Can This Patient Be Saved? | Feature | Chicago Reader

Can This Patient Be Saved? 

The restoration of Loredo Taft's mammoth sculpture on the Midway Plaisance has been expensive and time-consuming, but as the bandages come off a true masterpiece is being revealed.

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For four years a two-story metal shed covered much of Lorado Taft's masterpiece Fountain of Time, the massive cast-concrete sculpture that's occupied the west end of the Midway Plaisance in Hyde Park since 1922. But this fall the huge shed was finally torn down, and the public could see the results of the most extensive artwork renovation in the city's history.

The sculpture, one of the largest in the world, has three parts: a 26-foot-tall figure of Father Time looks across a large reflecting pool at the main section, a 120-foot-long procession of 100 or so figures--a "march of humanity," Taft wrote, from infancy to old age. Only this last section was covered by the metal shed, but all three parts had deteriorated badly over the years. It was cracked from freezing and thawing, worn by pollution, and marred by ill-advised repairs. No other concrete artwork in the nation has undergone a restoration of such complexity and magnitude.

The $1.2 million restoration--funded largely by the Art Institute's B.F. Ferguson Monument Fund and the Chicago Park District--has already received praise. But the project isn't finished--and may not be for quite a while. Only the Father Time and procession sections have been restored. The 9,000-square-foot pool, which has been dry since the mid-1980s, is still cracked and deteriorating. Several years ago the Art Institute was led to believe that the city or the Park District, which owns the monument, would pay the huge cost of repairing the pool, but earlier this year city officials, citing budget problems, said there was no money for it. The Ferguson Fund isn't supposed to cover what are considered infrastructure costs, and no one knows whether another institution or organization will be willing or able to pick up the tab.

Lorado Taft is known primarily for his monumental heroic sculptures. Many of his 40-odd major works are in parks and public buildings in Chicago and around the state, but he also received commissions for statues, sculptures, and fountains that still stand in other cities around the country, from Washington, D.C., to Seattle and Indianapolis to Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Taft was born in Elmwood, Illinois, in 1860, and received his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Illinois in Champaign, where his father taught natural sciences. He went on to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the early 1880s, then settled in Chicago. He was an instructor at the School of the Art Institute from 1886 to 1907 and a lecturer at the University of Chicago from 1893 to 1900. As a sculptor, he was a classical realist who worked mostly in bronze and stone, and he was appointed sculpture superintendent of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, where he received his first major commissions. In 1903 he published The History of American Sculpture, the first comprehensive work on the subject, then went on lecture tours around the country that brought him a popularity rarely equaled by other sculptors in the early 20th century.

In 1906 Taft took over an old brick barn at Ellis and 60th Street and founded Midway Studios, with work space for him, his assistants and students, and other sculptors. The complex expanded and eventually included dormitories, a courtyard, a kitchen and dining room, a stage, and a small museum. In 1929 the barn was moved a block west, to 6016 S. Ingleside, to make way for a U. of C. dorm. Along with its additions, the studio was named a National Historic Landmark Building in 1966 and now belongs to the university's art department.

In 1907 Taft came across a poem by Austin Dobson called "The Paradox of Time," which included the couplet "Time goes, you say? Ah, no. / Alas, time stays; we go!" Taft later wrote that he instantly pictured a massive sculptural work in Georgia marble composed of a "mighty crag-like figure of Time" gazing at "a wide circle...made up of the shapes of hurrying men and women and children in endless procession, ever imperilled by the winds of destiny."

Taft wanted Fountain of Time, which was never really a fountain, to be part of his grand beautification scheme for the Midway Plaisance, the mile-long greenway connecting Jackson and Washington parks. His vision included a canal that linked the existing lagoons; three bridges adorned with statues symbolizing science, art, and religion; a "Hall of Fame" with sculptures representing 100 of history's greatest leaders; and a "Fountain of Creation" that would anchor the east end of the Midway.

According to Timothy Garvey's Public Sculptor: Lorado Taft and the Beautification of Chicago, Taft sought funding for his ambitious project from the city's South Park board of commissioners. They were positive but cautious, so he turned to the Art Institute's Ferguson Fund, which had been set up by lumber magnate Benjamin F. Ferguson. Money in the fund, Ferguson's will stipulated, was to be spent on "the erection and maintenance of enduring statuary and monuments...in the parks, along the boulevards, or in other public places within the City of Chicago, Illinois, commemorating worthy men and women of America, or important events in American History." In 1907 Taft had received the first Ferguson commission, Fountain of the Great Lakes, which was installed outside the Art Institute and dedicated in 1913 (it's now at the southwest corner of the museum).

