Monumental Task

For the second time,
Karkadoulias adds her touch to
Madison’s Broadway Fountain

By Don Ward

MADISON, Ind. (October 2004) – Mercene Karkadoulias is on a mission, and time is running out.

2004 October Cover

Cover of the
October 2004 Issue

After spending a lifetime of perfecting her art and forging a reputation nationwide in restoration circles, she wants to save as many historic monuments, sculptures, fountains and plaques as possible for as long as she is able to work. Although she won’t reveal her age for business purposes, she admits she is well beyond what most people would consider as retirement age. But her work is far from finished. There are too many monuments out there that need her special touch.
“I don’t do this for the money, I do it because I love it,” said Karkadoulias, who has restored monuments for many of the nation’s state capitols and battlefields, including those at Gettsyburg.
She and her staff work year-round on projects all around the country, sometimes simultaneously. She has spent much of the past summer working on Madison’s 118-year-old Broadway Fountain, a city landmark that her company, Karkadoulias Bronze Art Inc., based in Cincinnati, re-cast in bronze nearly 25 years ago at its foundry. Now during its first cleaning and maintenance project since it was re-dedicated in 1980, Karkadoulias, her family members and employees have spent the past five months meticulously scraping calcium and other deposits off the fountain, down to the original archaic green patina that was applied when it was cast. The patina serves as a protective coating after the casting.

Mercene Karkadoulias

Photo by Don Ward

Mercene Karkadoulias.

Karkadoulias believes the patina and the original polish on the granite should never be removed. “They should be preserved, no matter how difficult or time consuming it is, because if you remove them, it’s like removing the skin of a human being, and it’s shortening the life,” she said.
Repairs and upgrades to the plumbing beneath the fountain also were required to ensure that it will function properly for many years to come. The job required a new pump and filter, said city parks director Dave Munier.
“Other than routine cleaning around the fountain by our staff, no major maintenance had been done to it for the last 25 years,” Munier said. “No one had the knowledge in what to do. But she is going to give us some guidelines in what to do on an annual basis so that when we close it down in the fall, we can help maintain it better in the future.”
In all the restoration project will cost nearly $80,000, a staggering sum to the city staff. But several changes in the plan were made to reduce the cost, Munier said. City officials said they would try to find a way to soften the water that is causing dense lime buildup inside the 3-inch water lines, thus avoid having to replace them. Karkadoulias had originally proposed to disassemble the fountain and haul it to her Cincinnati foundry to do the work, but she later agreed to do work on site. Finally, Karkadoulias agreed to accept payments in installments for the job. The city plans to pay her $25,000 this year and has budgeted $30,000 for her next year, Munier said. The balance is to be paid in 2006.
But the overall bill won’t fall entirely on the city. River Valley Financial Bank this year contributed $10,000 toward the fountain restoration. And Munier said he wants to launch a fund raising drive this winter to help generate more private money to offset the city’s cost.

Fountain Cleaning worker

Photo Provided

Mercene Karkadoulias’ granddaughter, 15yr. Mercene Zalants of Cincinnati, works on the Broadway Fountain.

“There’s a lot of close connection to the fountain by many people in the community, and we’re hoping some of them will want to come forward and contribute money to help preserve it,” he said.
Prerhaps no one has as much love for the fountain as Karkadoulias herself. Considered by her peers as a true artist in the craft, she tends to fall in love with all her subjects, but the Broadway Fountain ranks among her favorites.
“Since we were the ones who re-cast this fountain 25 years ago, we knew coming in the strengths of the structure and that we did not have to dismantle it,” she said.
Karkadoulias said her workers used a five-step process to clean the calcium deposits from the fountain, but mostly it was done by scraping off the deposits with small tools. “It was painstaking and extremely difficult,” she said. “The water is very hard here, and that creates a lot of calcium buildup. In some places, we found calcium as thick as one inch. We took it off one mil at a time using all our processes without using any abrasive.”
After cleaning, the workers applied the archaic green patina to the bronze. Although the patine looks like paint but it is not, she said. This coating helps protect the metal against the elements. The workers also repaired, cleaned and polished the granite base.
Larry Erway, an apprentice employee, did much of the work on the fountain under Karkadoulias’ supervision. Karkadoulias’ friend, Nachos Fernandez, was hired to climb inside the fountain to clean because of his small stature. She also hired several local men, including Drew Allen, Matt Siliakus, Logan Higgins, Jamie Cox, Joe Eckler and Brian Jones. She hired Mark Sedaca, an independent contractor and fountain specialist, to assess and repair the plumbing.
The water was turned on in late September for a test run, and Munier said everything worked fine. Later this fall, Karkadoulias plans to return to Madison to apply a final protective coating on the fountain, once the water has been turned off for the winter, which is usually just before Halloween.
Business a family affair
In addition to employees, Karkadoulias is helped by family members and is hoping to pass on her knowledge and expertise so they can continue the business long after she is gone. One of her two daughters, Anitsa Zalants, 39, and her children, George, 15, Mercene, 13, and Jamie, 6, all helped clean the Broadway Fountain this summer. George in particular has developed a fascination with the work, she said, and shows great potential for it.
Anitsa said her mother “is 100 percent dedicated to it. She knows what she’s looking for when she inspects these sites and can spot foundry defects before anybody else; she loves it.”

