Jordan D. Schnitzer, President
Friends of the Astoria Column
Within three years of the Astoria Column’s completion in 1926, the wind and rain raking Coxcomb Hill had taken an obvious toll on the mural. While the sgraffito technique fared well in Mediterranean climates or on building interiors, it was no match for Pacific Northwest winters.
Unfortunately, the Great Depression was right around the corner, and all but killed efforts to raise the needed funds to repair the monument. Column architect Electus Litchfield told Astoria city officials that (original artist) Attilio Pusterla was the only person who could stabilize the mural, but the estimated cost of $5,000 seemed out of reach.
The Astor family of New York came forward and contributed most of the funds required for the restoration. In 1936, Pusterla returned to Astoria to make repairs and waterproof the mural. The various chemicals employed are further described in the book Astoria Column, 2004. They were state-of-the-art at the time, and came with a recommendation for repeated treatments at five-year intervals.
During World War II the Astoria Column site was closed to the public, and a blimp squadron for coastal reconnaissance controlled Coxcomb Hill. The Column reopened to the public in 1947, and a short time later was sprayed with tung oil to improve waterproofing. This treatment was repeated in 1958, but only exacerbated original problems, in addition to trapping dirt and lichen on the surface. By 1968 the Column developed multiple issues, including cracks on its surface and fading of the murals.
Sadly, efforts to mitigate the damage were as ineffective as they were well intended. Years passed, and the great exterior mural continued to deteriorate until 1984, and a chance meeting between Astoria’s then-Mayor Edith Henningsgaard and Portland philanthropist, Jordan Schnitzer.
Only four years after the fortuitous meeting between Schnitzer and Henningsgaard, a Column rescue plan was created, and a new nonprofit was established to lead it: the Friends of Astoria Column, Inc.
The Friends first identified experts with experience in monuments and art works. In 1989, Myrna Saxe Conservators, Art and Architecture cleaned the exterior of the Astoria Column by removing tung oil, lichens, and dirt. The toothbrush-level of care given to this delicate task was helpful, but the murals had been so dimmed by weather and time that Pusterla’s sgraffito artistry seemed on the verge of vanishing.
Recognizing the continued threat to the Column’s artwork, the Friends of Astoria Column raised more than $1 million for a full art restoration. Their efforts came to fruition in 1994-95 when the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles recommended retaining the services of Dr. Frank Preusser, a world-renowned art conservator. Having worked on the Sphinx in Egypt and the Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia, among other projects, Dr. Preusser enjoyed a challenge. Both he and Jordan Schnitzer, president of Friends of Astoria Column, were determined the Column would be preserved.
During 1995, Preusser worked on the Column with local crews. They performed their work from scaffolding that was encased in plastic to protect them from the weather. His team, including student interns, used historical photographs and Pusterla’s original scratch lines to restore the murals. Preusser estimated only 20 percent of the art remained when they began the project. When the work was complete, the crew treated the Column with siloxane-based water repellent. If the Column would be maintained, applications would have to be repeated every eight to 15 years.
The dramatic art restoration phase was completed in November 1995, but the work of the Friends of Astoria Column was far from over. The Friends of Astoria Column and the City of Astoria launched a “phase two” restoration effort in preparation for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial in 2005. The Friends raised nearly $2 million to accomplish a long list of improvements, including a new ADA-accessible granite plaza with benches; landscaping; and bollards encircling the Column mound. The crowning addition was lighting—and at night, the Column is a dramatic beacon overlooking the City of Astoria from Coxcomb Hill.
In 2007, it became apparent that the spiral staircase inside the Astoria Column was rusting and weakening, forcing closure of the staircase to visitors. An elaborate process was initiated to build new stairs, assemble their parts on Coxcomb Hill, and lower the new staircase into the Column by crane. Architects Hennebery-Eddy designed the stairs, which were constructed by Vancouver Iron and Steel and Columbia Wire and Iron. The project was completed in 2009, marked by a grand re-opening attended by Astorians and Friends of Astoria Column.
In 2013, Dr. Preusser returned to Astoria to assess the condition of the Column at the request of the Friends. As part of his visit, he gave a public presentation about his involvement in restoration efforts for the Astoria Column, as well as for The Sphynx, Notre Dame and Angkor Wat.
A third major restoration of the Column was completed in October 2015.