The Ferguson administrators liked Taft's Midway plan, but they agreed to fund only his Fountain of Time, giving him the commission in 1913. They saw the sculpture as a way to commemorate the century of peace between England and the U.S. that began with the 1814 Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812.

Taft was given the generous sum of $50,000--$10,000 annually over five years--and he and his assistants immediately started working on a quarter-size plaster model of the main section, the procession. At the center was a soldier on horseback flanked by descending waves of, among others, refugees, monks, nuns, more soldiers, a poet, dancing children, youths, lovers, the aged, and a dying man. In the back was Taft himself, wearing a smock and trailed by an Italian assistant. "This is the biggest undertaking I ever have considered," he told reporters in 1913, "but one which, of all others, I have ached to commence."

That fall a partial model was exhibited at the Art Institute. Ferguson trustees and architect Howard Van Doren Shaw, who was to design the base of the sculpture as well as the reflecting pool, voiced concerns about, among other things, the wide curve of the procession and the features of individual figures. Taft tinkered, the trustees approved, and in 1915 he assembled a quarter-size model at the west end of the Midway.

Work on the sculpture continued after the U.S. entered World War I, though Taft spent the first half of 1919 touring France as part of a YMCA corps that provided recreation for soldiers still stationed there. After the war he built a full-scale plaster-and-fiber model that was set on the site by the late summer of 1920. Reaction was largely favorable, and the Ferguson trustees told Taft to re-create Fountain of Time in a durable form. Taft's first choice of material was marble, but everyone soon agreed it wouldn't hold up well in Chicago's weather; besides, carving such a large work would have taken an enormous amount of time and money, and the Ferguson Fund could offer only another $50,000. Granite was also deemed too expensive. Cast metal? "We were told that no bronze foundry was willing to make an estimate," wrote the artist's wife, Ada Bartlett Taft, in Lorado Taft, Sculptor and Citizen.

In 1921 Taft turned to John Joseph Earley, an engineer based in Washington, D.C., who'd developed an inexpensive new material for architectural decoration--a pebble-finish, steel-reinforced, hollow-cast concrete. Earley was eager to have his material used in such a large project, and he sent Taft samples of numerous aggregates for the finishing coat. Taft decided on a buff-colored ground quartz gravel from the Potomac River because it would make the sculpture look less like concrete.

The following year Earley and his workers came to Chicago and cast the sculpture in a mold made of more than 4,500 pieces--said to be the largest plaster piece mold ever made. The 26 sections were assembled, and the concrete was coated with several inches of the Potomac-gravel mix. On November 15, 1922, Fountain of Time was presented to the city. At the ceremony Taft said, "I have been tendered every possible assistance, and if I have failed it is my own fault."

Many proclaimed the sculpture a noble, unsurpassed achievement. Some found it unattractive, incomprehensible, and a waste of money. In 1926 the Chicago Tribune picked it as one of the city's "pet atrocities." One reason for the backlash was that in the 15 years between the work's conception and its dedication the art world had changed--modernism had moved to the forefront. Taft had never been a fan of the newer trends in sculpture, often attacking artists such as Matisse, Brancusi, and Archipenko. Taft's devotion to the classical beaux arts ideal--traditional allegorical sculpture with, in his words, a "hint of eternity"--was out of fashion. His larger plan for the Midway was abandoned, and he received only a few more major commissions in his hometown. These days Taft, who died in 1936, is scarcely mentioned in art history books.

Cast concrete turned out to be a poor choice--it was rarely used in outdoor artworks after the 1930s. A major problem, explains the Art Institute's Robert Jones, is that Taft and Earley hadn't factored in how much the material would expand and contract when the temperature changed, so they didn't build expansion joints into the structures. It wasn't long before cracks started snaking across the surfaces.

The first repairs were made in the mid-30s. But the money came from the city, not the Ferguson Fund, even though the fund had been established in part to pay for maintenance. By 1932 it had financed ten public sculptures around the city and two inside the Art Institute. But then the museum began planning a major expansion, and because the Depression made fund-raising difficult, administrators began looking for new sources of cash. In 1933 they quietly petitioned the Circuit Court of Cook County to decide whether the word "monument" in Ferguson's will could mean a building, specifically a museum addition for statuary and other artworks. The court said it could. For the next 23 years the fund's income was allowed to simply accumulate--no sculptures were commissioned, and no repairs were financed.

