Options for our beloved but decaying Eco-Earth are limited and costly, according to an action plan from the city of Salem.
Restore the massive mosaic tile sculpture at Riverfront Park for an estimated $475,000, or remove what was once an acid ball and repurpose the site for $680,000.
“What would that say about Salem if they scrapped it?” said former Salem Mayor Roger Gertenrich, who chaired the Eco-Earth project 20 years ago. “I would say they had lost their sense of community.”
The community turned the 25-foot diameter industrial eyesore into a colorful, one-of-a-kind globe, overcoming weather, fundraising and engineering snags during the project.
Longtime locals remember what it once was, a giant black tank from the long-gone Boise Cascade paper mill.
Known in its previous life as the Acid Ball, it’s made of steel, covered in asphalt-like material and once held liquid and chemical gases used to cook wood chips into pulp. It’s been a fixture of the riverfront since 1960, when the tank was floated up the Willamette River after being manufactured in Portland.
To transform it, volunteers logged more than 30,000 hours, and more than 1,000 individuals, families, and businesses donated time and money to sponsor countries, territories, states, oceans and icons. Their names are displayed around the base of the black iron fence that encircles the globe.
Eco-Earth was estimated to be valued at $1 million when ownership was handed over to the city in the summer of 2003. Today, the sculpture is a shadow of its former self with sections of ceramic tiles missing and dangling and grout lines filled with moss.
Materials used to adhere the more than 86,000 tiles have failed, and asbestos has been revealed underneath, heartbreaking revelations for all those involved in creating the sculpture and anyone who’s ever visited the site near the east entrance of Peter Courtney Minto Island Bridge.
Eco-Earth’s fate lies with the Salem Public Art Commission, which is charged with managing the city’s public art collection and recommending how to spend city money set aside for art. Neither entity has the resources to pay for restoration or removal.
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“The Public Art Commission recognizes it’s a priority for the community,” said Heather Dimke of the city’s public works department. “Finding that price tag has caused a bit of pause, determining what the next step is going to be.”
If you’re feeling a sense of déjà vu, I’m with you.
This sounds similar to the tale of Salem Peace Mosaic, which was successfully removed from the façade of the now-demolished YMCA and is now safely stored by the city until its new home is ready at Riverfront Carousel.
The original price tag for removal caused pause then, too, but the city ponied up $25,000 and the Oregon Legislature $100,000 (with a nudge from Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem) to save the mosaic.
It took a village to make Eco-Earth
Now it’s Eco-Earth’s turn. As far as community treasures go, this one ranks right behind the carousel and ahead of the Peace Mosaic, in my opinion.
History, geography and art converged to create a community icon.
High school students who worked on the project dreamed of someday bringing their children back to see what they helped create. Family members who sponsored locations on the scale-model globe envisioned a lasting tribute for loved ones living and deceased.
From afar, Eco-Earth still looks beautiful with its translucent blue oceans and colorful continents beaming on the Riverfront Park horizon.
There were challenges preparing the surface for ceramic tile.
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Eco-Earth organizers relied on an expert from California who hooked them up with a company that donated a plastic membrane, according to Statesman Journal archives. Asbestos was never mentioned in extensive coverage of the five-year-long project.
Fast forward to the fall of 2017, with sheets of tile inexplicably falling and dangling from the sculpture, the city through its Public Art Commission hired a conservator from Portland to make an assessment and offer a strategy for repair and restoration.
Cascadia Art Conservation Center, based on evidence present upon its examination, reported “it is clear there was a failure between the layers of plaster and adhesive. This could be due to poor materials choices, infiltration of water due to failing grout and expansion joint caulk, and vibrations caused by the building of a bridge just feet away.”
Some locals expressed concern the damage could have happened or been exacerbated when city crews took over cleaning the sculpture, using a pressure washer. A small group of volunteers had been hand-washing the globe for years.
Whether the culprit was a pressure washer, Mother Nature, faulty materials, or some combination of the three, the damage was done.
The following February, the city hired a Rickreall company to analyze the substrates, or layers, underneath the tile.
Bullseye Precision Analytical & Environmental Services collected samples from the sculpture and tile pieces on the ground. Two types of cement materials were identified as having been used over a membrane — one described as rigid and the other as softer. Those were tested, along with caulk, grout and the tar coating covering the ball.
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The tar coating, accessed through a small hole cut through the membrane, was found to contain asbestos.
The company’s March 14, 2018 report concluded and recommended this: “Abatement of the tar on the aid ball prior to the extensive repair needed on the ceramic tiles would only be required if the tar has become hard, dry, or brittle (friable).”
Seven months later, after reviewing all the reports, city engineers provided a summary of abatement costs and potential options to the Public Art Commission. Included in Troy Thomson’s report was the more expensive option of removing the sculpture.
“I was just trying to give the Art Commission all the options, but that’s not acceptable,” said Thomson, a project manager with the public works engineering department. “This is a major art piece here, something we definitely need to look at in terms of what we need to do to not only fix it but maintain it better.”
It’s coming down to money
More than a year has since passed, and still no action has been taken.
The obvious hurdle is money.
The city has about $50,000 in its Public Art Fund — created along with the commission in 2010 — and it’s limited by city ordinance how it can be spent. The ordinance requires one-half of 1 percent of costs of some public improvement projects be set aside for art, with 70 percent to be used for buying and installing public art, 20 percent for arts management and staff time, and 10 percent for maintenance and conservation.
Dimke said there has been discussion about possibly trying to revise the code to free more funds for maintenance. But that would require going through city council hoops and likely be a time-consuming process.
The commission has been busy focusing on other tasks, including preparing artwork at Salem Public Library, where a majority of the city’s collection is displayed, for storage during construction of seismic and safety upgrades.
It also was involved in choosing a sculpture for display outside the pending new police facility.
Eco-Earth needs to be a priority for the commission. The longer the commission waits to restore the globe, the worse its condition will be.
The city estimates it will cost $475,000 to restore, including $55,000 to remove the tile and $145,000 for asbestos abatement. The remainder takes into account contracted work to repair and prepare the surface and to install tile, although there are many unknowns, including how much community support will be involved.
Gertenrich, the former mayor who was involved with fundraising when the project first launched, didn’t flinch at the estimated cost.
“That’s doable for a community like Salem; money should not be a problem,” he said. “When you go out fundraising for a project like this, there are no liberals and conservatives, there are people who care about their city. The community should get the job done and not fret over the details, even though they are significant.”
Of course, it will take time and leadership. The 85-year-old Gertenrich lives in Portland, or he’d probably take it on himself. He’s confidant someone will step forward.
“I can’t imagine it not succeeding,” he said. “No one’s going to take that thing down.”
“Forward This” taps into the heart of the Mid-Valley — its people, history, and issues. Contact Capi Lynn at clynn@StatesmanJournal.com or 503-399-6710, or follow her on Twitter @CapiLynn and Facebook @CapiLynnSJ.
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