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Engineer Finds That Saving Art Is an Art in Itself

March 02, 1998|KATE DUNN | Kate Dunn is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles

The Banshee fighter plane, the Watts Towers, the space shuttle and a museum's giant mobile have a common denominator: N.J. "Bud" Goldstone, who has worked on all four. The projects may appear unrelated, but for Goldstone they have been intriguingly complex engineering challenges in a 50-year career.

For the first 33 years of his career, Goldstone worked both as an aerospace engineer for North American Aviation and as a community volunteer. One of his volunteer projects, which eventually was to change his life, was his participation in the successful protest against the demolition of the Watts Towers in 1959. Knowing that the load distribution and the movement of forces through the towers' structures were different from those civil engineers usually encounter, Goldstone designed and conducted a stress test based on aerospace techniques that proved the landmark towers built of scrap by an unschooled Italian immigrant were structurally sound and safe.

Almost from the start of his career, Goldstone had wanted to work for himself. He realized this ambition in 1981 when he took early retirement and became a full-time independent contractor. Under contract to the state and then to L.A.'s Cultural Affairs Department, Goldstone served as chief engineer on the Watts Towers' repair and conservation efforts between 1979 and 1985. His reputation began to spread, and Goldstone found he had become an art conservation specialist. This shift in focus hasn't been lucrative, but it has proved enormously satisfying. "Many of [the projects] I have to work on for nothing," he said. "But they're just too interesting to turn down."

There are two kinds of challenges in repairing structural art, Goldstone said.

The first is balancing safety, stability and cost with the need to preserve both the artist's original work and the patina the piece has acquired over time.

"If you damage your car's bumper, you can just replace it," Goldstone said. "But if you damage a work of art, you have to save what's left and put it together in a way that doesn't grab the viewer's eye."

He found that achieving this balance was especially difficult when he was commissioned to help repair and reinstall Alexander Calder's mobile "Hello Girls" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "It was covered with dents," he said of the artwork commissioned for the museum's 1965 opening. "We had to be careful not to . . . destroy Calder's work" while removing them.

The second challenge is understanding how and why artists constructed their pieces as they did. The Watts Towers best exemplifies this challenge.

"Simon Rodia built the towers intuitively," said Rodney Punt, the city's Watts Towers Project manager. "Using his experience as a tile setter and general handyman and the engineering articles in a set of encyclopedias, he set to work without a plan, never knowing what he was going to do from one day to the next."

The result was an engineering nightmare Goldstone couldn't resist. "Bud understood the towers and proved it during that first stress test," Punt said. "Not only did the towers turn out to be structurally sound, the crane that was supposed to pull it over actually jammed."

Today Goldstone serves as a consultant to the city on Watts Towers issues and has recently completed a book about them with his wife, Arloa. Commissioned by the Getty Conservation Institute, "The Los Angeles Watts Towers" is now in most art and architecture bookstores. He has also completed a preliminary study of Las Pozas, a structural art park in Mexico. The study is being reviewed and he hopes to have the go-ahead to begin repair work soon.

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Kate Dunn is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She can be reached at katedunn@earthlink.net.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

AT A GLANCE

* Name: N.J. "Bud" Goldstone

* Age: 72

* Home: Los Angeles

* Present Career: Conservation engineer, consultant and author

* Previous Career: Supervisor in engineering, North American Aviation

* Education: Graduate, Aeronautical Engineering School at Purdue University; courses in aerospace technology at UCLA and USC

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