The hottest ticket in Chicago is for the musical Hamilton, which opens on Sept. 27 at the PrivateBank Theatre. On that same date, the country’s first treasury secretary will receive another honor: His newly-restored statue will resume its place of prominence at Cannon Drive and Diversey in Lincoln Park.
The 13-foot statue is being restored by Andrzej Dajnowksi at his Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio in Forest Park.
Dajnowksi does most of the major restorations of sculptures and architectural pieces in Chicago. A pioneer in laser-cleaning, he is restoring 12th-century sculptures from the Art Institute. But it’s another project funded by the Art Institute that has become a priority: re-gilding the Alexander Hamilton statue in time for the play’s opening.
Dajnowski has a long history with the statue. Before opening his own shop, he was on the staff at the Chicago Park District, responsible for the park district’s outdoor sculptures. It was a big job. The district has more than 200 significant sculptures. Chicago has more monuments than New York. He first encountered the Hamilton statue in 1991.
The statue was the brainchild of philanthropist Kate Sturges Buckingham, who gave the city its iconic Buckingham Fountain. Buckingham was an admirer of Hamilton, whom she described as “one of the least appreciated great Americans.” She credited him with securing the financial future of the young country. She believed this financial system allowed her family to make a fortune in grain elevators and banking. Buckingham passed away in 1937, before the Hamilton project could be launched.
The trustees of the Kate S. Buckingham Fund of the Art Institute gave the commission to renowned sculptor John Angel. Born in England, many of Angel’s major works were in the United Kingdom but he also made a name for himself in America. Dajnowski described him as a “brilliant sculptor” and his statue of Hamilton was one of his most significant works. Angel received the commission in 1939 but due to a wartime shortage of materials, the project was held up. There was some controversy over whether it would ever be built. Finally, there was a court order to install it by 1953.
Besides the legal problems, there was another: the statue’s setting. Buckingham called for a colossal architectural setting. Architect Samuel A. Marx designed a 78-foot black granite structure that dwarfed the statue. Dajnowski said this was in keeping with the post-war architecture of the time. Massive monuments were going up in America and Europe. He believed this ’50s style was too elaborate and made the statue look small.
However, when Dajnowski did a survey in 1991, he found the granite setting had structural flaws. There was graffiti on the granite base and he could tell the structure was falling apart. The granite setting was dismantled in 1993. The only surviving element of the Marx design is a simple low red granite base, which serves as the statue’s pedestal.
Dajnowksi had the statue taken down in 1994 to do some restorative work, but the district’s studio did not have the space necessary to do the job. The restoration was put off until Sept. 14, 2015, when Dajnowksi had the statue transported to his studio. This was no easy task as Hamilton weighs 3,500 pounds. However, the studio’s 18-foot ceiling had the headroom necessary to do the job. First, the bronze surface had to be cleaned and restored. The statue was placed in a horizontal position inside a large white tent labeled “Fort Hamilton.”
To clean the surface, they used a laser invented by Dajnowski’s son, Bartosz. “It’s the first laser in the U.S. designed for conservation,” he said proudly of the patent his son holds. “It’s more versatile than commercial lasers. It’s smaller and lighter and plugs into any outlet in the world. It’s the first time we’re using a laser to prepare a surface for gilding.”
Even with this technology, it’s been a painstaking task. Dajnowski’s workers have put in over 300 hours. After the bronze is finished, they will apply a yellow primer. Then they will cover the surface with an oil adhesive. Finally, they will re-gild the sculpture with gold leaf. Dajnowski describes the process as “very expensive.” He is racing to get the project done in time for the play’s opening.
After the statue is restored to its former glory and re-positioned at its place of prominence, it will be part of the park district’s “Statue Stories Chicago” project. The tagline is: “If statues could talk, what stories would they tell?”
Or maybe in Hamilton’s case, what songs would he sing?
Thanks to Jessica Faulkner, Irene Tostado and Michael Fus from the Chicago Park District for providing information for this article.