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Detroit — One of downtown Detroit's most distinctive landmarks is getting a facelift. Or, if you will, a fist-lift.

Contractors were at work Wednesday prepping the "Monument to Joe Louis" — the 24-foot sculpture of the legendary boxer's right arm — for replacement of the cables suspending it and resurfacing work that will begin next week. The 5,000-pound bronze structure is the property of the Detroit Institute of Arts and its caretakers say it's time for some upkeep.

"The cables need to be replaced periodically," said John Steele, the DIA's director of conservation. "The last time this was done was back in 2002. The cables stretch and they become fatigued. So as part of our maintenance we make sure everything is stable and structurally sound."

To do that, a crane has been brought in to bear the weight of the sculpture while the cables are swapped out for new ones. In addition, Louis' arm has tilted slightly over the years, down to the left. Once the project is completed, it will be back on an even keel.

Crews beginning the process Wednesday morning drew the interest of drivers as well as pedestrians. Many of those on foot stopped to take pictures of the work being done on the traffic island on Jefferson Avenue.

Once the cables are replaced, the surface of the sculpture will be washed and re-waxed.

"This is cast bronze and the surface is painted," Steele said. "They applied a chemical patina to get it this color... To protect the patina, we have a wax coating applied, more or less every couple of years. It protects the bronze from corroding, but it also ensures that if someone vandalized the sculpture with graffiti, it's easy to wash off."

The man responsible for the wax application won't likely get started until Monday. But Giorgio Gikas couldn't resist coming downtown to see the work underway Wednesday morning.

Gikas is the owner of Detroit-based Venus Bronze Works. Over three decades in the business, he said he has helped restore nearly every major monument in the city. Back in 1984, the DIA gave him his first major job. And now he's back for the Joe Louis sculpture — a unique piece he said has always drawn mixed reactions since it was first unveiled in 1987.

"People either like or dislike it — artistically," Gikas said. "People don't understand it maybe. A lot of people take it for more than what it really is."

Sports Illustrated made a gift of the sculpture in the mid-1980s to the DIA, and the Founders Society to help commemorate the 100th anniversary of the museum. The sculptor was Robert Graham, whose specialty was the human form.

JLynch@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2034

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