Sculptor Lorado Taft's Legacy Undergoing Quiet Restoration in His Hometown

Sep 30, 2019

Driving into Elmwood on Illinois Route 78, signs of the artist Lorado Taft are everywhere.

There’s a stately museum in a Victorian-era home on the main drag. A prominent statue celebrating America’s pioneers that the Chicago-based artist made for Elmwood stands proudly in the square.

"The Pioneer" sculpture unveiled in Elmwood in 1928. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Credit Tim Shelley / WCBU

Taft was born in this western Peoria County community in 1860. Though the noted sculptor, writer and orator only lived here for the first seven years of his life, it’s clear Elmwood claims him as a native son.

Taft is perhaps best-known for big sculptures like the “Fountain of Time” in Chicago. But the Elmwood Historical Society cherishes a collection of smaller-scale works long-hidden from public view.

The story begins in 1984, when the Dayton Art Institute contacted the historical society. Elmwood Historical Society President Fred Paige says a Dayton, Ohio museum wanted to divest of nine dioramas it purchased from Taft’s studios in the early 20th century.

“Several members of the local historical society went over and brought those back over here. And they were stored in a garage over here in town in 1985," said Paige. 

The dioramas gathered garage dust until the summer of 2010, when a tornado with 130 mile per hour winds swept through the city.

The garage didn’t fare well. Somehow, the dioramas came out more or less unscathed.

But they still needed serious restoration after decades in storage.

A chance encounter with art conservationist Cricket Harbeck at a museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin last year led historical society members to recruit her for the effort. 

Harbeck said the dioramas were on display for about 15 years in Dayton during a heavy industrial era before they were packed away.

“A lot of what we’re picking up is black grime on the figures. But then being in the garage for even more years, there’s just even more grime accumulated," Harbeck said. 

The two halves of the white scroll on this nearly-restored figurine offer a look into the before and after conditions of the grime removal.
Credit Tim Shelley / WCBU

The cleaning process is challenging. The wire-frame statues are plastered and finished with oil-based paints. The cleaning agents used to wipe away the soot attack paint in different ways, depending on the colors.

“So one of the challenges is trying to clean things uniformly. So if I go to a blue area and try to clean that as equally as the blue area or the yellow area," said Harbeck. 

So far, she has finished work on two of the nine dioramas and is working on a third. That includes restoration of hundreds of figurines. She’s completed 60 so far. 

Paige said the hope is to have Taft’s pieces ready to display for the Elmwood Christmas Walk on December 7.

Resident Mary Ann Hanlin sums up Elmwood’s impression of its most famous citizen.

A restored Lorado Taft sculpture depicting Michelangelo and David
Credit Tim Shelley / WCBU

“Everybody has to be born somewhere. But at first, that didn’t mean a whole lot to me. But then, as I studied about him and realized how much he came back and gave to this community, and gave to everyone else, that really brought significance of the fact that he considered Elmwood his home," said Hanlin. 

Heading out of Elmwood, a sign posted on Route 78 points the way to a granite stone on a quiet residential street marking Lorado Taft’s birthplace.

Another solemn stone a few blocks away in the Elmwood Township Cemetery marks the spot he chose for his final resting place.

Other notable sculptures by Lorado Taft include ‘Lincoln the Lawyer’ in Urbana, Fountain of the Great Lakes at the Art Institute of Chicago, Chief Blackhawk at Lowden State Park in Oregon, Illinois, Alma Mater at the University of Illinois, Lincoln-Douglas Debate in Quincy, and Columbus Fountain in Washington, D.C. He also created the Trotter Memorial Fountain in downtown Bloomington.