Restoring the Illinois Memorial

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 24, 2011

A golden challenge

“In 1996 we launched what we termed ‘Operation Eagle,’ where we challenged a number of groups in Illinois — most of them in the greater-Chicago area, Civil War roundtables and other history groups — to raise money to regild the eagle on the Illinois monument, and we also worked with the Mississippi Army National Guard. The Guard sent over a Chinook helicopter, plucked the eagle off the monument and took it down to our maintenance area. We cleaned it and brought it up to our visitor center, and actually had gilders regild it in the center, where our visitors could see the gilding process, talk to the skilled artisans doing the work.

“It was so successful, we went back and challenged those very same groups to raise more money, and we gilded the exterior lettering on the monument next to the relief portraits of Grant, Lincoln and Illinois war governor Richard Yates.

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“And a few years after that, we went back to those very same groups and they raised $10,000 more and we gilded the lettering on the interior of the monument, the names etched in the marble.

“All of that lettering had been gilded initially, but it had been gilded in bronze leafing versus gold leafing. When the Illinois commissioners came down here in 1906 to inspect the monument prior to accepting it, and they realized the stark contrast between that bronze eagle and the white marble was so apparent, and that you couldn’t read the names on the interior of the monument, they went back to Illinois and asked for more money to gild it in 24-carat gold leaf …, the Legislature turned them down, saying the appropriation had been generous enough, so they used what was left in the appropriation they already had and put bronze leafing on it. That wore off in about three to five years. But as it was the original intent of the Illinois commissioners to gild it in 24-carat gold leaf, that’s how we justified doing it in the ‘90s.”

— VNMP historian Terry Winschel

A natural touch

In the 1980s some repairs and cleanings were done to the Illinois Memorial, including affixing gold leaf to certain sections, cleaning and repointing in the interior. Crushed walnut shells were used to restore the previous glimmer to the interior tablets affixed to the walls.

“The park service prefers the walnuts because it’s kinder on the monument, plus it’s environmentally friendly and we don’t have to worry if a few pieces of walnut get into the area,” said park superintendent Mike Madell.

Another method uses glass beads. Sandblasting is no longer used.