Resetting the molds

In the dank basement of Rockefeller Chapel, Moses, Plato, and the angel Michael lean against the walls, covered in soot. The 80-year-old plaster molds, commissioned by the chapel’s founders, were models for the final limestone statues that adorn the church’s Gothic façade.

“A mold was used to get the idea from paper to something physical, something three-dimensional,” says Lorraine Brochu, AM’88, assistant to the dean of the chapel. Designed by artists Ulric Ellerhusen and Lee Lawrie, known for his Atlas statue in New York City’s Rockefeller Center, the figures were sent between 1910 and 1920 to an Indiana limestone quarry, where artisans used them as blueprints for carving. Once the stone statues were hoisted upon the chapel, the University gave some of the molds away but stashed the rest in the basement, according to documents chapel intern Tera Ellefson, ’07, found in the Regenstein Library.

For years the molds remained unattended, collecting dirt and deteriorating from damage done by vandals and extreme heat and cold. While some maintain the most intricate details of the artists’ original work, most of the roughly 70 statues are too cracked and fragile for anyone to handle safely.

Plans to conserve the statues emerged after the chapel opened a basement interfaith center this past spring. Once preserved, Rockefeller will showcase the molds in the interfaith-center lobby. “We thought we’d choose three representative figures for the display,” Ellefson said. The chapel has selected Amos, an Old Testament Jewish prophet; Zoroaster, an ancient Iranian prophet; and Saint Francis of Assisi, the medieval Catholic patron saint of Italy, as the first statues to undergo preservation. Wisconsin-based Conrad Schmitt Studios will conserve the statues, which will be stored permanently in an improved basement storage space.

With limited funds from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial endowment, the statues will be fixed a few at a time, Brochu said. “Unless we get a huge hunk of money, it will take years,” she said. “We’re hoping for six statues a year, three at a time.”

Hassan S. Ali, ’07

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Photos (left to right): The molds lean against Rockefeller's basement walls; some are missing eyes, and all are covered in soot; masking tape identifies some statues.

Photos by Dan Dry.

July 21, 2006