By 1955 the Art Institute had revised its expansion plans, and it went back to court to ask whether the 1933 interpretation could encompass the building of a five-story administrative wing. The public learned of the scheme, and the resulting furor attracted national attention. The city and local arts and preservation groups filed suits, insisting that the fund was intended only for sculpture, but the court upheld the earlier decision. In 1958 the $2,300,000 B.F. Ferguson Memorial Building was completed on Monroe Street; $1,600,000 of the cost had come from the fund. (In 1961 the state legislature passed the Illinois Charitable Trust Act, which allowed taxpayers to challenge a given use of public trust funds. Three years later the Ferguson Fund commissioned its first sculpture in decades, Henry Moore's Nuclear Energy, which was dedicated on the University of Chicago campus in 1967. Six more works have since been commissioned, the most recent being Louise Bourgeois' Jane Addams memorial, installed near Navy Pier in 1996.)

While the Art Institute had been channeling the fund's income into its building project, outdoor sculptures the fund had paid for were deteriorating. Occasional maintenance was done by untrained Park District or city workers--"much to the detriment of the public monuments," charged Thomas Stauffer, president of the Chicago Heritage Committee, in a 1963 Tribune article. City workers had made additional repairs to the Fountain of Time in the mid-50s and again in the 60s; Mayor Richard J. Daley rededicated the monument in 1966. Each time the crews patched cracks with concrete that was a different color and more rigid than the original, and the sculpture just cracked again when the seasons changed. They also sandblasted the work to clean it, stripping off details and some of the aggregate coating.

By the 1980s the main portion of the sculpture was in the worst shape of any of the 100 or so artworks on Park District property. Some details had been lost altogether, the interior was crumbling because of moisture buildup, and the smooth buff-colored surface had become rough and drab. This monument to transience was itself succumbing to time. "It was almost completely past the point of ever being saved," says University of Chicago sculpture professor and Taft enthusiast Herbert George. "It was going to be bulldozed if they'd left it there."

By the early 80s there was a renewed appreciation for beaux arts sculpture around the country, and Illinois art historians were trying to rescue Taft from obscurity. Chicago has lots of his works (at the Art Institute, at the Garfield Park Conservatory, at Graceland Cemetery, at Wacker and Wabash), and more can be found across the state (in Danville, Elmwood, Oregon, Quincy, Urbana). In 1983 there was a retrospective at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a few books on his work followed. By then Art Institute and city staff had realized that there was little time left to save Fountain of Time, which Robert Jones, director of the Art Institute's department of design and construction, calls "the most important fountain in the city outside of the Buckingham."

In 1983 the Ferguson trustees hired the Saint Louis-based Washington University Technology Associates, which had been refurbishing Ferguson and Park District sculptures since the 1970s, to assess the damage and estimate the cost of repairs. In 1984 the trustees rejected a full-scale restoration program because they couldn't afford the $376,000 price tag. No repairs were done.

Five years later WUTA was retained again; this time it outlined a preliminary budget of $450,000. The Ferguson Fund, the Park District, and the University of Chicago each agreed to put up $150,000. In an effort to save money, the Ferguson trustees worked out a plan under which the Art Institute and the Park District would share the cost of hiring a full-time outdoor-sculpture conservator and two assistants, figuring that three employees would cost less than contractors.

In 1991 Andrzej Dajnowski, then 33, got the conservator job. He'd trained in his native Poland and studied at Harvard's museums before becoming a conservator at the Smithsonian Institution. He jumped at the chance to move to Chicago and soon was working on lots of long-neglected Park District and Ferguson sculptures.

Fountain of Time quickly occupied much of Dajnowski's time. He began working with the Northbrook-based concrete consultants Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, surveying the monument's condition, testing materials, and outlining repairs. "Everything was a challenge," Dajnowski says. "There was no quick-and-easy solution to anything." In 1993 the Chicago architectural firm BauerLatoza Studio also evaluated the sculpture, and Norman Weiss, a historic-concrete expert with Columbia University, consulted on tests, mixes, and repairs. By the end of the year Dajnowski, BauerLatoza, and Barbara Hall, the Art Institute's senior objects conservator, had come up with a restoration plan that would be broken into three phases over several years to spread out the half-million-dollar cost, which included the pool, though it would come last. The University of Chicago had backed out of its commitment, so now the expense would be borne by just the Ferguson Fund and the Park District.

