March 24, 2008

Bringing the cannons back to Monument Square

The Civil War cannon, mounted on a temporary base of 2 x4's, sits about five feet above the concrete floor of Osterman Granite and Marble. It has the full attention of Monte Osterman, who pokes and prods it from end to end, measures it this way and that, taking notes on everything he finds.

It is safe to say he is more familiar with the 145-year-old cannon than anyone else.

He has located its center point, learned that it weighs 3,650 pounds. Measured it at its widest point -- 19 inches; its length -- 113 inches. Taken notes of all the embossed information found here and there: RPP No. 228, the cannon says on its rear end; "1863" on one of its pivot points; a patent date of 1861.

With a flashlight and a metal coat hanger straightened into a grappling hook, he reaches down the cannon's barrel, dragging out a nickel, a penny, a blue glass game piece, a shard of broken glass. Treasure from ... when? One hundred years ago? Three years ago?

The Civil War ended in 1865, but a mini-war swirled around the two cannons removed from Monument Square when it was rebuilt starting in 2005: where should they go? The new Civil War museum under construction in Kenosha? By City Hall? Anywhere but back on Monument Square! After much debate, that question has been resolved -- put them back by the Civil War monument, the City Council finally ruled.

And so, now it's all up to Monte Osterman to design and build granite bases for the two cannons.

City Parks and Recreation Director Donnie Snow, who has to come up with the money to pay for Osterman's work, is also involved; his request to the City Council to allocate the approximately $10,000 necessary should come before the Finance and Personnel Committee today. Private fund-raising is another option, but one that would delay the base construction, and the cannons' return past the hoped-for reinstallation date of Flag Day, June 14.

None of that is Osterman's concern: his charge is strictly a design issue. And so he measures, and draws, and makes recommendations to the city, its architect and to the Downtown Racine Corporation, which contributed $600,000 of Monument Square's $1.4 million rebuilding cost. Osterman's preference is for classic bases made from Mesabi black granite -- despite its name a mottled dark gray stone -- rough textured from a quarry on the Minnesota/Canadian border.

The new bases will match the benches already ordered and due here in May. "The monument itself is of medium Barre granite, from Vermont," Osterman says. "Then there are the bricks and pavers. We didn't want to introduce another color and material."

"The compressive strength" of various stone also came into play. "We've got to make sure it will hold up," he says, noting that the earlier cannon bases were carved from Indiana limestone, a B-grade at that. "It didn't hold up," he says, "in part because of the acidic cleaning materials used over the years."

All told, some 60,000 pounds of granite is coming from the quarry for a dozen benches, game pieces (with chess boards engraved on top), and art pedestals. The smallest piece weighs about 6,000 pounds.

Back story: Osterman's showroom and workshop on Washington Avenue (in the former Belle Dodge building since July 2006) is an airy space, home to incredibly beautiful slabs of granite that he and his workers will trim into unique kitchen counter tops and backsplashes, fireplace hearths, tub surrounds and so on, with computer-controlled diamond-blade saws.

But it is Osterman's background that fascinates: he grew up in Indiana, went to mortuary school, and eventually came to Racine, buying the Kasuboski Funeral Home on Douglas Avenue. As a student he'd worked for a monument company, and so he continued to sell monuments to former classmates. Customers who knew he made granite headstones sometimes asked, "would you do a granite hearth for my fireplace." At first the answer was no, "but then I realized there was not a whole lot of that around, and so I agreed to 'learn by mistake'." Eventually, he sold the funeral home and became a full-time granite and marble craftsman, specializing in custom work.

Osterman and his employees built a lot of their own tooling, and have pioneered the creation of a thin-panel stone product, Soterra, for walls and ceilings. He is the national training center for Surfacing Products International which makes and markets Soterra. Soon Osterman's will become a Kohler showroom.

But his funeral director training is still evident. Creating a kitchen, he says, is similar to the "restorative art" of a funeral. "There are no do-overs, you get one shot at it, one opportunity to create a peaceful environment."

A perfect thought for designing part of Racine's Monument Square.

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