Fountain Cleaning worker

Photo Provided

George, 15, Removing calcium deposits that had built up on the bronze and granite structure over the past 25 years.

She is happy that her children have shown interest in the work, and she is hoping George will continue with it as an adult. “I learned as a child and even worked on the Broadway Fountain with I was a teenager, so coming back there had very special meaning to me.”
Although family members are involved, it is Karkadoulias herself who provides the guiding force behind the business, despite many personal and medical obstacles and the unorthodox route that led her into the restoration business in the first place.
A first-generation American of Greek descent, Mercene Ponticos was born and raised in Cincinnati. Her father, Stephan Ponticos, owned his own business in Cincinnati that designed wood store fixtures and displays and distributed them all over the country. At age 27, Mercene bought her father’s business upon his retirement and, with her first husband, artist James Axiotes, operated it until 1954 when the city took over the property by imminent domain to create I-75. They developed Axiotes Inc. into an advertising art business. At its height, the business had 21 artists under contract to produce advertising art projects for such clients as United Artists and Proctor & Gamble. They even produced the first TV commercials in Cincinnati. But Axiotes died suddenly of a heart attack in 1966 at age 42.
Karkadoulias by then was an active member in the Cincinnati social scene, and in the late 1960s she fought to save Cincinnati’s Tyler-Davidson Fountain from being replaced by a more contemporary piece. During negotiations with the city to take on the project to move and restore the fountain to a new location, she met a Greek immigrant, Eleftherios Karkadoulias, whom she eventually married in 1970. The two formed Karkadoulias Bronze Art under the Axiotes Inc. parent company and completed the Tyler-Davidson Fountain.
From there, the two worked in tandem, building their business and earning a reputation nationwide. In the mid-1980s, her company competed for the contract to replace the torch in the Statue of Liberty. After a long selection process, Karkadoulias Bronze Art Inc. made it to the final two but lost out to a French-owned company. It was France, after all, that gave the statue to the United States, and she feels honored to have even been considered. Even after the couple’s divorce in 1995, Mercene has continued to take on projects with zeal.
Overcoming obstacles

Larry Erway working

Photo Provided

Larry Erway was responsible for making sure all calcium deposits were removed
from the fountain.

