port, to harvest the oil for use in lamp-lighting.  The sculpture commemorates this endangered species, as well as the local history of an industry described in such books as Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast and Melville’s Moby Dick.

 

After almost two decades of its presence at the south end of Waryas Park, the impact of the weather and seasonal changes, and of thousands of children playing on and around it, the Waryas Whale is now in need of maintenance and repair.  A project has been started to evaluate the sculpture, driving toward a plan for renovation of this valued asset.  The sculpture began as a community project, and we are now looking for community partners to help us bring it back to life, to educate the public about our rich history, and to allow future generations of children to play on it.

Mary Flad 

Watch this video by Dan Labbato created in 2002 documenting a bit of Poughkeepsie history, the history of sculptures in Waryas Park, and the creation of Judy's incredible whale sculpture.

the Artist

 
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Judy Sigunick was a Hudson Valley-based artist known for her paintings, ceramics, and sculptures. 

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Photo provided by Mary Flad

The Sculpture 

 

It represents the sperm whale, and the history of the "Whale Dock" in the 1830s from which ships traveled around the globe and brought back the these whales...mostly for the oil. The sculpture represents total length of the the Sperm whale (including spaces between) - which is up to 67'. If I'm remembering correctly, the Waryas Whale is about 62' from front to tale. I had anticipated landscaping (a ground cover that shimmers like water) between the 3 sections. Lack of funding prevented this and thus the total completion of my concept. Melville's, Moby Dick was also written nearby the Hudson, closer to Albany .

Judy Sigunick

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The Whale Sculpture was commissioned by the City of Poughkeepsie in 2001 and finished in 2002. 

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Photo provided by Mary Flad

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Dedication led by Mayor Collette LaFuente, October 25, 2002

“The whole idea of this work is a collaboration (between) me and the community,” Sigunick said.

 

Sigunuck asked children in summer programs and local schools to design tiles that would be placed on the whale.

    - Rob Seetoo

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The whale today

After 20 years, the whale has degraded with tiles breaking off, masonry eroding, large cracks forming, and parts caving in. This has become a hazard for the children that often play on it and to those who may trip on the exposed anchors.  After a visit from a City of Poughkeepsie safety inspector and a discussion with City Administrator Marc Nelson, it was decided that the clock is ticking...   something needs to be done.

 
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Photos provided by Sean Hemmerle

Our focus group

A cross-section of Poughkeepsie arts was assembled in the fall of 2020 to make a recommendation to the City:

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  • Jeff Aman - Public Arts Commission

  • Delilah Iverson - Vassar College Intern

  • Mary Flad - Local Legend

  • Diana Salsberg - Artist and Arts Lover

  • Rachel Saunders (and son) - Daughter of Judy Sigunik

  • Ellen Sigunik - Artist, daughter of Judy Sigunik

  • Linda Marsten-Reid - Arts Mid-Hudson (on the phone held by Mary Flad)

 
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FABRICATION OF THE SCULPTURE

A bit of background will help one understand the complexities of why the sculpture has degraded and what can be done now.  While it may appear to be relatively simple looking from the outside, there really was s a lot going on inside to make it possible.  

The sculpture consists of three sculptural elements that took form with a stainless steel structural grid.  

  • Each sculptural element was made up of multiple sections that were individually fabricated and ultimately wired together on site.

  • Each section of each element was covered with chicken wire mesh to hold the masonry in place.

  • The sections were then coated inside and out to provide the base for adding masonry and tiles on site.

  • The sections were transported to the waterfront site for installation.

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After transporting to the site multiple (small) concrete footings were poured to support each section and the sculpture was assembled.

  • The individual sections of each of the three sculptural elements set in place and bolted to the footings.

  • The individual sections of each element were wired together to hold them in place.

  • A masonry layer was added. and decorative tiles created in the youth program were mounted in masonry.

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EVALUATION

From the spring of 2021 through June of 2022 opinions were solicited (and a few estimates) from experienced masons, two contractors, three engineers, a structural engineer, and two architects.  An understanding was needed as to why the sculpture was decomposing in the manner that it has, and what options might be possible to bring it back to life.  What we learned:

 

  • The footings under the sculpture were not sufficient to support the weight of the masonry structure.  Uneven settling of the sculpture over time put stress on the seams where individual sections of each of the three components were cracking apart, with several opening up large gaps.

  • A solid concrete pad under each of the elements would have spread the load and may have prevented breakage due to uneven settling.

  • The waterfront climate is unique in some ways, with rapid temperature and humidity changes.  Being hollow inside, these differences impact the sculptural elements as they expand and contract, with the exterior tiles either not expanding or expanding at a different rate.  This is probably why most of the tiles have already broken off.

