Restoration of Black Hawk statue to offers new life to Rock River landmark

Jack McCarthy
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Landmarks Illinois, a private statewide conservation group, named Black Hawk one of its 2015 Most Endangered Historic Places.

The steely gaze of the Eternal Indian is shrouded these days.

The 48-foot tall sentinel of the Rock River — more commonly identified with 19th Century Native American Chief Black Hawk — is undergoing critical repairs to halt deterioration from years of neglect and ineffective fixes.

The result after a nearly $900,000 fix will be a monument that can withstand the vagaries of Northern Illinois weather and continue to serve as a landmark for generations to come.

Landmarks Illinois, a private statewide conservation group, named Black Hawk one of its 2015 Most Endangered Historic Places.

“We are racing against time and money and hope the restoration will be completed by October, 2015,” Frank Rausa, a principal with Friends of the Black Hawk Statue and fundraiser for the restoration effort, told Landmarks Illinois. “Otherwise, we’re faced with further deterioration of the statue and the need for more dollars to complete the project.”

The site, located on a bluff 125-feet above the Rock River inside Lowden Memorial State Park in Oregon, is open and accessible to the public. But the area immediately surrounding the statue is fenced in and small openings between plastic mesh coverings offer only a limited hint of the work in progress.

The figure — It depicts a standing Native American with arms folded and wrapped in a blanket. Created by sculptor Lorado Taft and opened in 1911, the outer surface is composed of cement and pink granite chips and is reputed to be the second-largest concrete sculpture in the world.

The legend — Taft reportedly said the statue was inspired by Black Hawk, although it is not a likeness of the chief. According to the Illinois Department of Conservation, Taft dedicated the monument to Native Americans, but become associated with Black Hawk as time passed. He was best known for the 1832 war that bears his name. The Black Hawk War was the last Indian war fought east of the Mississippi River. “Rock River was beautiful country,” Chief Black Hawk was quoted as saying prior to his death in 1837. “I loved my towns, my cornfields, and the home of my people. It is yours now. Keep it as we did.”

Monumental data — Now 104 years old, the figure is estimated to weigh 100 tons. It stands on a six-foot base and is reinforced with iron rods. The monument is hollow, with widths ranging from eight inches to three feet. The interior is accessible to park employees through a door at the base.

Landmark history —The statue was planned by Taft and several of his students and associates at the Art Colony, which is now part of the Taft Campus of Northern Illinois University and adjacent to Lowden State Park. An original model is on permanent display at Discovery Center Museum in Rockford. Another model is located at the Oregon Public Library. According to several accounts, initial work began in 1908 and the monument was dedicated in 1911. On Nov. 5, 2009 the Black Hawk Statue was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. The statue is under the jurisdiction of the Illinois Department of Conservation.

Lorado Taft — Taft, who lived from 1860-1936, was a noted sculptor, writer and educator and an integral part of Chicago’s cultural and educational communities. Among noted works are the recently restored Alma Mater sculpture at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana; the monument “Eternal Silence” at Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery; as well as the Fountain of Time in Chicago’s Washington Park.

Price tag — Landmarks Illinois, a statewide private conservation concern, said earlier this year that restoration could cost around $825,000. Friends of the Black Hawk Statue committee, formed in 2009, have raised more than $740,000 from corporations, foundations and individuals. The committee has partnered with the Illinois Conservation Foundation – the private fundraising arm of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources – to hold the funds in a restricted account.

Previous repairs — Landscaping and lights were added in a 1950s restoration. Some minor patch-and-fill work was done in the 1980s and 1990s, but moisture seeped in through concrete and major cracks developed.

Why fix now? — Landmarks Illinois said urgent repairs were needed due to deterioration caused by water infiltration. Two reports conducted by consultants documented cracks and damage that had considerably worsened between 2008 and 2014. Some areas were reportedly so badly deteriorated that even simple tapping on surfaces could dislodge concrete. Landmarks Illinois said there is a risk that the damage will quickly accelerate and the majority of its original details will be lost.

Who’s doing the work — Project conservator Dr. Andrzej Dajnowski, from Conservation of Sculpture & Objects Studio, in Forest Park, Ill., oversees a team undertaking the restoration. Dajnowski’s team last year completed the cleaning of a 3,460-year-old Egyptian Obelisk that’s located in New York City’s Central Park.

How to get there — Lowden Memorial State Park is located at 1411 N. River Rd., Oregon, and can be reached from Interstate 39 and Interstate 88. If traveling north or south on I-39, take exit at Illinois Route 64 and travel west 16 miles to Oregon, turn right on River Rd. and travel two miles to park.

How to help — Checks can be made payable to the Illinois Conservation Foundation, with “Black Hawk statue” in the memo field, and sent to the foundation at One Natural Resources Way, Springfield, IL 62702.


— Restoration of Black Hawk statue to offers new life to Rock River landmark —