Underneath a steady rain, Andrzej Dajnowski climbed up and down the World War I Memorial in Oak Park’s Scoville Park trying to understand the bronze and granite structure. Dajnowski, a nationally recognized conservator whose studio is in Forest Park, was hired to give the 84-year-old memorial a face lift. Every restoration project has its challenges and this one, said Dajnowski, is no different.
Architectural drawings that would tell the conservator how the massive monument was pieced together have gone missing. So, exactly how the memorial will be taken apart – and reassembled – is going to be a learning process for everyone.
“There’s always a slight chance that there’s something hidden that would prevent completion of a project 100 percent,” Dajnowski said.
It’s with a knowing smile that the Poland native makes this point. His experience restoring sculptures, statues and even buildings has taught him that careful attention to detail in the beginning will usually save him some grief in the end. Dajnowski boasted that he’s never botched a project, but there was a Civil War statue in Milwaukee that was utterly baffling.
“That was a project that we did not do what I would have wanted to do,” Dajnowski said.
Several decades prior to being asked to restore Milwaukee’s aging bronze monument, someone had filled the sculpture entirely with concrete, he said. This only hurried the monument’s deterioration as the concrete contracted and expanded with moisture. Occasionally, said Dajnowski, sculptures are partially filled – but never entirely. As a result, Dajnowski’s company, Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio, was only able to refurbish the exterior surfaces.
“It was the biggest surprise of my life,” he said. “You’d have to be a complete idiot to do what they did.”
Over the course of the next several months, Dajnowski and his crew expect to disassemble portions of the Oak Park monument and then use laser technology to clean its surfaces. It’s exacting work, but on a recent rainy afternoon his team was using a fork truck, a reciprocating saw, even a sledgehammer to get at the guts of the monument.
Gary Balling, executive director of the Park District of Oak Park, said his office conducted a nationwide search for the right company to refurbish its WWI monument. Repeatedly, Dajnowski’s name surfaced as the man for the job, he said. One of the Forest Park company’s strongest selling points is its use of lasers, said Balling, because the technology is incredibly gentle.
In 2004, Dajnowski’s company was one of five from across the U.S. invited to bid on a building restoration project in Philadelphia, he said. He got the job because of his proposed use of lasers to clean the darkened limestone mansion. At the time, said Dajnowski, it was the first time a building was restored with this technology.
Lasers are “extremely environmentally friendly,” he said, because there’s no byproduct to clean up when the work is done. There are no chemicals, no abrasives, and no water. It’s also a quiet process.
“If you really wanted to, you could work in somebody’s office with that person sitting right next to you,” Dajnowski said. “The most noisy piece of the equipment would be the vacuum cleaner.”
Dajnowski came to the U.S. after earning degrees in Poland, and took a job in the late 1980s with the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The work was interesting, he said, but being responsible for a specific museum exhibit leaves little room for variety. In the early 1990s he moved to the Chicago area to take a job with the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Park District. He then bought his Forest Park studio, at 900 Desplaines Ave., in 2000.
“I like the variety,” Dajnowski said of restoration work. “Each project gives you a completely different sent of challenges and set of rules to play by.”
The Oak Park memorial is slated to be finished in mid October, in time for that community’s Veteran’s Day services.