At first glance, the iconic Spirit of Life statue seems to echo the splendor of the city.
Commissioned in 1913 by Katrina Trask to honor the legacy of her late husband, Spencer, the majestic bronze statue presides over the serenity of Congress Park. Its wings and outstretched arms are striking enough that it almost obscures the rest of the tree-lined Trask Memorial.
In a sense, the beauty of Daniel Chester French’s statue helps hide elements of the historic landmark that have fallen into disrepair: cracked balustrades, exposed fountain pipework, broken stones surrounding the reflecting pool, and stucco patchwork that doesn’t match its surroundings. Even the trees surrounding the statue have seen better days — some of them having reached the end of their lifespan.
“You really look at the bronze sculpture because it draws your eyes,” said Samantha Bosshart, executive director of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation. “There are some details that you might not notice.”
About three years ago, however, some city residents did take note of the memorial’s deteriorating condition and brought it to the attention of the foundation. The result was a commitment that formed between the foundation and the city to take aggressive steps to give the memorial an overhaul that will preserve it long into the future.
On Friday, city officials and preservationists gathered by the Spirit of Life to announce a more than half-million-dollar effort to restore the icon to its former grandeur before the celebration of Saratoga Springs’ centennial next year. The three-phase project will match funds from the city with money raised by the foundation ever since the need was identified in 2011.
“It takes a few years to get to the point where we’re actually doing some work,” Bosshart said during a news conference at the memorial.
Crews from the city’s Department of Public Works have already removed a cluster of 15 white pines from the rear of the memorial that were dying. Starting next week, the city will erect a 4-foot fence around the memorial to start removing some of the other landscaping that has reached the end of its lifespan.
The project will last about a year and involve a full overhaul of the masonry surrounding the statue. Even the statue itself — perhaps the one part of the monument best persevered — will get attention before work is completed.
“Nothing had been done since the 1980s,” said Public Works Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco. “Something had to be done.”
The memorial was designed by the partnership of sculptor French and architect Henry Bacon — the designer of the Lincoln Memorial. Katrina Trask, the founder of Yaddo, and George Foster Peabody commissioned the landmark in 1913, less than four years after Gilded Age financier Spencer Trask died in a horrific New Year’s Eve passenger train collision outside New York City.
Charles Leavitt, Jr., who had designed the 1912 general plan for Congress Park following the demolition of the Congress Hotel and the 1902 Master Plan of Saratoga Race Course, designed the memorial’s landscaping. The statue was dedicated in June 1915 during the same year Saratoga Springs was incorporated as a city and represented Walter P. Butler’s first official act as mayor.
Mayor Joanne Yepsen lauded the project as one that demonstrates how the partnership between public and private entities can work together to meet a civic goal. She also commended it as one that reflects the deep preservationist spirit that resides in the city.
“Historic preservation is what separates Saratoga Springs from so many other cities and towns,” she said.