A provocative anti-war sculpture in Santa Monica’s civic center is in danger of being knocked down.
“Chain Reaction” is made of 5 1/2 tons of fiberglass and steel, and, after being erected 22 years ago, it’s beginning to rust.
City of Santa Monica officials say they don’t have the several hundred thousand dollars needed to restore it.
That might not be an issue if its original and long-secret patron were still around.
The giant mushroom cloud that soars 26 feet high was created in 1991 by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Paul Conrad.
“A nuclear bomb blast would create this mushroom shape,” said Conrad’s son, Dave, as he stood by the artwork. “It is of course made out of chain links, significance being we don’t want the chain reaction of countries throwing nuclear bombs back and forth at each other.”
Conrad says even though his late father was most famous for his illustrations in the Los Angeles Times, he liked to craft three-dimensional work -- sculptures, usually in bronze. A friendship with a wealthy patron made possible his largest work.
Paul Conrad’s widow, Kay, still remembers the day over 30 years ago when a man approached her and her husband after a speech he gave.
“He patted him on the shoulder and said, ‘Mrs. Kroc wants to meet you,’ and Paul said, ‘Mrs. Kroc, who’s that?’” she said.
Mrs. Kroc was Joan Kroc of La Jolla, philanthropist and heir to the fortune her late husband had made by franchising McDonald’s.
In the mid-1980s, Joan Kroc began donating millions of dollars to promote peace around the world.
She took out full-page ads in major newspapers, decrying nuclear arms, donated millions to the Carter Center, and established peace institutes at Notre Dame and the University of San Diego.
In 1985, she commissioned a song that she distributed to every single radio station in the country. The title: “Dear World, I Love You.”
“She was just as committed to peace as Paul and partly because of Paul -- she was such a fan of his,” said Kay Conrad, now 85.
Mrs. Conrad says when her husband showed Joan Kroc his sketch of a mushroom cloud, she offered to write a check for the necessary $250,000 to forge and install it.
There was one condition. She wanted to remain anonymous.
Roger Genser was on the Santa Monica Arts Commission at the time -- one of the few who held the Joan Kroc secret.
He says while he loved the idea, a lot of people hated it. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Why do you want to celebrate nuclear war with a sculpture?’”
It took four years of wrangling, but eventually Santa Monica gave the go-ahead, and “Chain Reaction” was unveiled in 1991.
A year and a half ago, Dave Conrad got a call from the city. His father’s work was rusting, and in disrepair.
He agreed to meet at the sculpture, unprepared for what he’d see.
“I remember thinking on the freeway, ‘Wow, maybe if this thing is too messed up, maybe it’s time to get rid of it,’” he said. “I remember turning the corner and seeing it and instantly realizing: This is an awesome thing. This is one of the most awesome things my dad did. It’s an awesome statement. It’s timeless.
“It had to be saved. I knew right at that moment it had to be saved.”
Santa Monica officials don’t necessarily share his view. They say it’s cheaper to just knock the sculpture down than restore it.
Supporters are trying to raise $400,000 in the next few months.
To help, Dave Conrad got permission from Joan Kroc’s daughter, Linda Wendfeldt, to reveal the secret. He’s been leading the drive to preserve “Chain Reaction” with peace activist Jerry Rubin -- not the late Yippie of the same name.
Their answer to critics who say the sculpture is dated?
“Some people have said it’s even potentially more dangerous now than during the Cold War,” Rubin said.
Conrad added, “The University of Chicago maintains the Doomsday Clock, and it’s closer to midnight than when this sculpture was originally erected.”
“Chain Reaction"'s own doomsday clock is ticking down to a February 1 deadline. Supporters are hoping to honor the dynamic friendship between the secret benefactor and the prize-winning artist by preserving their message of peace.