“To thy happy children of the future, those of the past send … notice we’ve temporarily changed address.”
Though the inscription on the base of the Alma Mater statue really hasn’t changed, the statue’s location did Aug. 7 as workers lifted the 5-ton sculpture onto a truck and took it to Chicago for extensive conservation work.
Change of venue
Workers on Aug. 7 began the arduous process of preparing the UI’s Alma Mater statue, at Green and Wright streets since 1962, for a trip to the Chicago area for extensive conservation work. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer | View video
The removal of the campus icon attracted the attention of local media and curious onlookers, with several dozen people gathering at Wright and Green streets in Urbana before 8 a.m. Many stayed throughout the process, which continued into early afternoon.
“It’s been really exciting to see so many people come by to watch the work,” said Jennifer Hain Teper, head of preservation and conservation at the UI Library, and member of the campus Preservation Working Group leading the project.
“It’s an illustration of the deep connection Alma has to this campus.”
The move went off without a hitch – meaning the 13-foot-tall sculpture was lifted by crane onto a loading apparatus, and then onto a flatbed truck, without it falling, breaking or otherwise crumbling apart.
“When it’s lifted, it’s the most dangerous time for the piece,” said Christa Deacy-Quinn, a collections manager for Spurlock Museum and also a member of the Preservation Working Group.
The muscle work was done by Chicago-based Methods and Materials Inc. and Custom Service Crane, of Mahomet. They worked closely with Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio, based in Forest Park, where the statue will be repaired.
“They’re all advising each other,” Deacy-Quinn said. “We’re not really worried, because they’re professional art movers – that’s what they do. It’s why they were picked for this project.”
Still, Deacy-Quinn and Teper, who assisted in overseeing the move, had their moments of uncertainty.
At one point, after tethers attached to the crane were strategically connected to the sculpture, the sculpture was lifted only a few inches.
It literally was hanging in the balance as workers inspected the space between the statue and its inscribed pedestal.
That’s when Andrzej Dajnowski, lead conservator for CSOS, hurriedly walked over to Deacy-Quinn and Teper to give them an update.
He looked worried, and so did they, until he shared with them what was in fact good news: Water damage had not extended to the statue’s base.
“We’ve had nothing but positive thoughts the whole time,” said a visibly relieved Teper.
But not all the news was good.
Early plans had indicated the sculpture – created by renowned UI alumnus and artist Lorado Taft and originally cast in 30 sections – likely would be dismantled and shipped in four pieces. After studying it more closely, the experts decided that dividing the sculpture into pieces could further damage it. In the end it was shipped as one piece.
The sculpture, unveiled on campus in 1929, is being conserved because of years of water damage that has affected its appearance and structural integrity. Donations collected through the Chancellor’s Fund are paying for the work.
Workers made an effort to conserve the statue in 1981, and while some of that work stabilized the base with the addition of stainless steel fasteners, the caulking techniques used then led to more water collection in the interior and additional damage.
The first step of the conservation process will be studying the sculpture at CSOS’s 13,000-square-foot studio and developing a plan to correct deficiencies.
Campus officials will review the final plan before work starts. The conservator has agreed to provide two detailed presentations to campus concerning the level of work needed and the techniques used in the process, as well as a complete maintenance plan for ongoing conservation efforts. Dates for the presentations will be announced later.
As far as what it will look like when it’s finished – that’s anyone’s guess. Part of the conservator’s research includes investigating the color of the original statue.
“We have no clear documentation of what the color was,” Teper said. “All the photos we have are in black-and-white.”
The contract calls for the work to be completed by May 4, 2013, in time for commencement ceremonies and graduates eager to carry on the longstanding tradition of having their photos taken in front of the sculpted ode to the university’s founding concepts of Labor and Learning.
And while Alma will be gone until May, her spirit on campus will remain.Alma will continue offering commentary on Facebook and Twitter and a large cardboard cutout of her will appear at various campus functions. In addition, students have already started “sitting in” for Alma during the absence and posting pictures to the Web, and there are plans to invite celebrities to sit for her throughout the year.