Alma Mater taking leave after commencement

Alma Mater taking leave after commencement

CHAMPAIGN — Over the years she's donned a headband, Olympic medals and the obligatory cap and gown for thousands of graduation photos.

Now Alma Mater is going on sabbatical.

The 93-year-old campus icon will be taken down from her familiar perch at the corner of Wright and Green streets just after this spring's commencement, for up to a year of much-needed R&R.

Dedicated in 1929, the Lorado Taft sculpture has gone decades without proper maintenance and is now literally coming apart at the seams, UI officials said.

A campus Preservation Working Group has selected Conservation Sculpture and Objects Studio Inc. of Forest Park to repair the sculpture at a cost of $99,962, funded by the chancellor's office.

The firm will move the sculpture to the company's 13,000-square-foot facility, where conservators will develop a treatment plan.

The studio will decide how to take apart the 13 1/2-foot sculpture, which is made of four bronze pieces — Alma, her throne and the two figures flanking her, Learning (a young woman based on the Greek goddess Athena) and Labor (a young male iron worker).

The sculpture will likely be taken apart in two sections and lifted onto a flatbed truck with a crane, said Melvyn Skvarla, campus historic preservation officer. Because cranes have scales, preservationists will finally be able to answer a burning question: How much does Alma weigh? Skvarla's guess: 1,000 pounds, or half a ton.

The molded bronze sculpture was cast in at least 30 sections and then bolted together, and the seams are showing the wear, officials said. Taft intended for students to climb on the sculpture — "we have a quote from him to that effect," Skvarla said — but that has caused cracks in the arms, backs and necks of the three figures.

Alma's last major repair was done in 1981 by Robert Youngman, a university sculpture professor. He and his team strengthened the internal supports, replaced some rusted bolts, sprayed the pieces with a rust inhibitor and caulked the statue's joints.

Some of these repairs may have caused internal damage, Skvarla said. With the seams caulked, water can't get out, so the statue is rusting from the inside.

Large areas of the sculpture also show signs of uneven surface corrosion. Oxidizing copper has streaked Alma's face with green patina, and black and white mold splotches cover her throne. Some have suggested the black mold came from leaded gasoline in years past, while the white mold could be from ammonia fertilizer gas from the South Farms, he said.

Once the sculpture is at the studio, lead conservator Andrzej Dajnowski will inspect the damage and perform a chemical analysis of the surface corrosion and make needed repairs.

Skvarla doesn't expect the work to take a full year, but "it all depends on what he finds," Skvarla said. Dajnowski specializes in restoring notable public sculptures, including several for the Chicago Park District and Taft's "Fountain of Time" in Hyde Park. He has agreed to return Alma a week before the 2013 commencement, and will give three public lectures on his progress during the restoration "to keep everyone informed," Skvarla said.

The chancellor's office has agreed to maintain the sculpture in future years. That means a power wash and hot wax for Alma at least once every three years, to prevent corrosion.

The campus hasn't decided whether Alma will be restored to a natural bronze color or remain green. Historians don't have color photos from Alma's installation in 1929 but are comparing black and white photos to see what Taft intended, Skvarla said.

This isn't the first time Alma has been moved. The sculpture originally stood on the south side of the Auditorium (now the called Foellinger Auditorium), until she was moved in 1962 to her current location. The Daily Illini at the time accused the university of "crass commercialism" for putting her at such a prominent corner, he said.

"It's just made it that much more accessible," Skvarla said. "That's what Lorado Taft would have wanted."

There are no plans yet for a temporary replacement sculpture while Alma's gone, but other ideas are floating around: a cardboard cutout of Alma, three students in costume, etc.

"We'll probably do a few different things," campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said.

Despite her age, Alma has embraced social media, telling her Twitter followers Thursday:

"It's true: I'm going to the spa, but don't worry! I'll be here for this graduation and should be back by next."

In the meantime, she'll continue her tradition of dressing for various occasions.

She dons an orange T-shirt every fall for freshman convocation and a giant cap and gown for commencement. She held a net during the Illini volleyball team's recent national championship run, sported a Dee Brown-style headband for the 2005 NCAA basketball Final Four, wore mock Olympic medals in 2010 when Champaign's Katherine Reutter and Jonathan Kuck won speedskating silver, and was adorned with roses for the 2008 Rose Bowl.

She has a pocket protector and "nerd glasses" ready for the upcoming Engineering Open House and will wear her usual race number for the Illinois Marathon — 1867, of course.

"She has not yet won it," Kaler said.

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UIUCHoopFan wrote on February 17, 2012 at 3:02 pm

If only the other tarnish and dirt on campus could be cleaned up so easily and for the bargain price of $100K.......

In the know wrote on February 17, 2012 at 3:02 pm

Should probably just get rid of it and save money.  Tradition doesn't mean much to some there.   Remember when we had an awesome, honorable, respected mascot?

sgraham48 wrote on February 18, 2012 at 5:02 am

Living in Illinois is such a ride in fiscal insanity.  To U of IL Administrators...STOP spending money on things that really don't matter right now.  $100K to clean up a statue at a time when the State of Illinois has the second largest deficit in the country.  If we weren't in such dire straights, this would be a nice thing to do.  But we can't afford to do nicities...we need to spend our money on necessities.  This isn't a necessity.  As a tax payer, this type of expenditure drives me crazy.