The first phase, overseen by BauerLatoza, began in 1994 and involved stabilizing the main sculpture to prevent further damage. Staff from Takao Nagai Associates, a Villa Park-based concrete-repair firm, cleaned and dried out the hollow interior, then installed a ventilation system to stop moisture from building up again. They replaced drainpipes, added new beams and columns, reinforced corroded steel rebars, and used concrete to strengthen the upper levels.

By 1997 the internal work was done, but the cost of restoring just the procession and Father Time had risen to $630,000, of which the Ferguson Fund agreed to pay $430,000 and the Park District $200,000. Project managers and consultants had also taken a harder look at the pool and realized that it needed more work than anyone had thought. The concrete slabs around the basin and below the ground had to be taken out and replaced, new sewer and water lines had to be put in, and the entire bottom of the pool had to be redone. The price tag for this work alone was $600,000.

Costs went up even more that year, when Dajnowski left to form his own company, Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio, and began charging contractor's fees and bringing in additional help. But no one wanted to consider replacing him, because he was so familiar with the sculpture's problems and their potential solutions.

The next two phases--repairing and resurfacing first the main sculpture, then Father Time--required a concrete mixture that would match the original. The aggregate--the sand and gravel that would be added to cement and water--had to be the right color and size. Dajnowski sent samples of broken pieces of the sculpture to suppliers around the country. "For six years I was trying to find the aggregate that matched," he says. Earley's concrete had been made with gravel from the Potomac River. "But it would have been hard to go to the Potomac around Washington, D.C., because it's a nationally protected area."

One day Dajnowski walked into the J. Toguri Mercantile Company store on Belmont to buy a gift and noticed that some bonsai kits included exactly the kind of gravel he'd been looking for. He traced the stone, which had originally come from a North Carolina riverbed, to a west-side warehouse that stocked aquarium and terrarium supplies, and ordered two tons of it. He discovered the buff-colored adobe cement he needed while doing a restoration job in Texas, but he couldn't find a perfect match for the sand. When a crew member started digging around the base of the main sculpture Dajnowski suddenly realized, "We were walking on the sand we needed." Conservators and consultants experimented with different mixes of the ingredients until they found a formula that was very close to the original and held up during freeze-thaw tests.

In early 1998 Robert Jones, a former deputy architect with the Park District who oversaw projects at the Lincoln Park Zoo and Soldier Field, was hired to oversee the Art Institute's design and construction staff. He immediately started working on the Fountain of Time restoration and soon was applying for a permit to erect the two-story shed around the 120-foot-long procession section, which would allow the conservators to work in any weather.

Dajnowski and his crew of ten began work in early 1999. They spent nearly a year cleaning the surface and removing loose material and the old patches. Cracks that ran deep beneath the surface were left because they allowed the sculpture to expand, but surface cracks and holes were filled. The crew also installed a "moving joint" system that Dajnowski designed, which involved placing titanium rods and wires in the eight or nine largest cracks that had opened up on their own. "It's the only metal that expands and contracts the same way as masonry," he says, "and it doesn't corrode."

By the summer of 2001 they were gearing up for the most demanding task--"parging," or hand brushing, a thin coat of concrete slurry containing the buff-colored gravel and cement onto the sculpture's 103 figures and using another mix to restore about two dozen missing or severely eroded details. "There were some creases of cloth, some fingers, a gesture, a soldier's sword or scabbard, a face where there had to be some emotion brought back," says Jones. "It wasn't just schmearing concrete."

The conservators got into lively discussions about whether they'd be conserving or re-creating, and to what extent. "When you try to re-create something, you can be the best sculptor, but you cannot use your skills to express yourself," says Dajnowski. "You have to be following pretty much what Taft was doing--it cannot be better or worse. You have to work in the limits of his style of sculpting."

Herbert George had a collection of historic photographs, which the conservators used to see what Taft had done. "I assessed the best I could the intent of the artist," says George. "I gave my advice and showed them a way of dealing with it that I thought was artistically correct."

Just before the parging was to begin, Art Institute and Park District project managers met with the consultants and Dajnowski's crew in the shed. "We'd already researched various formulations," says Jones. "We had all the materials here. We were all ready to go." But then, he says, Dajnowski's crew mutinied. Most of them thought the work didn't need to be refinished and that the missing details didn't need to be reconstructed. They feared the sculpture's shape would be changed. "They came to like the sculpture a lot," says Dajnowski. "It had gotten to the point where the sculpture was really presentable, and if we left it in the shape it was in, then it would last for a long time."

Others disagreed. Barbara Hall points out that Taft had created the plaster model in his studio, but concrete artisans had helped shape the final product. "We weren't dealing with an original sculpture that came out of an artist's hands," she says. "It was carved by many people. To replace those elements was not really a conservation issue. We didn't think it was a problem."

