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Alma Mater to be moved for off-site conservation efforts

Alma Mater Group sculpture
Photo by
L. Brian Stauffer

The Alma Mater Group
The “Alma Mater Group” sculpture, designed by UI alumnus Lorado Taft, is made up of four bronze pieces mounted on a bronze plate. At the center is Alma, a woman standing with outstretched arms welcoming her children, and behind her is her throne. To her right is Labor, a muscular young male iron worker. To her left is Learning, a young woman based on the Greek goddess Athena Lemnia.

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INSIDE ILLINOIS, Feb. 16, 2012  | Christian Gollayan, News Bureau Intern

This summer, pedestrians near Wright and Green streets may notice that something is missing.

After commencement, the spot that’s been home to the 82-year-old Alma Mater sculpture since 1962 will be vacant and the campus icon may not return for nearly a year.

Alma Mater closeup

Yearlong absence
The Alma Mater Group sculpture will be moved off-campus after commencement to begin what could be a yearlong treatment plan to repair the effects of years of neglect.  | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

“We have stipulated that it be back on its base before May 4, 2013, because it’s a popular spot for graduation photos,” said Melvyn Skvarla, the campus historic preservation officer.

Since its dedication in 1929, the sculpture has gone decades without proper maintenance and is now literally deteriorating at the seams. Funded by the Office of the Chancellor, the UI’s Preservation Working Group had been seeking a private firm for the Alma Mater conservation project.

Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio Inc., of Forest Park, Ill., was recently approved to repair the sculpture for $99,962. At the end of the semester, the firm will move the sculpture from its base to the company’s 13,000-square-foot facility. Staff conservators will examine the sculpture more closely and then develop and implement a conservation treatment plan.

The studio will decide how to disassemble and move the sculpture. Most likely, Skvarla said, the sculpture will be taken apart in two sections and lifted onto a flatbed truck with a crane. There has been no decision yet to put in place a temporary sculpture. For now, according to Skvarla, plans call for the base to be empty.

Unlike small sculptures that are cast in one piece, the Alma Mater sculpture was cast in at least 30 sections and then bolted together.

Jennifer Hain Tepper

Although sculptor Lorado Taft wanted students to celebrate his Alma Mater sculpture by climbing on it, the sculpture is in such a degraded condition that “she could actually be seriously damaged if someone were to climb on her at this point,” said Jennifer Hain Teper, a conservation librarian and chair of the Preservation Working Group. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Sculptor Lorado Taft intended for students to climb on the sculpture and celebrate it. Over the years, however, this has produced cracks in the arms, backs and necks of the three figures.

“She could actually be seriously damaged if someone were to climb on her at this point,” said Jennifer Hain Teper, a conservation librarian and chair of the Preservation Working Group.

“(The restoration) will strengthen the interior (of the sculpture) so it can stand another hundred years or more,” Skvarla said.

The sculpture’s last major repair was done in 1981 by Robert Youngman, a university sculpture professor. Youngman and his team strengthened the internal armatures, replaced the rusted steel bolts, sprayed the pieces with a rust inhibitor and caulked the statue’s joints. 

According to Skvarla, some of these repairs may have caused internal damage.

“If you caulk everything, the water can’t get out,” Skvarla said. “So therefore it’s rusting from the inside – oxidizing – and that creates problems.”

Large areas of the sculpture are exhibiting uneven surface corrosion. Alma’s face is streaked in green patina – tarnish caused by oxidizing copper. Parts of her throne are splotched in white and black. Skvarla said that the corrosion was caused by natural environmental action, air pollution (exhaust fumes from vehicles) and defacement by pedestrians.

Once the sculpture is off site, the studio will disassemble the Alma Mater to examine the extent of the damage and perform a chemical analysis of the sculpture’s surface corrosion. After presenting this information to the university, the conservator will perform the necessary repairs.

Melvyn Skvarla

“(The restoration) will strengthen the interior (of the sculpture) so it can stand another hundred years or more,” said Melvyn Skvarla, the campus historic preservation officer.  | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

The Office of the Chancellor has agreed to maintain the sculpture after the conservation project is complete. The sculpture will receive a power washing and hot waxing at least once every three years to prevent corrosion.

Currently, the university has not decided whether the sculpture will be restored to its natural bronze color or whether it will be made to appear green again.

As part of the contract, the conservator will present three lectures reporting on the status of the project. The first will be about the sculpture’s condition and proposed treatment plan. Midway into the conservation project, a second lecture will discuss what has been done to date. After the project is complete, the final lecture will reveal the final steps of the process and a proposed maintenance plan. 

“In addition,” Teper said, “there are a lot of students on campus in the art program and library science program who are interested in the profession of conservation. We’re hoping to use this as a learning experience for these students as well.”

While some may miss the statue’s green streaks (if it is decided to restore the sculpture to its original color) and long for the nostalgia of her caulked joints, Skvarla said that people will learn to embrace the change in the statue’s renovated appearance.

“It’s just like when they cleaned the buildings at the Louvre,” Skvarla said. “They were a dirty black limestone and when they cleaned them and they were white, people were first startled but eventually they liked it.

“And so (with the Alma Mater), you get used to seeing it one way, but that’s not really the authentic way it was when it was at its high point.”

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