Updated 10:05 p.m. Monday.
CHAMPAIGN — The Alma Mater sculpture's problems are more extensive than initial inspections showed, and the iconic sculpture will not be back on campus in time for commencement — though several replacement Almas will be available for photo ops.
The price tag for the restoration of the 5-ton bronze statue will also triple, to more than $360,000, with the cost covered by alumni funds, officials said Monday. The original cost of the project was $99,962.
It is now expected to return to campus during the 2013-14 academic year.
The 83-year-old campus landmark was removed from its pedestal at the corner of Green and Wright streets in Urbana on Aug. 7 and taken to the Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio in Forest Park, to repair years of water damage and corrosion that marred its appearance and threatened its structural integrity.
Once experts were able to inspect the interior of the 13-foot tall sculpture, by UI alumnus and artist Lorado Taft, they found the 30 sections that make up the sculpture had oxidized and corroded. Conservator Andrzej Dajnowski reported the bad news when he came to campus to give a public talk on the project in September.
Tests showed that hundreds of iron bolts on the interior of the sculpture had corroded or disintegrated, indicating serious structural problems. Dajnowski said the sculpture needed to be taken apart in much smaller pieces to make the added repairs.
The campus Preservation Working Group, which is overseeing the project, decided to expand the contract with the studio to include the additional repairs, said Robin Kaler, associate chancellor for public affairs.
"This is really a much more extensive project than we had discussed. The work was not able to proceed on this until that procurement paperwork was completed," though Dajnowski has continued to work on the parts of the sculpture he could access, Kaler said Monday.
"He could have just finished what we asked him to finish and returned it, but it would not have lasted long. The sculpture would have deteriorated fairly quickly," she said. "Our determination was it's much more important to preserve that sculpture for the ages than it was to give it a little dusting, if you will, and put it back in the spot for now. We think our students and alums would agree."
The campus has also decided to return the sculpture to its original bronze color. The blue-green patina that generations of students have grown accustomed to is actually the sign of corrosion eating away at the surface, officials said last fall.
Lasers are being used to remove the oxidation, and the metal then will be sealed with a wax compound, which will be reapplied periodically. The interior will be cleaned, repaired and treated in the same way as the exterior.
Sealing the statue protects it more than allowing it to patina would, she said.
Dajnowski has promised to give updates on the timeline for Alma's return, she said.
The sculpture is often the centerpiece of photos for graduates at commencement, which is on May 12 this year.
"Alma Mater is a very iconic and important part of our university. She's the voice of our Twitter feed; she's been our face in many promotional commercials. She's the tie that binds," Kaler said. "It's like rubbing Lincoln's nose. And it's sad for folks not to be able to do that."
For that reason, the university's art and design department is working to create several replicas of the sculpture that will be placed around campus for alternative photo opportunities, similar to the "Cows on Parade" exhibition in Chicago a few years ago, Kaler said. Each will be decorated differently by students, some "fairly whimsically," she said.
The campus will post a map of the alternative Alma locations so students can get pictures taken with their favorite or with all of them, she said.
Plans are also under way to place orange-and-blue bunting in front of Foellinger Auditorium and add landscaping at the Hallene Gateway to provide plenty of graduation photo opportunities in Alma's absence.
Kaler's office is also working with Herff Jones, which supplies caps and gowns, to have various sizes on hand when Alma returns to her pedestal so students can "recreate their graduation moment," she said.
"We know that's a really important memory," she said.
For those who can't return, the campus will supply a "green screen" for photos, which will allow students to add a virtual picture of Alma, she said.
The campus purposely decided not to put anything else on Alma's pedestal until she returns.
"You can't replace her," she said.