Conservator updates progress on Alma Mater

Conservator updates progress on Alma Mater

URBANA — The man in charge of restoring the historic Alma Mater sculpture has some advice for the University of Illinois: Don't wait 32 years before the next repair project.

The sculpture will need annual maintenance to prevent the kind of corrosive damage found when Alma was lifted off her base last August, said Andrzej Dajnowski, lead conservator on the $360,000 project.

"I would strongly suggest maintaining it every year," Dajnowski, owner of the Conservation of Sculpture & Objects Studio in Forest Park, said Friday during a panel discussion on campus.

The university appears to agree.

Jennifer Hain Teper, a UI conservation librarian and chair of the campus Preservation Working Group, said the campus is "very committed" to maintaining the sculpture once it's back in place at Wright and Green streets next spring.

"We don't ever want to have to repeat this process," she said. "We're going to do this right."

Dajnowski estimated the cost of annual maintenance at less than $5,000.

"We're hoping to try to set aside money for that," said Christa Deacy-Quinn, collections manager at the UI's Spurlock Museum. "We spent this much money to take care of it," and it's always cheaper to catch problems early, she said.

The annual maintenance would include an inspection, reapplication of the wax coating and any necessary cleaning or repairs. The statue gets it share of graffiti and climbers, and "birds do poop on it," Deacy-Quinn said. The UI likely will take donations toward an annual maintenance fund, as all money for the restoration project has come from gifts, officials said.

Architect James Lev, chairman of the campus Architectural Review Committee, said the UI will take bids for the work from conservators with expertise in this area, including Dajnowski.

Once the repairs to Alma are completed, the statute will be coated with a hot wax that typically is redone every two or three years. But Dajnowski suggests doing it annually.

He cited a project he finished in 2000, restoration of the concrete "Fountain of Time" in Chicago. The following year he suggested the Chicago Park District repair small cracks for a few thousand dollars. There was no money for it, and the next year the cost had nearly doubled. Today, it would involve "serious money," he said.

"Here is something that is irreplaceable and it's never been touched for 13 years," he said.

Until this project, the Alma Mater, which dates back to 1929, hadn't had any major repairs since 1981. When it was lifted off its base in August 2012 for cleaning and repairs, Dajnowski and the UI conservation team were dismayed to see that the bolts had corroded and were falling off, indicating serious structural problems. In some places, the sculpture was held together only by corrosion.

It was originally put together with iron bolts, which were cheaper than bronze, but mixing the two dissimilar metals led to a process known as "galvanic corrosion," Deacy-Quinn said.

"I am so glad we're getting to this when we are," Teper said. "That sculpture was a risk to safety. I was shocked nothing had happened, where the sculpture itself was harmed or worse yet someone was hurt."

All 1,000 of the sculpture's bolts are being replaced with silicon bronze bolts, which should never have to be replaced, Dajnowski said.

Dajnowski is also repairing large gaps in the sculpture, of up to 1 inch in diameter. He made negative casts of them before taking the sculpture apart, and he will fashion bronze pieces to fill the holes when it's reassembled.

Many of the questions Friday related to the ultimate color of the sculpture. The university has decided to return the Alma Mater to its original bronze, rather than the familiar oxidized green, but there's some debate about exactly what the original color was.

There are no color photos from the statue's early days, only black and white, and there's nothing original left on the surface, officials said.

Comparing the tone in those photos with the granite base, and with brand-new bronze, it appears to be something called "statuary bronze," Dajnowski said. But "what exactly it was nobody knows," he said.

Dajnowski said he's not aiming for any specific color, preferring to see what the laser-cleaning process reveals. That is providing a starting point, he said, and he may slowly apply a light patina in stages, through a chemical etching process, allowing university officials to make the ultimate decision on how dark the bronze should be.

Dajnowski said he doesn't want to change the sculpture to "make it what people imagine it should be."

It's also not going to be uniform, Deacy-Quinn said.

"It won't look like it's dipped in chocolate," she said.

University archivist William Maher and others asked how officials can determine the color and shading from black and white photos, and why they aren't letting the statue age naturally as it did the first time.

Campus historic preservation officer Melvyn Skvarla said the current trend in conservation is to restore sculptures to their original state. The Alma Mater also had black and white mold that had to be removed, and some of the blue-green patina was actually corrosion eating away at the surface, officials said.

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Skepticity wrote on October 26, 2013 at 10:10 am

The University moved the gorilla and the bear statues by Emmanuel Fremiet indoors to protect them from decay.  Maybe Alma should join them indoors so the art is preserved.