URBANA — The oval ceiling atop the ornate Altgeld Hall library is ringed with the names of Supreme Court chief justices, a remnant from the building’s days as a law school.
It wasn’t always so. The original domed ceiling was made of stained glass, lit from above by a skylight.
The glass dome was removed and plastered over in 1942 because water leaking through the skylight was damaging the murals below. It was during World War II, and “there just wasn’t money to replace it,” said Department of Mathematics office manager Jane Bergman.
After Bergman heard the story in 2008, she embarked on a decade-long mission to create a replica of the stained-glass dome, which she hopes the campus will re-create in an upcoming renovation of the building.
Her framed, 55-by-33.5-inch replica, made of plasterboard and colored foil, now hangs in Altgeld’s Mathematics Library as a way to inspire potential donors.
“I knew that nobody would donate toward it unless they already knew about it,” and that wasn’t likely since it was removed 77 years ago, Bergman said. “They’d have to see it.”
The library dome is one of the “key elements” being studied by historic preservation consultants developing the project, said Matthew Tomaszewski, executive associate provost for capital planning.
Bergman thinks there’s a “high likelihood” it will be restored.
She grew up attending St. Patrick’s Church in Urbana, and one of her earliest memories is of the elaborate windows made of stained glass.
“It was gorgeous. I loved the warmth of the sunlight coming through it,” she said.
She also loved arts and crafts and was adept at foiling, a technique that uses card stock, clear adhesive sheets and colored foil to create a stained-glass effect on paper.
She figured she could create a foil replica of the dome but first had to find out what it looked like. That proved to be a tall order.
She spent two years of lunch hours and late nights trying to track down a photo of the dome or its original design. She reviewed written histories and blueprints of the building, hunted through archives of local newspapers and libraries, and even read through years of minutes of the UI Board of Trustees meetings to find the company that created it, to no avail.
She soon realized that color photographs were rare pre-1942, but she eventually found a black-and-white photo of one corner of the dome in the University Archives.
She used that fragment to create her full design, a process that took thousands of hours on and off over seven years, in between caring for her two parents and a sister who have since died.
It involved copying the design onto Microsoft Word, printing it out and transferring it to a poster and having it scanned onto a disk so she could create a color model. She had to redo it several times to remove imperfections, lost her work more than once when her computer crashed, and had to adjust the proportions because the photo was taken at an angle and “everything was skewed,” she said.
“It was a bit of a challenge,” she said.
“I kind of had to make up the middle by looking at other period stained-glass artwork that is still in existence from that time,” said Bergman, who also took stained-glass courses while researching the project.
She finally perfected the design and had a graphics company print it on foamboard and a special transparency sheet for foiling.
The replica has prompted questions from library users, and more than one has walked down to Bergman’s office to meet her after seeing it.
She’s proud to help make a difference for the renovation project.
“I kind of felt like I was in the right place at the right time,” she said.