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Louisville soliciting public input on vandalized, weathered King Louis statue

louis statue
The King Louis XVI statue in downtown Louisville.

As Metro Council continues to debate whether restoring the King Louis XVI statue is worth the cost, public art officials in Louisville want the public’s feedback. 

The statue depicting Louisville’s namesake stood on a 7-foot pedestal at the corner of W. Jefferson and 6th streets was put up in 1967. It was taken down and put into public storage in September of 2020 after the statue was vandalized during racial justice protests and King Louis XVI’s hand was broken off. Conservationists also found internal cracking and other damage as a result of the nine-ton statue, which is made of porous marble, sitting out in the elements for decades. 

At a recent meeting of Metro Council’s Community Affairs, Housing, Health and Education Committee, Louisville’s Public Art Administrator Jessica Kincaid said a public survey on the city’s website will remain open for at least three months. Kincaid said conservators contacted by the city to provide an estimate for repairing King Louis are requiring community input.

“During their assessment, conservators deemed this to be a ‘contested monument,’ which made clear that there are ethical concerns that needed to be factored into how to treat the statue,” she said. 

Kincaid also explained that the costs associated with repairing the King Louis XVI statue have ballooned. Including the cost of multiple estimates officials have commissioned over the past two years, the price of restoring the monument is expected to be as high as $211,000. 

So far, Kincaid said no grants or private donor funds have been identified, meaning taxpayers would foot the bill for repairs. 

Art conservators, including the local firm Falls Art Foundry, have recommended the King Louis XVI statue not be placed back outside. In its 2020 assessment, the company said the porous marble isn’t suitable for outdoor display.

“As marble is exposed to weather the surface deteriorates,” the assessment said. “While the overall appearance remains consistent, the surface becomes porous with the texture of sandstone. The texture grows quicker the longer the exposure persists. Water soaks in the porous surface exaggerating the negative effects of the freeze thaw cycle of our climate which can create cracks.”

Conservators’ recommendations are at odds with the wishes of some Metro Council members, who have been pushing the city to make the necessary repairs and restore the statue to its former pedestal outside Metro Hall. 

Council President David James, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Old Louisville, questioned the need for public comment at the recent committee meeting. 

“No matter what the piece of artwork is, there are going to be people who don’t like it for whatever reason, and that’s okay,” he said. “It has a place. It has a home. It’s right out there. Why would we not put it back where it belongs?”

District 20 Council Member Stuart Benson, a Republican, echoed James’ comments. Benson said he thinks the statue ought to be placed back outside and that the city “shouldn’t be running away from history.”

“I don’t know who’s upset at King Louis XVI,” Benson said. “I didn’t know him very well, but it seems like to me that if he was such a bad person, maybe we ought to change our name to something else.”

The 18th Century monarch is perhaps best known for being deposed during the French Revolution. He was beheaded by his own people, along with his wife Marie Antoinette, after being accused of treason. King Louis XVI has a more positive legacy in the United States because of the financial and military support he provided during the Revolutionary War.

The statue was gifted, and re-gifted, numerous times before winding up in Louisville. Given that context, some public art officials in Louisville have questioned whether repairing the monument is worth the cost.

Before he officially took office, District 4 Council Member Jecorey Arthur told WFPL News that he was wary of investing city money into maintaining the statue of King Louisville XVI. Borrowing from a curator who said it could represent “the power of the people,” Arthur even suggested the statue be put back up in the context for which Louis is most well-known: beheaded. 

“And keep the hand separate, and keep the graffiti on the statue to show the turmoil that existed not only in the past few months, but in the past centuries really, because I truly believe that art is not just symbolic, it can also have some substance to it,” Arthur said.

Kincaid, the city’s public art administrator, explained to Metro Council members that exhibiting the King Louis XVI statue outside also poses a public safety risk. Even if the broken-off hand is repaired, she said it would still be “extremely fragile.”

“So, should someone climb on the statue again, it would fall,” she said. “I don’t know what the exact weight of the hand itself is, but it’s very heavy.”

Kincaid said conservators have also notified the city that there is “extensive cracking through the cloak element of the statue.” 

Without treatment, the cracks could lead to the king’s cloak falling off onto people nearby. 

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.