In 2011 an evaluation of the sculpture was performed by the artist and an estimate was prepared.  It was apparently obvious that degradation was visible after only 10 years.  The estimate included:

  • Excavation and installation of new larger footings.

  • Pouring a concrete pad under each section.

  • Removal of some portions of the sculpture to be rebuilt.

  • A youth program to create and install new tiles.

Her conclusions back then were consistent with our current findings, with a total estimated cost of $49,331 - in 2011.​.

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Early on in the evaluation it became clear that several actions would be required.  First, it was obvious that many of the remaining tiles on the sculpture would need to be removed as the first step in restoration of the masonry surface;  the thought was to keep tiles and even tile fragments for future work on the sculpture.  The second conclusion was that the sculpture needed to be placed on concrete pads somehow;  this would allow the uneven settling to be corrected, would make it possible to repair the cracks, and would prevent future settling causing more cracks to occur.  And of course the key concerns were always present regarding how much this restoration would ultimately cost, how long it might then last so we don't have to do this again in the future, and whether the sculpture would even survive.

 

​Over the course of consulting with relevant experts several potential options were considered.  Here is a brief summary...

  • Move, Pour, Put Back, and Repair:  ​this is conceptually simple, just detach the three elements from their footings, pick them up somehow and move them out of the way, pour new footings and concrete pads, pick up each element and set it on its pad, bolt it down, and then do the masonry work.  While this seemed like a good idea, it just isn't.  It was relatively easy to use a crane to set in place with the initial installation as the bulk of the weight had yet to be added and the elements were delivered in pieces.  It is possible to get a crane large enough to pick them up, but cradling the weight would likely cause damage.

  • Excavate, Pour, and Repair:  this approach sounds even easier, just dig out under each element, shovel in some Item 4, lay down some rebar, and pour a pad underneath without disturbing anything.  This also seemed like a good idea, it just isn't.  Doing the excavation would likely cause the sculpture elements to cave in, and without some creative (unknown) way to tie the new concrete to the existing footings it could collapse.

  • Hydro-Excavate Lateral Trenches, Pour Footings, Excavate, Pour, and Repair:  this is a more elaborate scheme using special purpose water pressure excavation to make 3 or 4 trenches under each element, 8 inches wide and 42 inches deep, that would be filled with rebar and concrete to support the weight.  Then the rest of the area under the sculpture elements could be excavated and concrete pads could be poured.  This seemed like an even more promising approach, but it isn't either.  At around $5,000 per day for the excavator, it could be accomplished in steps, spread out over time to pour a few sections of concrete for each element and let them cure before moving on, but this entire process has all of the negatives of the other two approaches, at a higher cost, and there is still no guarantee that one or more sections would collapse during the process.

  • Structural Foam:  this approach could avoid all of the excavation previously discussed by simply drilling holes in the sculpture and then filling each section with spray foam, like insulating a house.  This sounds simple but there are many different types of spray foams currently available, and there are also several types of sprayable concrete.  A high density, closed cell spray foam or hydraulic cement might work, however these approaches come at a high cost, high degree of uncertainty as to the outcome, and a relatively high risk of structural damage.

In addition to the above approaches there are other less desirable paths that were discussed and considered: 

 

  • Do Nothing: wait to see what happens.  This really isn't an option at all, due to potential liability of having someone get injured while climbing on the sculpture.  Going down this path leads to a point where the sculpture will need to be demolished.

  • Buy Time:  this light-weight approach would involve repairing the cracks and then doing masonry repairs (the same as in every other approach) and then...  just sit back and wait.  Without doing the more costly repairs, this approach accepts that the sculpture will need to be demolished, it's just a matter of time.  Accepting this fate does mean that expense limits would make sense to avoid spending large amounts of money just to buy a few years.

  • Partial Repair:  to limit repair and restoration costs an option might be to focus solely on one of the sculptural elements - the tail. The tail section is iconic and is the part that children like to climb on, so it might work to remove the front two sections and focus on the tail.  This seems good, for all of the possible approaches the tail section is the most challenging and least likely to succeed - it is large, it has the most (visible) structural damage, and it has a very uneven weight distribution.

 

A recommendation to the City of Poughkeepsie as to the fate of the sculpture has been delayed for almost one year, hoping to find some cost-effective means by which the sculpture could be restored or at a minimum to extend the life.  Now we are at point where we must act as a large crack in the tail section has expanded by 1/8 inch in the last 3 months and the front of the tail section has caved in a bit more, indicating that decomposition is accelerating. Meanwhile it is still common to see our youth climbing and playing on the tail section even though it is quite unsafe with all of the exposed sharp edges of the broken tiles and the areas that have caved in.  

