When digging through an abandoned storage room, one is liable to find just about anything from old newspapers to clothes that have long since gone out of fashion to, as a group at DePauw discovered, a piece of art that is significant to both university and national history.
When Thompson Recital Hall was being renovated around the year 2000, contractors and university officials emptied the boiler room beneath it. Along with trash, grime and other items, they discovered a three-foot tall model of the statue of Abraham Lincoln that is central to the Lincoln Monument in Washington D.C. How did it get there, and where did it come from?
During lunch on Wednesday, Peeler Art Center director and curator Craig Hadley presented to a small but captivated crowd on the history of not only the piece found beneath Thompson but also the larger, more famous work on which this one was based. Before beginning, Hadley pointed out the unintentional timeliness of such a presentation; Wednesday was Veteran’s Day and 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War.
As sculptor and architect Daniel Chester French was planning the statue of Lincoln that would be featured in the monument, he started by making smaller models out of bronze, called maquettes. Hadley said French made a total of nine three-foot bronze maquettes were made; four of those have since been lost, which makes DePauw’s statue even rarer.
These maquettes feature more detail than the full-size model. The statue is full of symbolism, from Lincoln’s facial expression, to his buttons, to how relaxed his hands are. Professor Keith Nightenhelser questioned Hadley about whether he thought the chair could have some symbolic meaning.
“Its ends are bundles of sticks, also called fasces, which is where the Fascist movement got its name. They usually represent the power of life and death. Do you think French knew about that?” Nightenhelser asked.
Hadley extrapolated that French likely knew about that symbolism but doubted that there was some big, deeper meaning to it. He also dispelled many other rumors about hidden meanings in both the large and small statues.
DePauw’s statue came to campus in March 1934 when university president Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam bought it with the intention of incorporating Lincoln into the history of the university. To Oxnam, Lincoln represented a common struggle and he thought Lincoln’s presence could be educational to students.
Before the statue went into storage, it was on display in Roy O. West Library. While it was there, placing pennies at the foot of the statue became a good luck tradition for students. The statue was the centerpiece of the library’s Lincoln room, which was filled with Lincoln texts and memorabilia. It unceremoniously went into storage in 1986.
“I thought maybe it had been sold,” said professor Wes Wilson. “This whole time, I had no idea what happened to it.”
When the statue resurfaced in 2000, it was moved to Peeler’s collection. Hadley came to DePauw in 2012 and was captivated by the statue. He wanted to put it on display, but its years in the boiler room left it in rough condition.
“It had pitting and some liquid stains,” Hadley explained. “It was in bad shape.”
As a result, in August, the statue was taken to a company in Chicago to undergo a six-month restoration process. The statue will be 100 years old when it returns to DePauw in the spring, and Hadley said it will celebrate its birthday in much better condition than when it left. He plans to install the statue, along with a plaque explaining its history, outside Harrison Hall sometime during the spring semester.