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The Spirit of Fort Myers

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Spirit of Fort Myers After Conservation 02The Spirit of Fort Myers is a cast stone statue of a Grecian maiden pouring water from an urn into a basin at her feet. The sculpture is the centerpiece of an entryway that features tall, obelisk-capped stanchions and a gently curving white wall crowned by hedges, a black wrought-iron fence and a thicket of tall green trees. The maiden and her pale, yellow-coined columns welcome residents and guests to Edison Park, one of southwest Florida’s oldest and most venerable neighborhoods.

The entrance to Edison Park is located at the intersection of McGregor Boulevard and Llewellen Drive. With a street address of 2404 McGregor Boulevard, The Spirit of Fort Myers stands across the street from the two-story home once occupied by Thomas and Mina Edison and just steps to the west of the Edison-Ford Winter Estates.

 

History of the Sculpture

Edison Park was platted by the Snell Brothers of Sarasota. Among their builders and developers was James D. Newton, the man who many years later authored Uncommon Friends, a book that chronicles the special bonds of friendship shared by inventors Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone. However, at the time the 20-year-old Newton began developing his subdivision, he had yet to meet Fort Myers’ three famous winter residents.

Though young, Newton was nevetheless an astute businessman and knew he needed to create a spectacular entryway for the neighborhood he was developing. So he hired a German immigrant 0012photoby the name of  Helmuth (Helmut) von Zengen to make a sculpture for the spired and arched entrance he was planning to place across Llewellyn Drive. Von Zengen patterned his commission after the famous gate in Chestnut Hill, an affluent Philadelphia suburb. Each day, the sculptor labored on his artwork behind canvas tarps, and each night when he finished for the day, he carefully covered the work-in-progress beneath the tarpaulins in order to prevent anyone from seeing his sculpture prior to her unveiling at the official dedication.

During this time, Newton twice tried to introduce himself to his neighbors across the street, but Mina Edison refused to receive him. Home of Thomas and Mina Edison (2)Then one day, Newton was summoned by Mrs. Edison, who wished to see him on an “important matter.” So Newton walked across the street to Thomas and Mina Edison’s sprawling two-story home on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River.

Newton describes what happened next in Uncommon Friends.

825_20080702a[1]“The front door opened and she came out and stood looking at me sternly. I rose to me feet, and before I could introduce myself, she said, ‘I didn’t send for you.’
‘Mrs. Edison, you wanted to see the person who is developing Edison Park?’
‘I want the head man,’ she said.
‘Well, here’s my business card.’
She was taken aback. She stared at my business card and then at me. She was clearly surprised to find so young a man.”

Spirit of Fort Myers After Conservation 04She told Newton flatly that the town’s ladies were displeased by the statue’s nudity.

“I was amazed. How had they known? The sculptor, Helmut von Zengen, had been doing his work behind a heavy canvas tarpaulin, carving a Greek maiden of some two thousand years ago.
I asked, ‘How do you know the Photo from van Zengen Familystatue doesn’t have clothes?’
‘The ladies went with a flashlight one night and looked underneath the canvas.’
‘Mrs. Edison. It was the sculptor who designed it. He told me that the sculpted maidens of that time didn’t wear clothes at the well. Does it Spirit100 (5)offend you?’
‘I don’t think it should be that way.’
‘Well, what should we do about it?’
She couldn’t say.
I suggested: ‘We can’t put street clothes on her – how about a veil?’
She thought a veil would be great. So I went to see the sculptor. He spiritjust about tore his hair out, but finally worked out a way to create a veil with powdered marble. From then on Mrs. Edison and I were friends. I asked her if she would do the unveiling – the entrance, not the statue – when the time came for the Spirit102opening ceremony of Edison Park. She agreed.
During the twenty years that followed, she told the story again and again how, after our confrontation on the porch, I had gone downtown and described her View from The Seminole Lodge (4)as the ‘hard-boiled Mrs. Edison.’ It amused her to tell it and it embarrassed me. What I had said was that she gave me the impression of being a formidable lady.
It was through Edison Park that I came to know Thomas Edison.”

Not only did Newton win the Edisons’ favor, Mina agreed to unveil the maiden at the dedication on April 8, 1926 and Thomas insisted on attending the event even though he was quite ill at the time. Some 500 folks turned out for the event which, according to local historian Gerri Reaves, was filmed by Pathe’ News “as was common with events involving the Detail of Face and Hair 4great inventor.”