CONCLUSIONs & Recommendations

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CONCLUSIONS:

Armed with a list of suggestions, ideas, estimates, fears, concerns, and hopes, the fate of the whale sculpture rests here:

  • The cost to fully restore the entire sculpture, saving as much of the original creation as possible, would cost at least $140,000 just to stabilize all three elements of the sculpture to a point where they could potentially last decades.  This does not include any work required to put back the student decorative tiles, nor does it include additional cost of adding signage that was originally envisioned by the artist.  Beyond just the cost a major concern is that there are no guarantees at all that elements of the sculpture would not be totally destroyed while attempting to create the necessary concrete footings and pad.

  • Given that the tail section of the sculpture is iconic and the most important element of the sculpture, removal of the front two sections and focusing solely on restoring the tail seemed to be a good idea.  While the cost would be significantly lower, the probability of success remains very low given the uneven weight distribution and the amount of internal decomposition of masonry inside the tail section.  At a cost of at least $50,000 it would be unwise to start such a process knowing that it would likely fail.

  • The least expensive approach, but doable, would be to demolish the front two sections and do only the required cosmetic repairs to salvage the tail section, to merely extend its life. It would cost in the neighborhood of $20,000 to remove the surviving tiles, repair the cracks, and recondition the entire surface of the tail. This cost does not include any structural work to reduce stress between the back of the tail from the front where the large cracks have opened up, so these repairs may last only a few years at best. 

The sculpture is near and dear to the hearts of many of our residents and has had thousands of children playing on it for the last two decades. As much as we would like to save it the alternatives all come at a high cost and extremely high risk.  The sculpture has had a good life and has brought joy to many, but the time has come to say goodbye.

RECOMMENDATIONS:

The Public Arts Commission was successful in receiving a $15,000 in funding from the City of Poughkeepsie ARPA grant fund, which at the time (in late 2021) was felt adequate to remedy the situation; our optimism at the time was heavily influenced by a lack of knowledge. We do need to make a set of specific recommendations to the City Administrator as to the course of actions we envision and how the ARPA grant funding should be used:

  1. Hire a team of masons to carefully salvage as many of the remaining student tiles from the sculpture as possible.  Obviously whole tiles would be preferred, but even fragments that could be pieced together later would suffice.  (a few thousand dollars)

  2. Create a 3D image of the entire sculpture, capturing details sufficient that 3D replicas of any size could be printed in the future.  The estimate for this is $2,500 plus some miscellaneous expenses.

  3. Have a "celebration of life" party at the sculpture, commemorating the artist, Judy Sigunik, the sculpture, and the value that the sculpture brought to our community.

  4. Demolish the sculpture, repair the ground, and plant grass. We have no estimate for this cost and are assuming that the remainder of the ARPA grant funding would cover it.

  5. Start work on a replacement.

It would be best to do all of this in the fall of 2022 before the condition of the sculpture degrades further.

REBIRTH OF A WHALE:

It is insufficient to just demolish the sculpture without acknowledging the significance of why it was originally created and what Judy Sigunik wanted to accomplish.  The sculpture was there for a set of reasons and we believe it to be appropriate to create a new one. It is worth noting that creation of a new sculpture would be much, much less expensive than restoration of what is there, and it will be possible to go even further toward toward the objectives Judy originally had in mind.  

 

The concept is to create a new whale sculpture, maybe only the tail section, of an appropriate size.  The starting point for the sculpture would be the 3D image, which could be used to produce technical drawings or could actually be created with a large-scale 3D printer in plastic or foam.  The tail could then be mounted on a concrete pad and then finish and adornment could take place publicly, preferably with participation by the youth of our City. This would best be driven by one of our youth-oriented local arts organizations, supported by public funding.

Commemorative signage should also accompany the new sculpture with three components:  the history of Poughkeepsie whaling, narrative about environmental conservation, and the history of Judy Sigunik and the sculpture. Salvaged tiles and tile fragments would surround the signage, carrying forward the legacy created by the youth of our City in 2001 and 2002.

LESSONS FROM THIS EXPERIENCE:

 

Arriving at these conclusions and recommendations has not been easy; it is difficult to recommend demolition of public art of any type. It seems appropriate to conclude this effort with some thoughts to keep in mind going forward. Before acquiring, commissioning, or accepting a donation of public art some basic questions need to be considered.

  • How long would you like the artwork to last and how long will the artwork actually last?

  • Will the artwork pose any type of risk to the public?

  • If outside, will the artwork stand up to the elements?  

  • Who will be responsible for periodic evaluation and maintenance?

  • If the artwork becomes damaged or in need of repair, who will do the repairs and who will pay?

  • If the artwork reaches end of life or needs to be removed, who makes the decision, who removes it, and who pays to restore the location?

 

There is no intent here to scare people away from desiring public art, we just need to think of these questions before jumping into situations that are costly in the future.