The Daily Illini

Alma Mater returns

By Claire Hettinger

After a 610-day leave of absence, Alma Mater returned to a crowd of “happy children” surrounding her base. The corner of Green and Wright streets were blocked off with barricades Wednesday morning to keep admirers at bay, as the construction crew lowered her into place. 

The final cost of the conservation project was $359,212. It was paid for by alumni and the Chancellor’s Fund, a pool of money from private donors. Led by director Andrzej Dajnowski, the Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio, based in Forest Park, Ill., completed the conservation efforts on the Alma Mater statue.

Dajnowski’s team placed internal bracing to reinforce the sculpture as it sits on the granite base. Conservators also waxed the internal and external areas of the sculpture to seal the surface and prevent harmful oxidation. This wax seals in Alma’s new bronze color that audience members are still on the edge about.

“I’m still getting used to (the bronze color) because it has been green for so long. But I think it looks nice,” said Andrew Jensen, senior in Engineering. “You can actually see a lot of the details now that I don’t think you could see when it was that dark green.” 

He said he is excited to have Alma Mater back because he is graduating this spring. He was optimistic that she would be back in time for commencement, but he “was worried there for a little bit.”

Clare Curtin, junior in Engineering, is a member of the 1867 Society and has been dressing up as the “Learning” portion of the Alma Mater statue for campus events since it left campus. She said she became so used to Alma being gone that she will be doing double takes for a while, but she is pleased with the changes.

“I actually like (the bronze). I think she looks great,” she said. “They did a great job restoring her.” 

Katie Chan, senior in Business, who dresses up alongside Curtin as Alma Mater, said it is a good feeling to have Alma Mater back in time for her graduation this spring. She said the Commencement process, with the absence of the beloved statue, was not the same for some of her friends who graduated last spring.  

She said it is an honor and a pleasure to portray the iconic statue, and she hopes she lives up to the image expected of Alma Mater.

“I have a lot of friends who are underclassmen who don’t even know who Alma is or what she looks like. So just having her back, I know, will add to the environment of what it means to be an Illini,” Chan said.

There was only one problem during the delivery, said James Lev, a member of the Alma Mater conservation committee. The new bolts pull the statue together tighter than the old bolts did, he said, which created a problem because it pulled up the front of the statue, making the bottom uneven. But, he said, the team fixed the problem and the statue is now sitting correctly on the base.

As Alma Mater was lowered into her place on the stand, the crowd clapped and the bells of Altgeld Hall Tower rang out the Illini fight song and other Illini-themed songs.

“It is quite a responsibility to feel responsible for (Alma Mater) being gone and just making sure that the whole trip, the whole journey is over with and she is back,” Lev said.  

He said he trusted the Methods & Materials crew who lifted Alma Mater and was not worried about the statue once it made it back to campus. But, he added, he was worried about the statue coming from Chicago on the interstate, especially when it went under bridges.

Jennifer Hain Teper, chair of the Preservation Working Group, said it is great to have Alma Mater back on campus, but the conservation process does not stop here.

“We are hoping to go back to campus and say, ‘OK, we tackled what is hopefully the biggest and most expensive one, but it is by no means the only one,’” she said.

She said she hopes this process raised awareness for the other pieces of art on campus, some of which are in bad shape and in need of attention.

Christa Deacy-Quinn, a member of the Preservation Working Group, said she is thankful to the Chancellor and the Chancellor’s Fund for making the restoration process possible.

A re-dedication ceremony is being planned for June, around Alma Mater’s 85th birthday, Deacy-Quinn said.

“I am really excited to have everybody get behind this project and realize that preservation is really important,” Deacy-Quinn said. “I am just really happy.”

Claire can be reached at [email protected] and @ClaireHettinger. 

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