Alma is back in business
Hours after Alma Mater regained her primo spot on campus, conservators Bartosz and Andrzej Dajnowski were still at it.
The father-and-son team worked into the evening Wednesday touching up the wax finish on the iconic campus sculpture that spent 18 months in their conservation studio in Chicago.
"We're obsessive-compulsive," Bartosz Dajnowski said with a smile. "Now that it's outside we see all the areas that need touch-up."
The fences were eventually removed, and it didn't take long for students to climb aboard for their first Alma photo ops in more than a year.
"I'm a third-generation Illini," soon-to-be graduate Kristin Murphy said earlier. "I have a picture of my grandfather with Alma Mater, I have a picture of my mom with Alma Mater. It's a family thing."
Alma rolled back into town on a flatbed truck Wednesday morning, greeted by hundreds of UI students and other fans at Wright and Green streets in Champaign.
"We've never seen such a reception," Bartosz Dajnowski said. "This was just absolutely magnificent. You could really tell the campus loves this sculpture."
The 1929 Lorado Taft sculpture was removed from its pedestal in August 2012 and shipped to Dajnowski's Conservation of Sculpture & Objects Studio in Forest Park to repair decades of water damage and corrosion.
The damage was far more extensive than originally thought, and Alma's return was delayed by almost a year. The sculpture had to be disassembled and laser-cleaned, and more than 1,000 deteriorating bolts were replaced.
"I'm glad it's back, and it looks good," said senior Ariana Del Valle. "I thought it took a little bit long. The class before us was kind of upset because it wasn't back for graduation."
Her famously green-streaked complexion — actually the sign of mold and corrosion — is now a dark bronze.
"I love it. It's what I was hoping for, dreaming for," said Andrzej Dajnowski, director of the studio.
Some fans missed the old green patina, but most reviews were positive Wednesday.
The new look makes the sculpture's details much more visible, such as the UI logo on Alma's robe — "all the little things we never saw when she was green," Murphy said.
"You can see things you didn't know were there, like the three bands on her robe," said Chancellor Phyllis Wise, who stopped by after a noon meeting.
After the months of work, the reinstallation itself took only a few hours.
The sculpture was loaded onto an open, flatbed truck Tuesday night and departed for Champaign-Urbana just after 6 a.m. Wednesday.
The drive down I-57 went without a hitch, as UI employees, students and other Alma fans tweeted and texted seeing the sculpture on the way. Some motorists stopped at overpasses to wave at the truck as it passed by.
The sculpture exited off Interstate 74 at Lincoln Avenue about 9:45 a.m. and received a police escort to campus.
All along Green Street the "paparazzi" were waiting: "Every student walking by, it was cell phone, cell phone, picture, picture," said Andrzej Dajnowski.
He was thrilled that the weather cooperated, with sunshine and temperatures near 60 degrees.
"It's amazing — the best weather we could hope for," he said.
Fittingly, the Altgeld bells chimed just as Alma arrived around 10 a.m. and again just before noon when the sculpture finally settled into place.
It took some doing, and Alma wobbled just a bit at the end.
The sculpture was placed on its base shortly after 11 a.m. but then had to be lifted back up as crews ironed out some technical details.
They first had to remove a U-shaped metal support beam that had been installed during repairs in the 1980s.
"That was actually holding the base up higher above the stone, so we couldn't set the base all the way down," said UI architect James Lev, who chaired the campus committee overseeing the restoration.
Also, neither the granite base nor the base of the sculpture itself is perfectly square, as they were crafted by hand, so "they didn't match up perfectly," Lev said.
"We had to jockey it around a little bit," he said.
The new and improved sculpture also fits together more tightly, and that pulled up one corner of the sculpture, said Christa Deacy-Quinn, collections manager for the Spurlock Museum, who also served on the restoration committee. A 1,200-pound weight was used to push it down.
About the wobble: there's some "wiggle room" between Alma and her companions, Learning and Labor. When the horizontal straps holding Alma tight to the other figures for the move were finally loosened, she moved forward and dropped about three-quarters of an inch.
"I don't think anybody expected it to move that much," Lev said.
Planners wanted the bronze to sit as close to the base as possible because the joints between the two will not be caulked. When they were caulked during previous repairs, condensation built up inside and contributed to the sculpture's extensive damage.
"You can actually see daylight through it, which is a good thing," Lev said. "It will maintain ventilation."
The weight of the sculpture will hold it in place, but brackets were installed to keep it from moving horizontally during an earthquake.
"It is such a relief to have it back sitting here," Lev said.
Fans watched the reinstallation from temporary bleachers, and thousands more viewed it online via a webcam dubbed the "Alma Cam," which crashed temporarily around 10 a.m. as more than 9,500 people accessed it. That topped the previous Quad webcam record of 8,000 viewers during the recent taping for the Ellen Degeneres show.
Earlier, a time capsule with mementoes from across campus was placed inside the base of the statue — using the 50-ton crane brought in to lift Alma.
UI sophomore Robert Campion had never seen Alma in person until Wednesday.
"I've seen her in pictures but she was all green. It's really nice."
WDWS reporter Tim Dirtman spoke with UI Campus Historic Preservation Officer Melvyn Skvarla about alma's return.