Low Plaza

Nearing Her 100th Birthday, Alma Mater Receives a Much Needed Makeover

By Jason Hollander

Alma Mater glows with a new finish and new granite base. (Photos by Joseph Sembrat, Courtesy of Conservation Solutions)

Unveiled in 1903, Alma Mater has been the most photographed woman on Columbia's campus for nearly 100 years. But like every aging figure, she too needs a little help to look her best.

The statue's last major restoration came more than two decades ago, but fortunately, a gift for refurbishment was recently presented to Columbia. The grant is from the estate of Francis Goelet, a descendent of Harriet Goelet, who originally commissioned the statue in memory of her husband, Robert, Columbia College Class of 1860.

Sarah Weiner, Columbia's curator of Art Properties, then recruited Martin Weaver, director of the Center for Preservation Research at Columbia, to assess the statue's needs. Based upon his research, she set out to find just the right people for the job.

Enter Joseph Sembrat, of Conservation Solutions in Maryland, and Mark Rabinowitz, of the Conservation and Sculpture Company of Brooklyn. The two experts have managed to give the weathered statue an especially subtle, yet effective makeover. The changes might not be obvious to the casual observer, but they promise to keep Alma Mater "healthy" for many years to come.

The treatment involved improvements made to both the bronze sculpture itself and the marble and granite base the statue sits upon. First, a substantial layer of dark pigmented wax was removed from the statue and certain areas were chemically painted in order to unify and lighten the surface. Then, repairs were made to the granite base by inserting small blocks of the same stone as needed. The marble was treated to inhibit further deterioration of the stone.

A conservationist removes the dark layer of pigmented wax from Alma Mater.

"I'm extremely pleased with the results of their work," says Weiner. "Alma Mater occupies a central place on this campus and has become an important symbol for the University."

Weiner notes that the seated female figure sits with her arms extended, in a gesture that is both authoritative and nurturing. This is a departure from many public statues, in which the position of the figure conveys aloofness or emotional distance.

"Her gesture is unique because it manages to be both regal and welcoming at the same time," says Weiner.

Columbia's Alma Mater was designed by sculptor Daniel Chester French, who carved the marble statue of Abraham Lincoln's body on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and produced more than 100 statues and memorials during his 60-year career. French came highly recommended by Charles McKim, of the architecture firm McKim, Mead & White, which designed the Morningside campus.

In 1901, President Seth Low told French that the trustees unanimously approved of his model and the finished work was eventually unveiled during a formal ceremony on Low Plaza in the fall of 1903.

Published: Jan 15, 2003
Last modified: Jan 14, 2003

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