Jones says, "It really turned out to be us trying to convince Andrzej's staff--Andrzej's got some very passionate people--to do this correctly." He says they finally agreed to test the mix on some faces and see how they looked after a few days. "They saw how it brought back the emotion and power, how it made the piece come alive."

For the next several months the crew members rebuilt details and parged the sculpture, sometimes spending an entire day on a two-foot-square area. When they were finished they applied sealants to protect it from water and graffiti. The procession was completed by the end of the summer. Using a $40,000 grant from the national organization Save Outdoor Sculpture! and a matching grant from the Ferguson Fund, the crew finished Father Time in November.

The total bill had come to $1.23 million, with most of the extra cost picked up by the Ferguson Fund. But Dajnowski points out that lots of labor and materials were donated. "If everything had to have been paid for," he says, "it easily could have cost two or three million."

Art Institute officials acknowledge that some of the techniques used to restore the two sections are experimental. Concrete can't be stopped from expanding and contracting, and they expect cracks to open up again. Yet Jones says that the repairs should allow the sculpture to shift without causing major damage and that Dajnowski's pioneering techniques should keep it intact for a long time. "I think the papers Andrzej writes [after doing] this will be blazing new territories," he says. "Hopefully, conservators 30 years from now looking back on us won't say, oh man, did they goof up doing this and that."

Everyone involved knows that routine maintenance will be needed, and the Art Institute and Park District have vowed to keep on top of it, though Dajnowski would like to see a roof built over the main sculpture. "We're all very realistic," Hall says. "This is not a forever type of restoration."

Of course the center of the work, the reflecting pool, hasn't been restored, nor has lighting been installed or landscaping started. The pool repairs were supposed to be done this past spring and summer, which is why the shed surrounding the main sculpture was left up. Jones says he was told back in 1998 that either the Park District or the city's new fountains program would pay the combined cost of the pool restoration and the lighting and landscaping, which had risen to more than $900,000. But last fall he found out that the city didn't have any money left for its fountains program and that the Park District was in a budget crunch. "It wasn't until March or April that we realized there was no chance of them doing anything," he says.

The main person the Art Institute had been dealing with at the Park District was Robert Megquier, the director of planning and development. He didn't return phone calls, but district spokesperson Angie Amores said in late September that he hadn't made a commitment. "The Park District has many demands on our limited dollars, not only for sculptures but also for facilities, sports programs, field houses," she said. "The idea of letting the Art Institute know that the money was there, and then the money wasn't there--I can see that. At some point, I'm sure, somebody might have said, 'Let's see what we can do.'"

Could repairs be included in a future budget? "It's too early for us to say," she said.

A week or so later, Calvert Audrain, the Art Institute's vice president for operations, reported that he and Megquier were going to tour the site and that Megquier had agreed "to take a fresh look at the whole thing."

Is there any way that money from the Ferguson Fund could be used? "Our position is that it's for sculptural objects," says Jones, adding that the fund is "well on its way toward being tapped out." Art Institute records show that $950,000 from the fund has been spent renovating Fountain of Time over the past several years. Only about $400,000 is still available for projects, and that money is earmarked to pay for maintenance and for Martin Puryear's long-delayed DuSable Park monument.

Given how closely Fountain of Time is identified with the University of Chicago, would it consider contributing now? "Frankly, it'd be a difficult call on our resources," says Hank Webber, vice president of community affairs. "While we'd clearly like to see it done, it's not on our list of priorities."

That dismays Herbert George, who's been trying for years to get the university to help pay for the restoration. "I'm deeply saddened that this institution I represent has difficulty supporting something in this community and doesn't feel a cultural icon is worth a high priority," he says. "I find it a great tragedy that the university would not give any money at all." He adds that the monument "communicates the complex notion about who we are and our life on the earth. Not to finish the pool does the sculpture a great injustice, sculpturally and symbolically. Water is a key element--it's a critical part of the sculpture's meaning."

Art Institute officials have been talking to groups such as Friends of the Parks and the Parkways Foundation about contributions. And Jones believes that once people see the restoration that's already been done it will be easier to attract donations. "I think that people will love this thing," he says. "People come from around the world to look at this piece. People in the neighborhood embrace it as one of theirs. But I think that because of the following around the country and even internationally for Lorado Taft, for John Earley, for the importance of this piece, funding will be found. I think it'll go forward. I'm just hopeful that it won't get any kind of damage."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

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