In 1906, the Chicago White Sox won the World Series (beating, who else, the Cubs). During that same year, down on 112 South Michigan Avenue, bronze sculptures of three Olympic athletes were cast and installed at what was then the Illinois Athletic Club.
That’s where the sculptures created by artists Léon Hermant and Carl Beil have stood for nearly 110 years. The building’s occupants have changed since then. It’s now known as the MacLean Center, which houses academic programs and studios for graduate students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC).
Of course, a century of wind, sleet, snow, and other city grime will take a toll on metallic sculptures. So SAIC undertook the task of restoring the sculptures to their original luster. The reason for doing it was because, according to vice president for campus operations Tom Buechele: “We’re stewards of the buildings we own. Given the history of the school, we have an ongoing history of figurative work, and it was fitting and consistent with our mission that we restore the statues.”
Buechele said one consideration was simply putting the sculptures in storage until the time was right to restore them. After determining exactly how to accomplish the project, and given that 2016 will mark the SAIC’s 150-year anniversary, they determined that time was now.
It also made sense to restore the sculptures as part of the building’s façade renovation. The ferrous metal connections holding the stained glass windows had corroded over the years and posed an unstable condition. The SAIC decided to complete two restorations at the same time.
This is clearly a good time to celebrate art and architecture, as the Chicago Architecture Biennial is now in full swing.
“The Chicago Architecture Biennial was certainly a consideration in the timing of the restoration,” Buechele said. “SAIC’s mission is in line with the Biennial in that celebrating and respecting art and architecture of the past help inform how we teach students to innovate and push the boundaries of traditional art and design.”
Cleaning bronze and stripping away years of corrosion is not a simple task. It’s not as if the Buechele and his team could just rent a pressure sprayer from Home Depot and clean the schmutz over their lunch hour.
Actually, they considered a number of options, including one using walnuts. Yes, walnuts.
“We did a little bit of research,” Buechele said. “The first option was to use crushed walnut shells to sand blast the corrosion off. The other was a laser device.”
The laser method was chosen. It was developed in Germany about 10 years ago. Until recently, it required a huge machine that looked a bit like a giant jet ski with a hose attached. A more portable laser unit is available now, and that’s what the SAIC used.
“The laser is tuned to reflect the frequency of the bronze, so anything between the laser and the bronze is scorched and burns away, and gets rid of all the corrosion,” Buechele said. “From a materials standpoint, think about the way water runs over limestone; it eliminates the softest part. When bronze is cast, there are weak and strong surface areas, when you look under an electron microscope, and while you’re cleaning it, you’re resurfacing at a microscopic level.
“In our process, we ran the laser over the surface of the sculptures until the corrosion was removed, and we made sure there were no stress fractures,” he said. “That’s the restoration.”
After the laser cleaning, the next step was to reapply the architectural patina to bring the sculptures back to the way they looked in 1906, and finally replacing them to their prominent spot overlooking Chicago’s Cultural Mile.
The entire cost of the project was a mere $200,000. It helped that the SAIC knew exactly where it could find a facility to do much of the restoration work—in its own foundry.
“We gave the foundry the project and they used a combination of professional staff and students and they worked quickly to turn it around,” Buechele said, adding that the work was definitely professional grade.
“The conservator (Andrzej Dajnowski) gave it the ultimate compliment, saying these were some of the best castings they’d ever seen,” Buechele said.
It was a win-win, because the students got to experience firsthand the painstaking but worthwhile process of architectural restoration, according to Bradley Johns, SAIC executive director of fabrications and instructional resources.
“I want to emphasize how important it was for the faculty and the staff,” Johns said. “One of the most important parts of the SAIC curriculum has historically been sculptures, so this was meaningful on our 150th anniversary. We’re looking at this as a long-term teaching tool, where students can see a restoration process from start to finish.”