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Another Riverside Park statue is showing signs of age.

But La Crosse Parks Superintendent Gar Amunson said rust holes in sculptor Elmer Petersen's steel bald eagle are nothing like the problems that beset the statue of Hiawatha in recent years.

"It looks like it ought to last 100 years," Petersen said Thursday as he began inspecting the landmark sculpture he installed in 1987. Petersen looked for faults and listened for weakness as he tapped it with a ball-peen hammer.

"It's structurally sound," Petersen said after coming down from the cherry picker. "It may need to be patched every 15 years or so."

The sculpture depicts a bald eagle with a fish in its talons perched atop a tree trunk.

City workers noticed small rust holes about two weeks ago and notified Petersen. The sculpture is supposed to rust, but not that much. There is a hole at the base of the tree trunk on the east side, and another about 5 feet up on the north side. Other rust faults are visible higher up the north side of the trunk.

"Most of the holes are in the first 12 feet," Petersen said. But he also found some small holes beneath one of the eagle's massive wings.

Petersen and Amunson said there's no chance of the sculpture falling because it is supported by a massive steel I-beam inside the trunk.

The exterior is made of 14-gauge weathering steel, which is designed to develop a rust coating that crystallizes and protects the underlying steel from further damage.

The material has been used widely for sculptures in the last half century, according to Patrick Gallagher, an expert in weathering steel preservation from Sunnyvale, Calif. The amount of rust that develops on a piece can depend on wetting and drying of its surfaces, he said on his Web site.

Petersen noted that rust developed on areas of the sculpture that don't get much direct sunshine, making him wonder whether dampness could be to blame.

"Now it's a matter of deciding how to fix it," Petersen said. He's thinking about using methods similar to those employed in an auto body shop - patching with a Bondo-like material, then sealing the sculpture with a polyurethane coating.

Restoring the Hiawatha statue cost the city $35,000, but Petersen said repairs to the eagle might cost a couple thousand dollars - mostly for the polyurethane.

"I feel bad," Petersen said of the rust damage. When he was designing the sculpture, he chose weathering steel because its manufacturer, U.S. Steel, said it had a life of four to six times longer than regular steel.

"I thought it was a wonderful material at the time."

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Reid Magney can be reached at rmagney@lacrossetribune.com or (608) 791-8211.

COMING MONDAY

n Galesville sculptor Elmer Petersen's latest subject is one of the most influential diplomats of the post-World War II era.

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