Awas designated as a cultural landmark Monday night with a unanimous vote from city commissioners, who simultaneously cautioned that the new status might not preserve it as a permanent fixture at the Santa Monica Civic Center.
The Landmarks Commission said over the course of the past two decades, the 26-foot tall mushroom cloud named "Chain Reaction" has become recognized as an iconic work of art that makes an "important statement" about activism and progressive politics in Santa Monica.
They also praised the sculptor, Paul Conrad, who was best known for his Pulitzer-prize winning political cartoons in the Los Angeles Times.
"We’re not saving it through landmarking necessarily, we’re acknowledging and giving it the recognition it deserves and respecting the artist who I think is an important personage in not just Santa Monica, but the region and across the nation," said commissioner Barbara Kaplan.
The dark, shadowy piece has corroded, the extent to which is still being researched, and could be removed from the city's public art collection . City officials said its steel frame, which is encased in a fiberglass mold, has corroded and might not withstand a severe wind storm or the weight of children who climb on it like a jungle gym.
"What does [the designation] accomplish? Time, it needs more time… the city has been taking all the right steps, hired all the right consultants and is getting the detailed assessments that we all need… and private people are coming together [to fundraise]," said commissioner Ruthann Lehrer.
Preliminary estimates put the price of restoration as high as a quarter of a million dollars. If the community doesn't come up with the money by mid-November, .
"We have something that is unique and special… I don’t understand why the city would take something like this and not make a commitment to keep and maintain it for the life of the sculpture," said Kaplan.
Conrad, who died in 2010, served in World War II and won Pulitzers in 1964, 1971 and 1984 for his "fiercely confrontational" political cartoons.
Conrad sculpted "Chain Reaction" at the tail end of the Cold War, when the West and East raced to bolster their weapons chests, escalating fears of a repeat of the 1945 nuclear attacks on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It was installed on the lawn outside the Santa Monica Civic Center in 1991 with a 4-3 vote of the City Council, despite opposition from residents. When the city gauged public opinion of the sculpture by putting it to a citywide vote, 1,100 residents cast ballots. Those against its placement in Santa Monica outnumberedthose in favor of it by two-to-one.
Conrad's widow, Kay Conrad, told the commission that her late husband loved Santa Monica and was grateful that city leaders allowed him to erect "his peace statement here."
Though not in the medium that Conrad was revered for, the sculpture is viewed by some as a powerful political statement.
"The Manhattan Project, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Cold War these are all events that inspired the Chain Reaction and the sculpture is meant to remind us of their gravity," said his son, Dave Conrad. "I think that makes it historic indeed."
Santa Monica resident Cris Gutierrez told the commission she reviewed a number of archived Outlook newspaper clippings that told of residents fear of a nuclear attack. She reminded its members that during the Cold War, the City Council established a board to advise it on civil defense and nuclear disaster preparedness.
"Santa Monica led the state of California in organizing campaigns on a bilateral nuclear freeze," she said.
The acceptance of Chain Reaction by the city in the latter half of 1990 and its 1991 installation ran parallel to the run-up to and U.S. involvement in Operation Desert Storm, according to ICF.
The destruction Conrad saw as a World War II serviceman had a lasting impact on him, and honed his liberal viewpoints.
Conrad’s primary targets were two California-based politicians: Richard Nixon—Conrad called being placed on Nixon’s enemies list his greatest honor, and Ronald Reagan—who was president during the rise of [Santa Monicans for Renters Rights], and whose former Vice President, George H.W. Bush, launched Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
City planning staffers have expressed doubt about the sculpture's artistic merits.
But Dave Conrad told the Landmarks Commission that Chain Reaction embodies his father's talents of imagery and irony. The consultants agreed that the cartoonist's loose, sketchy, vibrant, and somewhat disheveled, style of drawings mirrors the look of the mushroom cloud sculpture.
"His artistry is something people all over the world have gotten the opportunity to know,” said commissioner John Berley, both through his cartoons and through "the sculpture here in the city center."
Conrad also created a series of smaller-scale bronze works or various political figures he revered, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln and Robert F. Kennedy. Other works included bronze crucifixes that are housed at area churches, at a Catholic hospital, and a Catholic school. Each of them are more religious than political in their imagery, and Chain Reaction is the only one of Conrad’s located in such a public space, according to ICF.
As a landmark, the piece may qualify for historic preservation grants from groups such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation. But because it was so recently built, the likelihood of Chain Reaction receiving any money appears slim, city staffers said.
And, from now on, treatments will be subject to stricter standards set by the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation.
It's rare for the Landmarks Commission to designate artwork. Historic homes, trees, signs and commercial buildings dominate the registry of approximately 100 such places.
"The decision to Landmark a sculpture that speaks to a key chapter in the City’s history would make a strong statement regarding the historical, social and political importance of progressivism in Santa Monica," ICF wrote in its assessment.