"I have been the more particular in this description of my journey that you may compare such unlikely beginnings with the figure I have since made there." So wrote Benjamin Franklin to his son, words that appear at the base of a bronze monument on the Penn campus that depicts the University's Founder as a lad just starting out, with his rucksack, wide-legged gait, and walking stick. He strides ahead, clear-eyed and resolute, a young man leaving his boyhood behind. It is as much a tribute to youth as to Franklin -- and a fitting inspiration to students just setting out on their own life paths. At least the Class of 1904 thought so, when they dedicated the sculpture and its surrounding plaza on the occasion of their 10th Reunion.
   Unfortunately, the figure of Benjamin Franklin in 1723 "made there" by sculptor R. Tait McKenzie did not age as gracefully as its real-life counterpart. Standing outside Weightman Hall for 80-odd years, it was dirty and green -- and quite crusty, albeit in a different fashion than the man who inspired it. It needed a bath -- and some good old-fashioned TLC (something the pleasure-loving, flesh-and-blood Franklin would have readily endorsed).
   Recently, young Ben got his bath and more, thanks to a donor from Harvard (of all places) and a five-year program at Penn to clean and conserve the University's bronze outdoor sculptures, which entered its fourth year in July. Spearheaded by Jacqueline Jacovini, GFA'84, associate curator of Penn's art collection and herself a sculptor, the project began tentatively in 1992 with an informal survey of sculptures on campus conducted by Jacovini and interested volunteers, under the direction of the Washington, D.C.-based Save Outdoor Sculpture! (SOS!), a national organization jointly administered by the Smithsonian Institution and the National Institute for Conservation of Cultural Property (now Heritage Preservation). Following the survey, Jacovini talked with local experts on bronze -- Philadelphia is home to many, she notes -- about the potential for the project, and obtained recommendations on conservators. In 1994 the selected contractor, Norton Art Conservation, Inc., of Lafayette Hill, Pa., formally reviewed 19 outdoor bronze sculptures and monuments on the immediate Penn campus and, together with Jacovini, assessed the current condition of and work needed for each.

Charles Lenning, John J. boyle, 1900. (Left) sculpture before treatment and (right) after treatment. This bust, which usually stands behind College hall, has been temporarily removed during construction of the Perelman Quad.

   A bust of Charles Lennig, a major benefactor of the University in the late 19th century, created in 1900 by John J. Boyle a year after the artist sculpted the stately seated Franklin in front of College Hall, served as a convincing test case. (This bust, which usually stands behind College Hall, has been temporarily removed during construction of the Perelman Quad.) Jacovini used the Lennig piece, conserved in 1995, to demonstrate to Penn administrators the significance of the project and the impact bronze conservation would have campus-wide. "It was truly before-and-after, night-and-day -- and it was amazing," she explains. "Here you had this powdery, chalky, greenish-white, ghoulish-looking bust that all of a sudden came to life. I had never noticed before how beautifully sculpted it was." Others noticed too, such that the project got the go-ahead and a dedicated fund was set up within the University to provide for a five-year program of conservation and maintenance.
   In the case of the youthful Franklin sculpture, Albert H. Gordon, an alumnus of Harvard University's Class of 1923, was attending Penn's Heptagonals in 1997 when he found the sculpture's condition "atrocious," and was appalled that the monument had fallen into such disrepair. Despite his having "never agreed with" Franklin or his philosophies, recalls Audrey B. Schnur, C'89, director of major gifts for athletics, Gordon decided to fund conservation and restoration of the monument and its surrounding plaza in honor of his friend, Gerald H. McGinley, W'52, a former Mungerman and long-time Penn supporter and winner of a 1998 Alumni Award of Merit.


January/February Contents | Gazette Home

Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 1/5/99