But on Oct. 26, 1997, she was nearly killed in an automobile accident on “Death Hill,” a stretch of I-71/75 in northern Kentucky just before the bridge into Cincinnati. Her crew was returning from a job in North Carolina, and the cargo van in which she was riding went over the side of the hill. The vehicle rolled more than a dozen times.
“We were only five minutes from home, and I had just removed my seat belt to do some paperwork, and I went through the windshield,” she said. “The passenger side was mashed in, and had I not flew out the windshield, I would have been killed.”
The accident crushed her heel, pelvis, toes, thumb, while causing nerve damage to her back and smashed her head. She underwent brain surgery and several other operations, and was not given much chance to live. For nearly a year she was confined to a wheelchair and cared for by her family.
“She went through hell and back,” said daughter Anitsa, who cared for her mother in her home. “They said it was a miracle that she came back at all. It shows her inner strength to have survived all that.”
Karkadoulias contracted a second bout of cancer in 2002, and underwent chemotherapy, an operation and radiation, but again she persevered. In a lifetime of work as a conservator, she has earned a reputation for hard work and perfection in her craft.
“She’s truly an artist and a sculptor in her own right. And she has this compulsion within her that statues are going unkept, unloved and uncared for, and she feels a need to get the word out because statues are suffering all over the country,” said Sam Townsend, a retired administrator for the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh, N.C., who first met Karkadoulias in 1982.
Townsend has studied the various methods of preservation that people use to restore monuments, and he says Karkadoulias has one of the best. But despite her quality of workmanship, he also sees the creative spirit coming out. “I feel she does this work out of a love for it rather than a need to make money. She has both passion for her work and compassion for history.”
Townsend not only worked with her on the numerous State Capitol monument restorations, but he and his wife, Mary Ellen, became social friends and have stayed in touch with her ever since. Townsend has visited Karkadoulias’ foundry, where he witnessed the creative work going on there.
He says her reputation is well established throughout the industry and among the dozens of municipalities that have hired her to restore their statues and monuments.
Kathy Axiotes, Karkadoulias’ oldest daughter, works as a paralegal in Cincinnati but also helps with the book work of the family business. She considers her mother an expert in her field and has witnessed her in action many times.

Clean up close up

Photo Provided

Cleaning close-up shows that all the
hard work will make a difference.

“On the one hand, she’s my mom and my best friend, but when I see her working on a piece of art, I realize how creative and talented she is,” said Axiotes, 47. “She is often asked to speak to groups, schools and organizations, and her enthusiasm and dynamic personality rubs off on people. They just love her.”
Axiotes oftens travels to work sites with her mother and has come to know the business as well as her other sister and nieces and nephew. All have spend their time chiseling and scraping monuments somewhere in the country.
Axiotes recently traveled to Carson City, Nev., where Karkadoulias is currently working on a project simultaneously to the one in Madison. “She’s very congenial and loves to talk to people about her work so they can see and understand what is happening, they appreciate it,” Axiotes said. “She’s often said that her goal for the remainder of her lifetime is to restore as many monuments as she can because she believes this is our history, and she wants to help preserve it.”

Fountain Woman

The Broadway Fountain was designed by French sculptor J.P. Victor Andre for the James Kirtland Co. of New York. Copies were made for Savannah, Ga., Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Cuzco, Peru. Madison’s example is the least altered.• 1876: Fountain on display in the Agricultural Nave of the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.
• 1884: Fountain purchased by Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Madison Lodge No. 72.
• 1886: The iron cast fountain was brought to Madison by the Odd Fellows and dedicated on Sept. 28, 1886.
• 1976: After years of falling into disrepair, Madison residents raised enough money to have the fountain restored and re-cast in bronze by the Karkadoulias Bronze Art Inc. It was re-dedicated on Aug. 9, 1980.
• Oct. 24, 2004: The City of Madison plans to hold a 2 p.m. re-dedication ceremony of the newly restored fountain after summer-long work by Mercene Karkadoulias.

Axiotes related a story about her mother’s vision that she saw during her hospital stay following her near-death accident. Karkadoulias believes she saw a vision of her deceased mother, who told her that she unfinished business to do on Earth before she dies.
“It’s almost like you have a certain mission in life, and she knows what her mission is, and she is determined to see it through,” Axiotes said. “I really admire her for what she has been through.”
Kim Franklin Nyberg, director of programs at Historic Madison Inc., is teaming with Karkadoulias to present a program on the fountain at 10 a.m. Oct. 14 at Trinity United Methodist Church on Broadway. Nyberg plans to present historic photos and documents from the HMI collection relating to the fountain’s history. She, too, is struck by Karkadoulias’ resolve and knowledge.
“My talk will focus mainly on the fountain as an object of art and as a community centerpiece,” Nyberg said. “Mercene will talk about all the work they’ve done. She is a fascinating person who I think people will really enjoy hearing speak.”
Munier said he had not met Karkadoulias before this summer, but that he was “quite impressed.”
“She is very knowledgeable and sincere,” Munier said, “and she really cares for this community and this fountain. Anybody who remembers what the fountain looked like back in June compared to what it looks like now is going to be surprised and proud of what she has accomplished.”

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