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New Life for Old Signs

Over the years, even the most solid objects get worn with time. Sometimes, they disappear, becoming the victims of thievery or vandalism. And when an object is truly unique, repairing or replacing it is an even bigger challenge.

Decades ago, TVA installed heavy, cast-aluminum map and dedication plaques at most of its mainstream dams across the Tennessee Valley. Weather conditions, vandalism, and even a car accident, left several of the signs damaged and faded.

As an enhanced stewardship project, Natural Resources has been working with contractor GUBMK to refurbish the existing ones, which included restoring the finish to its original surface textures and colors. In all, 20 vintage Valley map plaques and 11 dedication plaques have been restored to like-new condition.

Four plaques had disappeared since they were first installed, so they needed to be recreated from scratch. The team decided to start with the ones missing from Hiwassee and Kentucky Dams, launching the process to recreate the historic plaques from the original plans and other plaques that still exist.

Blueprints of the past

In a filing cabinet in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, TVA Project Manager Randy McCann found the first essential piece of the process: the original blueprints for the plaques. According to a stamp on the blueprints, the plaques were created by the now-defunct Michaels Art Bronze Company of Covington, Kentucky. Records show that the company, founded in 1913, stayed busy throughout the 20th century creating metal structures and ornaments for buildings and bridges, as well as parking meters, lamps, tablets, signs, cemetery urns and more. (One of its more unique projects was the casting of a 560-pound crucifix, over 11 feet high, for the Holy Family Church in Dayton, Ohio.)

Natural Resources worked with TVA Communications to find a company that could recreate the plaques, and settled on Crone Memorials in Memphis. The foundry sent special transfer rubbing paper so that TVA could create a detailed image from an existing plaque.

TVA Communications Creative Designer Amber Bergdoll, with some helpers, created the transfer from the plaque at Nickajack Dam, carefully copying the plaque in sections. “The rubbing itself took the hands of three people,” Bergdoll explained. “We had to roll out the special blueprint paper in two pieces and hold it in place. I used a kitchen scouring pad to transfer the plaque to the paper, overlapping in the middle. As we went along I referenced a photo making sure to get all the details underneath, then we carefully rolled up the blueprint and sent it back to the foundry. We had one shot to get it right.”

Crone Memorials then completed draft images of the replacement plaques so TVA employees could confirm that every letter and illustration were exactly as desired.

“We decided to leave the wording and map features just as they had been on the original plaque,” said Tiffany Foster of Natural Resources Public Outreach. “These plaques were crafted when our dam system looked a little different. If you look closely at the plaques, you will notice that Fort Patrick Henry is referred to as Fort Henry, and Hales Bar is shown just downstream of Chickamauga, where we now have its replacement, Nickajack. You also will not see Tellico Dam on the plaque because it was completed in 1979, long after these plaques were originally cast. We didn’t change any of these because that wouldn’t have been true to the spirit of the historic originals.”

From the paper to the fire

“We require the detailed transfer blueprints to get as close as possible to recreating what was actually there,” explained Crone Memorials’ Kevin Williams. “Then our artisans sculpt a special, reversed pattern that is used in creating the metal. Each individual letter is actually placed by hand onto the pattern. Using a pure mix of molten aluminum, it is poured into the pattern and left to cure, then removed, cleaned, and color added as necessary.”

The process took weeks to complete and resulted in two new plaques, 3-feet by 5-feet and weighing at least 45 pounds each. The entire process took about two months from the initial planning meeting to the actual installation.

Now, GUBMK will fabricate new frames as necessary, working with TVA Facilities Management to install the plaques. The two remaining missing ones are scheduled to be created and replaced in 2020.