That's Alma Mater all over

URBANA — Alma Mater has lost her head.

Temporarily, at least.

But the plan is still to have the iconic University of Illinois sculpture back on campus in time for spring 2014 commencement.

That's the word from Andrzej Dajnowski of the Conservation of Sculpture & Objects Studio in Forest Park, who will give a full progress report Friday when he visits campus during homecoming weekend.

Dajnowski and his team have completed the "disassembly phase" of the conservation work on the 1929 Lorado Taft sculpture, which was removed from its pedestal at the corner of Wright and Green streets in August 2012.

The statue was shipped to the studio to repair decades of water damage and corrosion. After chemical analysis and X-rays were conducted, conservators realized the damage was far more extensive than they thought.

The original plan was to bring it back to campus for last spring's commencement, but the UI announced in March that the statue needed more work. The estimated cost also tripled, from just under $100,000 to $360,000.

Dajnowski and his team have painstakingly taken much of the sculpture apart in order to replace nearly 1,000 bolts used to hold the 48 sections together.

That process began in May, when the heads of Alma, Learning and Labor were removed. Because Labor's sections are so narrow, Dajnowski had to remove its torso and legs to replace bolts inside those pieces.

Restoration of the 10,000-pound sculpture has been one of the more challenging projects of his career.

"It's the first time in my life I have to take something this big apart," he said Tuesday.

"Getting inside, that's the biggest challenge, trying to reach all the bolts and screws. We just want to do it correctly."

The sculpture's original iron bolts were deteriorating — some "crumbled to dust in your hand" when they were taken out, said James Lev, architect in the Office of Capital Programs and chairman of the campus Architectural Review Committee.

"There are others that have to be very carefully drilled out so the sculpture itself isn't damaged during removal," Lev said. "So it's a very slow process."

Some bolts were replaced with stainless steel during a repair project in 1981, but all of the new bolts will be bronze.

Conservators weren't exactly sure how the sculpture was put together; campus officials originally thought the sculpture had just 32 sections.

"It's just so many pieces, and every one goes together differently," Lev said. "Hopefully we won't have any left over when we're done."

Labor was taken apart and removed from the base, as was a section of Learning, Lev said. Alma was much easier to access from below, because of her shape, he said. Labor is still in pieces, and all the heads are off, as well as Alma's left arm (which weighs 400 pounds).

"She's disarmed, but not disrobed," Lev said.

Many of the bolts inside Alma, the chair and Labor have already been replaced.

Dajnowski said he's still having trouble getting inside the middle of Learning, but he doesn't want to take the rest of it apart.

"One of my thinnest assistants will have to do it," he said.

Large sections of the sculpture have been cleaned, but that process won't be completed until it has been reassembled, Dajnowski said.

The sculpture's familiar blue-green patina is actually the sign of corrosion eating away at the surface. Lasers are being used to remove the oxidation. The metal then will be sealed with a wax compound, which will be reapplied periodically.

Though the cleaned sections appear gray in some photos, the color is actually a bronze-brown, officials said.

Dajnowski will participate in a panel discussion about the project at 4 p.m. Friday at the Spurlock Museum's Knight Auditorium, 600 S. Gregory St., U. Panelists also include Lev and members of the Campus Preservation Working Group. The event is open to the public.

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ronaldo wrote on October 23, 2013 at 9:10 am

"Hopefully we won't have any left over when we're done.", in reference to reassembling the Alma Mater.

Best line ever.

Sid Saltfork wrote on October 23, 2013 at 1:10 pm

For $360,000, he should give her a wink.  It would be a small touch to mark her restoration.