Newton ultimately donated the sculpture to the City of Fort Myers, and years later it fell into disrepair as it was coated with layer upon layer of green paint to honor the Fort Myers High School Green Wave. But the 54 alternating layers of green and white paint were stripped off  in 1983 when the Fort Myers Beautification Advisory Board hired local sculptor D.J. Wilkins to restore and turn the sculpture back into a fountain. Incident to the Detail of Urn and Hands 1restoration, Wilkins also designed and installed special lighting to illuminate the sculpture after dark, and replaced much of the old, rusted cast iron water pipes running through the sculpture with more modern PVC.

Newton attended the December 6, 1983 re-dedication. For more than 50 years, the sculpture had been called Rachel at the Well. But Newton shocked those in attendance when he disclosed that the work’s true title is The Spirit of Fort Myers.

 

Location, Measurements and Materials

  • Looking up at Rachel (2)The entrance to Edison Park is located at 2404 McGregor Boulevard, Fort Myers, FL 33901.
  • It is located just west of the Edison & Ford Winter Estates.
  • The statue is located at longitude 26° 38′ 0.384″ N and latitude 81° 52′ 49.461″ W.
  • The maiden has a height from foot to the top of her head of 90 inches.
  • She is 30 inches wide from urn to opposing elbow and 29 inches deep.
  • Rachel up Close 02She stands on a plinth that is 20 inches tall and 36 inches deep and wide.
  • She is located in the center of a hexagonal pool that measures 30 inches tall by 42 inches per side and 9  inches deep.
  • The entry over which Rachel presides is nestled into the crook of the Y that Llewellyn Drive forms at its intersection with McGregor Boulevard. It spans 36 feet to the outer edge of the stanchions that frame the sculpture.
  • The cast stone with which the sculpture was made is a special mix formulated and patented by von Zengen that allowed him to create the statue on site rather than in a studio.

 

About James D. Newton

james_5James Draper Newton was born in Philadelphia in 1905. He moved to Fort Myers, Florida at the age of 20, where he embarked upon the development of Edison Park, an upscale community located directly across McGregor Boulevard from the two-story winter residence of Thomas and Mina Edison. Over time, Newton became well acquainted with not only the Edisons, but Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Dr. Alexis Carrel, John Burroughs and Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. In 1928, he was hired by Firestone and served him in various administrative positions until 1936.

Newton was introduced to camping by Edison, Ford and camping-caravanFirestone. In their lust for direct contact with nature, the famous “vagabonds” often ventured deep inside the Everglades. There, fellow vagabond John Burroughs noted in his diary,  they “cheerfully endured wet, cold, smoke, mosquitoes, black flies and sleepless nights just to touch naked reality once more.” Years later, Newton took the Lindberghs on guided boat trips through the harvey firestoneEverglades and the Florida Keys, inspiring their dedication to conserving the Florida environment. Newton and the Lindberghs became such close friends that Charles served as best man at Newton’s wedding in 1943 to Eleanor Napier Forde, whom he met several years earlier when he went to work for the Moral Re-Armament (MRA) in 1936. A transplant from Montreal, Canada, Eleanor was a teacher and leader in the movement.

James and Eleanor retired from full-time work for MRA in 1967 and established a highly successful real estate development business in Fort Myers Beach.

watsonTwenty years later, Newton wrote a book about his experiences with Edison, Ford, Firestone and the Lindberghs, which he published in 1987 under the title of Uncommon Friends: Life with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Alexis Carrel & Charles Lindbergh. Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote the forward. The book inspired a sculpture of Edison, Ford and Firestone that was installed at the entrance to Centennial Park in Fort Myers in 1988, which Newton’s friend and sculptor D.J. Wilkins duly named Uncommon Friends.  The book also inspired a documentary narrated by Walter Cronkite that was first broadcast on public television in 1999.

James D. Newton TooJames Newton died in 1999 at the age of 94. Eleanor died in 2003 at the age of 104. The Newtons received many awards for their contributions to community improvement projects including the restoration of the Edison and Ford estate museums. Their home on an unspoiled beachfront is now Newton Park in Fort Myers Beach.

