Just prior to the first public tour of Montreal’s oldest country house last August, someone splattered giant graffiti tags across two of its four 300-year-old stone walls.
Twenty days later—after many phone calls, advice from Montreal’s pre-eminent heritage art restorer, and 40 hours of careful nylon brushing by a blue collar employee—a pristine building greeted visitors for the archaeology week celebration.
The incident was the first time anyone has damaged Maison Nivard de Saint-Dizier, a two-storey stone cottage built by Gilbert Maillet for the Congregation of Notre Dame nuns in 1710. Yet similar vandalism occurs too often in Montreal, says Dinu Bumbaru, Policy Director at Heritage Montreal. “In the past, there’s been a general consensus that the graffiti guys wouldn’t damage historic monuments. This unsaid convention has broken down.”
All public institutions with property on the island of Montreal—including 19 boroughs, the STCUM, five school boards, and the municipal, provincial and federal governments—have different protocols for handling typical graffiti removal on their territories. When a designated heritage building or monument is tagged, however, an expert art restorer has to approve the removal to protect historic value and prevent permanent damage. The graffiti on Maison Dizier put extra pressure on Verdun’s arts and culture head Nancy Raymond, who was already busy finalizing plans for Maison Diziers’ anniversary celebration this month and next, and who normally wouldn’t deal with graffiti.
Verdun’s protocol calls for removing graffiti from all structures, whether publicly or privately-owned. A local bylaw, and a strong partnership with the Montreal police, enables graffiti-prevention experts to meet with parents and shopkeepers, visit schools, and recover costs from anyone convicted of defacing property. Fines go to parents of taggers younger than 18 years.
The three-pronged approach (education, prevention, control) was developed as a pilot project three years ago. It has since been deemed so successful, that the Montreal police are expanding it across the island. “If every borough could imitate what Verdun does here and could clean all the graffiti in all the public and private places, Montreal would be much better off,” says Commandant Eric Lalonde, chief of police for Verdun’s neighbourhood office 16, who also heads Project Graffiti. “They understand very well the “broken window theory” in that everyone feels safe when it’s clean.”
Removing graffiti as soon as it occurs is expensive, and can’t be handled solely by borough blue collars. At their September meeting, the borough awarded four contracts to three companies (Hydrotech NHP Inc., Solutions Graffiti, and S.R. Vapeur Inc.) to cover graffiti removal for the next five years at an estimated cost of $295,277.94, despite having already awarded a $220,423.89 contract to Hydrotech NHP Inc. last May. None of these contracts include removing graffiti from Maison Dizier or any other historic monument or sculpture.
“When it’s a historic building, they want to make sure that the removal won’t hurt the structure,” says Sebastien Pitre, from Solutions Graffiti in Lasalle. “I’m in charge of the projects for the Lachine Canal, and there are historic buildings there, but I don’t do historic buildings in Verdun.”
“Removing graffiti on this isn’t the same as taking it off an overpass built in the ‘70’s. It is a very precious and fragile monument,” said Bumbaru. “There are sections with mortar and sections with stone. When this house was built, they were taking rocks from the fields and they can be limestone, granite and sandstone mixed together.”
“When the house was restored a few years back, the outside of the house was repointed,” said Gina Garcia, the art restorer who consulted with Verdun on the project. “The old mortar between the stones was removed and replaced by a new historically-correct mortar using traditional lime based mortars, which are much more fragile than cement based mortars.”
To advise on how to clean off the graffiti, Garcia spent a day testing different solvent mixes and strippers which could be used without a high pressure water jet. Then she trained Verdun’s regular maintenance team to apply them properly, leave them rest for the ideal length of time and then rinse them without damaging the mortar or the stones. “The technique was gentle and time consuming but it was done using eco-friendly paint strippers, small plastic brushes and water rinsing at very low pressure. And more importantly, it didn’t attack the fragile lime mortars.”
Maison Nivard de Saint-Dizier was supposed to open fully next month, but the permanent exhibition won’t be ready until spring 2012. Instead, Verdun has arranged for costumed interpreters, story-tellers and simulated archaeology digs to occur every Saturday and Sunday from now until October 23 to commemorate the structure’s 300th anniversary.
(A version of this story published on Open File on September 11, 2011)