The Death of Cleopatra | Photo courtesy Historical Society of Forest Park

Forest Park is home to a remarkable facility, the Conservation of Sculpture and Object Studio (CSOS) on Desplaines Avenue. It was founded 20 years ago by its director, Andrzej Dajnowski, a world-renowned conservator who has taken on daunting projects, like the restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. One of his most difficult commissions was the restoration of “The Death of Cleopatra” by sculptor Edmonia Lewis.

Dajnowski immigrated to the United States from his native Poland in 1985 to continue his conservation studies at Harvard University. He later returned to Poland to earn his PhD from Copernicus University. He worked for several years as a conservationist at the Smithsonian Institute American Museum of Art, under the direction of Curator Emeritus George Gurney.

Before

In September 1998, Gurney flew to Chicago to view the Cleopatra statue. Afterward, he told a reporter, “It is a shadow of what was done originally. The statue is badly damaged and weathered. Portions cannot be redone because the detail is gone. Major restoration would cost a lot of money.”

Gurney examined the “well-intentioned but unprofessional restoration attempt” by Boy Scouts in 1972. They had painted the statue white in a vain attempt to cover the blue and green stains from spray paint. “The creamy white paint they applied was so off-putting,” Gurney recalled, “but that thick paint was the only thing that was holding the marble together.” 

He was hopeful the statue could be saved because, “Everything is reversible about their restoration.” Even though the statue was in a pitiful state, Christie’s still valued it at $150,000. Gurney found the only photo of how the statue originally looked. “Now I knew the “restored” hands and asp were totally incorrect.” He didn’t know how the damaged breasts could be restored but knew, “The paint had to be stripped off.” When it came to finding a conservator to restore the statue, Dajnowski was an obvious choice. 

After

After leaving the Smithsonian, he had moved to Chicago and opened a conservation facility at his Northwest Side home. He transformed his garage into a studio by installing two skylights and two large windows. “Natural light is everything,” he said, when it comes to conservation. He also installed heating and an adequate ventilation system. 

Dajnowski became a contractor for the Chicago Park District, restoring many outdoor sculptures displayed in the city parks. In 1996, Gurney commissioned him to restore “The Death of Cleopatra.” Dajnowski first saw the statue in an Oak Park garage. Workers then packed the statue into a truck and transported it to his studio. In case of a mishap, the Smithsonian had insured the statue for $100,000.

When Dajnowski examined the statue, he could tell the Boy Scouts had used some sharp tool to chip marble off the back of the throne. “They mixed it with epoxy in a very sloppy attempt to restore her features. They cut off her sandals. They never should have been allowed to work on it.” The figure’s breasts had been moved to a different location by the Boy Scouts. “They were not anatomically correct,” he noted.

The statue was also missing many features. “The left hand was missing. All the fingers were gone. The right hand was also missing fingers.” Before restoring the features, Dajnowski had to remove the paint stains. “The face had dark paint on it. I applied solvents to dissolve the paint and clay to absorb the stain.” He used this poultice method to pull other stains from the marble. When the stains were gone, he could see the statue’s surface was a bit “sugary.” 

“Some detail was lost but it wasn’t horrible,” he said. Considering what the marble had gone through, it was amazing what was left. 

After he removed the makeshift repairs the Boy Scouts had made, the statue looked grotesque, like a decomposed corpse. Dajnowksi replaced the statue’s missing nose, fixed its lips and restored its shattered chin. He used large fills to restore the left and right breasts. He recreated the statue’s missing toes and sandals. “The headdress and snake also had to be restored.” Finally, he filled in all the holes in the figure’s robe and the missing marble on the back of the throne. 

It took Dajnowski six months to complete the restoration. He did the work under the watchful eyes of his 12-year-old son, Bartosz. Father and son later became pioneers in the laser cleaning of sculptures and buildings. 

“George Gurney came and approved the treatment,” Dajnowski recalled. The restoration had cost the Smithsonian $30,000. 

“The statue was packed up and brought to the Smithsonian,” he said. “The other conservators thought it was a miracle.” Dajnowski values the opinions of his colleagues. He is also pleased about the recently-issued stamp honoring Edmonia Lewis. 

“Finally, Native Americans and other minorities are being recognized, even though they’re no longer with us.”

Four years after he completed the “Death of Cleopatra” restoration, Dajnowski moved his studio to Forest Park and opened CSOS. The 13,000-square-foot facility is filled with works of art undergoing restoration. In 2017, a bronze statue of Alexander Hamilton was being worked on in the studio. Dajnowski uses the G.C. Laser Cleaning System for cleaning large-scale outdoor bronze statues. After the cleaning, he re-gilded the statue and its glittering presence is now on display in Lincoln Park. 

Dajnowski also completed the conservation of the iconic Bowman and Spearman (Indians on horseback) on Michigan Avenue. His closest commission was restoring the Haymarket Martyr’s Monument, 400 yards west of his studio, in Forest Home Cemetery. Dajnowski’s expertise is in great demand and he receives commissions from Cairo to Canada. He is currently using his laser-cleaning method to help with conservation efforts to restore Notre Dame. 

He remains proud of his work on Cleopatra. 

“It was a dream come true.”

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.