 

About Helmuth von Zengen

Local author and historian Gerri Reaves wrote a wonderful article for The River Weekly News that adds to our knowledge about the history of The Spirit of Fort Myers and its sculptor, Helmut von 0002photoZengen. Published in the May 22, 2015 edition under the title “Von Zengen’s Modest Maiden,” Reaves wrote:

“An article in The Palm Leaf published shortly after the [April 8, 1926] unveiling sheds light on von Zengen’s training and versatility.

“He began sculpting as a child in Germany, fashioning shapes from candle wax. He enjoyed the benefits of being born into a well-off family, such as private tutoring. After studying privately with various European art masters, he spent four years at the Royal Academy of Berlin and was later associated with Berlin’s Museum of Arts. Travels throughout Europe followed, and then his arrival in the U.S. at age 21.

0009photo (2)“He taught art in New York City, where he designed the reception hall of the 1825 New York House of Refuge. Following his service in World War I, he became a teacher, but soon chose to devote himself to his own artistic pursuits. Specifically, he worked to invent a substitute for stone that would make the creation of large statues and monuments more affordable.

0014photo“He succeeded, and the patented concept would be employed later for The Spirit of Fort Myers. The process allowed for the artwork to be created on the spot, not in a studio, so it’s easy to see how Mina Edison and her friends were able to spy on the artist’s progress.

“Von Zengen’s process reduced the cost of 0015photo (2)materials and labor to a fraction of what traditionally-created sculptures cost. The stone substitute was applied in layers over a skeleton frame and then shaped, making a chisel rarely necessary. The process could render the beautiful effects of marble or opalescent sheens by the addition of ground coal or ground glass, respectively.

“His memorial statue for the American Legion, The Survivor, in Beaverton, Michigan, which was made of ‘pigmented concrete,’ led to other commissions and the use of a patron’s laboratory for perfecting his process.

Spirit 103“Friends of the artist invited him to Fort Myers to create what was then described as ‘the Greek Goddess of Water.’ (Oddly enough, newspaper coverage of the dedication erroneously referred to it as a portrayal of Aphrodite.) An enigmatic phrase in the June 14, 1926 Palm Leaf newspaper states that the goddess epitomized “the life giving power of water in connection with electricity.”

Spirit101“Perhaps that was a convenient way to connect the artwork to Thomas A. Edison after-the-fact? The article mentioned the artist’s enthusiasm for ‘the future of Florida and the opportunities for (his) work’ in Fort Myers. In fact, he planned to make the city his home.

“After finishing the Edison Park statue, von Zengen created other works in the area, including statuary and fountains. Do those works still Spirit of Fort Myers Wide View 01survive? And if so, where?

“He died at age 76 in Tampa, where he completed sculptures in the Tampa Theater, statuary atop city hall, and the exterior reliefs for Maas Brothers Department Store, among others.”

View from The Mangoes Too (2)

Fast Facts.

  • James D. Newton is one of seven busts included in The Harborside Collection.
  • The Snell Brothers also hold the distinction of building the narrowest building in downtown Fort Myers. Located at 2229 First Street, it is just 15 feet wide. Built in 1923, it is home today to Salon Nicholas and its owner Nick Ortino.
  • When Newton donated the statue to the City, he made the gift “in honor of Thomas Edison.”
  • Mayor O.M. Davison officially accepted the gift.
  • During conservation of the statue by Rosa Lowinger & Associates, evidence was uncovered showing that not only had the statue been painted green and white on as many as 54 separate occasions, but that someone had painted a red and black bikini on the maiden – the colors being those of North Fort Myers High School, the cross-town rivals of the Fort Myers Green Wave.

 

A different kind of archaeological expedition (05-31-17)

Spirit FTM Conservation 02As the sun carved its arc into the brilliant Southwest Florida sky, waves of heat radiated from the asphalt top on McGregor Boulevard Drive. In the dazzling sunlight, temperatures soared to more than 103 degrees. From the base of The Spirit of Fort Myers, Conservator Kenia Garcia Pacheco daubed the beads of perspiration that glistened above her furrowed brow. “It’s kind of like an archeological expedition,” she mused. “The more layers we remove, the more the old girl tells us about her creation.”

