Changing approaches to monumental plaster casts at Weir Farm National Historic Site

Naomi Kroll Hassebroek


The “This Is the Place” Monument overlooks Salt Lake City and commemorates the city’s origin story, the moment when Brigham Young and the Mormon pioneers he had led from Illinois emerged from a canyon pass into the Salt Lake Valley and proclaimed it their new home. The monument was designed by Mahonri Young, a social realist sculptor and Brigham Young’s grandson. After winning the commission in 1941, Young made full-size plaster models in his Connecticut studio that were used to cast the monument’s bronze reliefs and statues at the Roman Bronze Foundry in New York City. Today, the Young studio building– and six monumental plaster relief models– are part of Weir Farm National Historic Site, the farm, home, and studio of Young’s father-in-law, the American Impressionist painter J. Alden Weir. Although park interpretation focuses on Weir’s life and art it also memorializes Young’s work and presents studio art as a dynamic living tradition through education programming and artist residencies.

Young’s plaster reliefs are particularly important in this context as they are among the few historic works of art in a park devoted to the concept. Original paintings and works on paper cannot be exhibited in Weir’s rustic studio; although housed in a similar building the Young plasters do not have the same environmental requirements and convey the immediacy of the artist’s hand, material, and process in a way that falls short in the Weir reproductions.

This presentation will examine the challenges that the conservation and contextualization of the reliefs– which were stored in a barn until the NPS acquired the site in 1992– present. Among these are questions of interpretive focus and of the appropriate degree of surface cleaning and loss compensation. Approaches to these issues have evolved over time; treatment of the last three reliefs was completed this year and was informed by the outcome of the first reliefs almost ten years earlier. The first reliefs were conserved as stand-alone artworks, their plaster surface cleaned to a gleaming white finish with all cracks and losses seamlessly filled. Although this restoration was visually compelling, the casts were produced to create the Salt Lake City bronzes and were never intended to be their surrogates. The Park agreed that the conservation of the remaining reliefs should reflect their function as intermediate artifacts in the monument’s fabrication.  Surface accretions related to the bronze casting process were retained during cleaning, and loss compensation was minimal.  The result at once preserves the casts’ status as working models while emphasizing their materiality and restoring their artistic legibility. The minimally restored reliefs have also changed the Park’s interpretation of the works for visitors; they are now used to illustrate the processes of both plaster and bronze casting while conveying the technical and design complexity of Young’s monumental Utah masterpiece.

2022 | Los Angeles | Volume 29