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Totem troubles

Campbell Square totem pole in need of funds for maintenance.

Weather woes: John Rajca stands near the totem pole in Campbell Square.

By Lindsey Nolen

A 26-foot, slightly slanted totem pole brings a uniqueness to Campbell Square.

When the wooden work of art was constructed in 2012, the Friends of Campbell Square knew from the day it was finished that it would later require maintenance.

The group now says the city has not yet provided any.

Star spoke to the group last November, and continued deterioration is raising red flags among the members.

John Rajca, president of the Friends of Campbell Square, explained that while he likes the weathered and aged look of the tree, his major concern is pieces of the totem pole will begin to fall off, or the entire tree will fall down.

With dozens of community members passing through the park each day, from little kids playing to people walking their dogs, he worries the risk the pole poses could lead to serious injury.

“The base is deteriorating really bad, there’s big splits in the trunk off of the different figures,” Rajca said. “We’re afraid one of the figures, which include a rabbit, squirrel and turtle, is going to fall off. There are also holes in the tree from the weather that squirrels are now living in.”

Rajca, 66, lives just a block away from the park on Miller Street and admitted his organization was made aware from the beginning that the tree would need to be treated with a wood preservative by the city, which owns the park, roughly every year or two. However, the woodwork has not been treated since its inception, nor has the “agreed-upon insect treatment around its base” been implemented, Racja said.

Racja added that recently dozens of local residents have asked him what is being done about the totem pole’s noticeable wearing.

He tells neighbors that without any help, he estimates the totem pole will last a year or so before it will fall down.

“I don’t want to just stress the negative, the tree is just beautiful and people come to see it,” Rajca said. “We just need the city to do something.”

Unsure of what to do without the city’s assistance, Rajca said he first looked to Roger Wing, the artist who carved the totem pole with a chainsaw. Wing showed no interest in helping to call attention to his project that is now in dire need of assistance, according to Rajca.

Wing explained he is fully aware maintenance to the totem pole, specifically involving the application of timber oil, should be completed annually, and contrarily noted he is more than willing to help. He said Rajca has not yet reached out to him directly, and a number of factors have prohibited his involvement.

“The money, timing and weather have to be right, it’s not a case of my being willing or not. It’s because of practical matters,” Wing said. “The project is difficult because of the height of the piece and how it leans. It was carved using a high lift, which would be needed to preserve it, but is cost prohibitive.”

Rajca contacted woodworker Jeffry Lohr of JD Lohr Woodworking Inc. for his opinion.

Lohr explained that surface preparation is critical to the pole’s refinishing. He added whoever does the restoration will need to sand, or in some cases grind, most of the old finish off and reapply new.

“All products used should be oil-based marine quality, not just exterior quality, and, heaven forbid, don’t let them use indoor/outdoor anything,” Lohr said. “The product must have high levels of UV filters built into the finish, which all high-end marine varnishes and paints have.”

Yet, for the Friends of Campbell Square, the ability to complete these necessary repairs comes down to finances.

The totem pole carving cost about $5,000, and Rajaa expects needed maintenance will cost a couple thousand more.

“The city has to do it, [the Friends of Campbell Square] can’t afford to do it,” Rajca said. “We’ve gotten no cooperation at all from the city. We’ve called, written, and the last we heard [the city] said they were aware of the problem and that’s it.”

Patty-Pat Kozlowski, director of Park Stewardship for the City of Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, explained the reason the city has not yet become involved is because the Friends of Campbell Square received a grant several years ago to have the totem pole created by Wing with the knowledge that the art installation would not last forever. She recalled it being given a total lifespan of between five to 10 years.

“It is the Friends of Campbell Square’s responsibility to maintain the art installation. They know the artist and the maintenance process, but they cannot expect the city to pay for maintenance of the art installation,” Kozlowski said. “Now, if it is a structural issue, we will have Parks and Recreation arborists come out and inspect the tree.”

If the tree is not stable and is deemed to be a public safety hazard and unsafe, the city will take it down, she added.

“There is no way to maintain a standing dead tree that was turned into a totem pole,” said Richard Sunday, the arborist for Parks & Recreation. “The work was very good, but Mother Nature will eventually degrade the trunk and root system.”

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