The Spirit of Fort Myers is that venerable 7½-foot-tall Grecian maiden who’s been pouring a steady stream of water into a concrete basis at the entrance to Edison Park since 1926. “She’s in remarkably good shape,” added Spirit FTM Conservation 06Senior Conservation Technician Pablo Brouwer of the 91-year-old cast stone sculpture that was commissioned by Uncommon Friends author James D. Newton. He ultimately donated the statue to the City of Fort Myers, and she’s been part of Fort Myers’ public art collection ever since.

All artworks require periodic maintenance, even paintings and sculptures that are kept inside climate-controlled environments inside museums like the Met and the Louvre. But preserving and protecting outdoor works is particularly challenging since searing ultraviolet light, wind, rain, heat Spirit FTM Conservation 08and humidity wreaks havoc with even the most durable materials, and the Spirit of Fort Myers has been no exception.

When Pacheco, Brouwer and fellow Conservation Technician Max Gonzalez first arrived, they could see hairline cracks, fissures and evidence of prior repairs beneath the surface of the statue’s outer, rust-stained layer of paint. The trio discovered that the discoloration had two separate Spirit FTM Conservation 13sources. The old, cast iron pipes that connect the fountain to the City’s water supply have been leaching iron and other minerals for decades. But once upon a time, the fountain was fed by a well. Over time, the Sulphur and other soluble minerals absorbed by the statue from this well water have migrated to the surface of the cast stone, adding to the sculpture’s overall blotchy appearance.

Stripping away the paint and rust stains proved tedious enough, but paled in comparison to the painstaking process of chipping away the mortar used to repair the piece in 1983, when the statue was last restored. The science and technology used by modern-day art cSpirit FTM Conservation 15onservators has improved exponentially since then. The conservation-grade mortars and epoxies available today not only do a vastly better job of binding up cracks, fissures and cracks of varying sizes, they do it without obscuring the sculptor’s workmanship.

“[Von Zengen] was very talented,” says Pacheco.

“This is a beautiful, refined work of art,” agrees Brouwer, who presided in January of 2015 over the conservation of another of the City’s public artworks, the 1880 Italian marble statue known as Lorelei that resides today in the Hibiscus Garden at the Fort Myers Lee County Garden Council on Virginia Street.

Spirit FTM Conservation 19The conservation-grade mortar is actually injected with a hypodermic needle into the crack, which is first treated with an alcohol-water mix to make the stone more pliable and receptive to bonding. This eliminates the need for the conservator to sculpt or shape the material being applied to the statue. Thus, what you see when the repairs are completed is the original sculptor’s hand and nothing else.

“When we finally removed all the old paint and mortar, we found that the sculpture’s outer skin is actually smooth and glossy,” Pacheco Spirit FTM Conservation 30reports. “The sculptor appears to have ground other aggregates into the top layer of cast stone.”

This may seem strange at first blush, because most people assume that sculptors use chisels and other instruments to produce their final image. But that’s not how Helmut von Zengen crafted The Spirit FTM Conservation 27Spirit of Fort Myers. Thanks to an article published in The Palm Leaf shortly after the sculpture’s April 8, 1926 unveiling, we know today that von Zengen didn’t carve the maiden from a block of stone, but rather built her up through successive applications of a compound he invented and patented over a superstructure that allowed him to create her on the spot she occupies today.

Spirit FTM Conservation 36“The process could render the beautiful effects of marble or opalescent sheens by the addition of ground coal or ground glass, respectively,” noted local historian and author Gerri Reaves in a story she wrote for The River Weekly News in May of 2015. Pacheco found evidence of both coal and glass in the outer layer of The Spirit of Fort Myers.

The successive application of layers also explains how it was possible for von Zengen to add a shift or robe to the statue, which he originally intended as a nude. As the story goes, Newton found it necessary to have von Zengen cloak the maiden in a robe after Mina Edison and the women of the town voiced Spirit FTM Conservation 39disapproval when they discovered that the maiden, which stands across from Seminole Lodge and The Mangoes, was a naked. So he engrafted diagonal folds of cloth that induce the eye to infer a garment where none previously existed.

The trompe l’oeil may have satisfied Mina and Fort Myers’ conservatively-minded women, but it also added to the challenge faced by Pacheco, Brouwer and Gonzalez Spirit FTM Conservation 40in conserving the statue because they had to exercise considerable care and caution not to remove any of the layers that von Zengen added as he built up not only the maiden’s underlying form and figure, but her drapery as well.

