Refurbished Alma Mater due back on campus in April

After years of a streaky, blue-green complexion, Alma Mater has a new look.

The central figure in the iconic University of Illinois sculpture has had a makeover, though she still needs some joint rehab and a good waxing.

No official date has been set for Alma's return from a Chicago conservation studio, but it will be sometime in April, Associate Chancellor Robin Kaler said Wednesday.

"It looks good. When people see the sculpture, they'll be really pleased with the results," said James Lev, architect in the Office of Capital Programs and chairman of the campus Architectural Review Committee.

"When she's cleaned up, she's really got a very pretty face."

The 1929 Lorado Taft sculpture was removed from its pedestal at the corner of Wright and Green streets in August 2012 and shipped to Conservation of Sculpture & Objects Studio in Forest Park to repair decades of water damage and corrosion.

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 extensive work than originally thought. The estimated cost more than tripled, from just under $100,000 to $360,000.

Lead conservator Andrzej Dajnowski and his team took much of the sculpture apart in order to replace nearly 1,000 bolts used to hold the 48 sections together. That included removing the heads of the three figures: Alma, Learning and Labor.

The bolts have all been replaced and Alma and Learning are intact and upright. Labor has yet to be reinstalled, and some of Alma's joints still need minor repairs, Lev said.

"It's coming back together," said Lev, who visited the studio on Feb. 26. "When you see some of the pictures from inside it, you really start to understand what a task this was."

The familiar blue-green patina — actually the sign of corrosion eating away at the surface — was removed with lasers, and the metal will be sealed with a wax compound. Though the cleaned sections appear gray, the true color is actually a bronze-brown.

"It's certainly not green anymore," Lev said.

He said the streaks of corrosion obscured Alma's features.

"What you'll see now is a really pretty woman," he said.

Dajnowski hasn't confirmed a return date for the sculpture, Lev said. He's still making final arrangements with a moving company, which has to use a crane to lift the 10,000-pound sculpture back onto its granite base.

The reinstallation will take several hours. The campus is working with student groups to plan a rededication ceremony at a later date.

Lev said one thing is clear: Alma will be back for commencement on May 17.

Hail Alma Mater ...

The Alma Mater was created by Illinois alumnus Lorado Taft.

The 13-foot sculpture was unveiled on Alumni Day, June 11, 1929, and paid for by the alumni fund and classes of 1923-29.

It originally was placed south of Foellinger Auditorium on a granite base. It was moved to its present location at Wright and Green Streets in 1962.

In 1981, a UI team repaired parts of the sculpture, replacing rusted bolts, caulking some joints and spraying it with a rust inhibitor.

It incorporated the UI motto "Learning and Labor" with four bronze elements: Alma Mater, "Our Mother," a woman with outstretched arms welcoming her children; "Labor," an iron worker wearing a leather apron; the klismos (throne) behind Alma Mater; and "Learning," a modification of a Greek statue of the goddess Athena.

Source: University of Illinois

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