Of course, there were some areas on the statue where pieces of cast stone had been chipped or broken off, and this necessitated more extensive repairs that precipitated a combination of epoxies, grout and other fillers. As a consequence, it took more than a week in extreme heat and high humidity for the conservators to complete their end of the centerpiece’s rehabilitation.

Spirit FTM Conservation 42Following an evaluation and survey by Parker Mudgett, the City hired Chris-tel Company to repair the surrounding columns, stanchions and arches that frame the sculpture and span the sidewalks leading into the subdivision. Chris-tel also dug up the old cast iron pipes and replaced them with PVC all the way back to the backflow preventer to keep iron and other solids from staining the statue in the future. Once all this work is finished, the City will trim the bougainvillea and install new landscaping in the entrance and the bed surrounding the statue and the basin she stands above.

Spirit FTM Conservation 53“When all the work is completed, people are going to notice all the fine details that were previously concealed,” predicts Pacheco. And that’s why she equates conservation with archeology. It’s their function and goal to reveal what was previously covered up.

Kenia Garcia Pacheco, Pablo Brouwer and Max Gonzalez are members of and work under the supervision and direction of the conservation firm of Rosa Lowinger & Associates, which specializes in the preservation of sculpture, architectural elements, three-dimensional artwork and contemporary art. Established in Los Angeles, CA in 2006 and in Miami, FL in 2008, Rosa Lowinger & Associates (RLA) is considered a national leader in preservation and conservation of art in the Spirit of Fort Myers After Conservation 08public sector.

RLA’s team brings a wide range of training, expertise, and experience to a full spectrum of site, bench, and consultation projects. The firm maintains up-to-date knowledge on current techniques and treatments in the field and regularly presents papers at professional conferences. In addition to a core staff of trained conservators and technicians, RLA maintains lRLA Conservation Team 03ongstanding collaborative relationships with subcontractors in related fields. These include materials scientists, preservation architects, structural engineers, metallurgists, metalworking specialists, stone carvers, and a range of colleagues at the nation’s top conservation research institutions. They are recognized nationally for developing and implementing the highest-level innovative solutions to complex conservation problems and communicate this information to clients verbally and in print.

See :

article “Rachel at the Well, site of many pranks, gets a makeover” published by Melissa Montoya in the Fort Myers News-Press on May 18, 2017; and

article titled “Facelift for 91-year-old ‘Rachel’ to begin with its foundation,” published in Florida Weekly on March 29, 2017.

 

 

 

  1. Mark Cranford says:

    The story of Helmuth (Helmut) von Zengen, James D. Newton and Mina Edison just does not add up. It sounds like it was invented for a light summer socializer of non visual art enthusiasts. First off a tent covering the work area required to sculpt Ruth At The Well would be enormous. No physical worker would want to do that in Florida. It would stifle the natural light and surrounding beauty not to mention cutting off air needed to work and heating it up as if our weather is not hot enough even in winter. Why is there no photo of such a giant tent thing or newspaper description that I know of. Someone working under a large conspicuous tent would draw more curiosity then not. Kids would be peeking, people would be gossiping. You are saying Newton knew it was controversial and wanted to spring it on the public when finished and that is why it was supposedly covered. If anything Zengen threw a tarp over it at night to protect it and the story grew into cuteness later. Newton passes off the design on Zengen when all people commission work sign a contract. Newton is building impressive development and he does not know what he is buying to advertise it? come on, that just does not square up. It would of been interesting to see the terms of the contract; work under tent in Florida to create surprise nude statue to foist on the public. Just does not add up. More then likely it was commissioned and almost finished and Mina decided she would not stand for it. It is very common for men to be offended by public nudity, it does not stand to reason it would of been covered for the ladies sake when male preachers were very strong against such things they considered indecent. Helmuth (Helmut) von Zengen was a gifted as a artist. It is a shame to leave this work in a forced vandalized state as it is in now. Ruth has faced Mina’s cruelty of forced breast augmentation and genital mutilation for long enough. Our public art is in need of restoration back to Helmuth (Helmut) von Zengen’s vision. Newton said he designed it, let us move to restore Ruth’s beautiful nudity. Newton saying Zengen telling him that women went nude back in Ruth’s day is absolutely incredulous. Zengen was a very intelligent man, this story strips him of all dignity as Mina and Newton had earlier.

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