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Stanford Report, April 18, 2001

Labor of love leads to a happy ending for the 'Angel of Grief'

Repair completes mausoleum restoration project in time for Founders' Day

BY BARBARA PALMER

Not long ago, the mourning "Angel of Grief" statue that marks the Arboretum grave of Jane Stanford's brother Henry Clay Lathrop was truly a sorrowful sight.

An act of vandalism had stolen the angel's left arm and left a rusting piece of iron sticking out of the marble. The wingtips and some of the fingers on the lichen-stained angel's remaining arm were missing, and the black-and-white terrazzo tile around the base was crumbling.

In fact, the whole area -- a quiet section of the Arboretum once planned as the site of the Stanfords' country mansion -- was in sad shape six years ago when Chris Christofferson, now director of Facilities Operations, came to campus for a job interview.

The nearby granite-and-marble mausoleum where the university's founding family is interred was mossy and leaking rainwater. The neighboring cactus garden, planted in the 1880s in what was intended to be the Stanfords' backyard, was a tangle of brush, so overgrown that its rock-lined pathways were disappearing.

"It concerned me," said Christofferson, who came across the stained, broken statue while walking the campus grounds when he visited campus in 1995. "It could send the unintended message that Stanford was neglecting its heritage."

This Sunday, as the university community gathers to honor Jane, Leland and Leland Jr. at Founders' Day, there is special reason to celebrate: The now-gleaming marble angel, newly repaired, is the final piece of a mausoleum area restoration project that would likely make the Stanfords beam.

"It was a little bit of a labor of love," said Christofferson, as he pointed out changes that include the repaired angel and mausoleum and a reclaimed cactus garden. The restorations were carried out over five years by a team that included a special projects group and grounds crew from Facilities Operations, the Planning Office and volunteers. "Money wasn't plentiful," he said. "But as a group, we were committed."

When Christofferson came to Stanford, he made restoring the area a private goal, he said. He soon found an ally in Laura Jones, campus archaeologist and a Planning Office staff member, who also worried about the mausoleum area's condition.

The idea of restoration had percolated at the Stanford Historical Society for 25 years, but a plan never materialized, Jones said. In the Planning Office there was a sentiment that the area was not a priority, since it was peripheral to the academic mission of the university, she said. "You can't teach in a mausoleum and students can't live there." Meanwhile, the area kept deteriorating. "The cactus garden was just sort of sad, but the angel was a scandal," Jones said.

One day, Jones and Christofferson walked together through the mausoleum area and talked about what could be done to restore it. "I was surprised at how ready he was," Jones said. The two made it a priority, fitting it where they could into larger, more pressing projects, she said.

There was no official project budget, but an architectural conservator hired to analyze the condition of the mausoleum and statue made a list of recommendations. "We did it bit by bit," said Michael Fox, manager of technology and special projects coordinator for Facilities Operations. "It was a matter of doing what we could, with what we had available."

They first repaired the potholed paving and walkways and hired professional help in cleaning the mausoleum and sealing its leaks.

By the time work began on the "Arizona Garden," as the more than century-old cactus garden was called, it was actually an archaeological project, Jones said. The garden, designed by landscape gardener Rudolf Ulrich, had been planted in the 1880s with cactuses and succulents shipped by rail from Arizona. In recent years, maintenance trucks had driven over the serpentinite rocks that outlined the beds and pounded them underground. Volunteer oak trees were growing in the garden and blocking sunlight to surviving cactus plants. With the stones sinking and other vegetation overtaking the garden, its outlines were disappearing fast, Jones said.

Jones first had considered trying to preserve the cactus garden as a ruin, she said. "But it was losing definition and going downhill fast. Its identity even as a ruin was at risk." Eventually, all that would be left were some yuccas in the oaks, she said.

Jones shot 12 rolls of film to document the placement of every original stone. Then she, grounds department manager Herb Fong and Julie Cain, a former library specialist in Meyer Library, used old photographs and documents to establish the garden's original layout and plants and hired a landscape architect to help them recreate the original as closely as possible. They also contacted local members of the San Francisco Succulent and Cactus Society, who donated specimens and volunteered to help replant the garden. Last month, a botanical garden at Lotusland, a private estate near Santa Barbara, donated enough golden barrel cactus to finish filling the central bed, Fong said, making the "Arizona Garden" about 70 percent complete. Library specialist Christy Smith, who helped with archival research, now coordinates donations and volunteer work days.

The "Angel of Grief," the final part of the restoration project, presented a couple of hurdles, Jones said. Although there were photographs that showed how the larger-than-life-size angel once looked, there were no original drawings that could be used for getting the right scale. At one point, Jones said, she climbed up on the statue and flung out her arm to help conceptualize the replacement. It took a few attempts in clay and plaster casts for Los Angeles artist Marcel Machler to get precisely the right proportions, Fox said.

The group temporarily was stymied by the $80,000 estimate for repairing the cracked tile around the statue, Jones said. With a little digging, they discovered that the statue had once been surrounded not by tile but by grass. In fact, the current statue isn't the original that Jane Stanford had installed in 1900, they learned. That statue was damaged by the 1906 earthquake and later replaced.

The Stanford Historical Society approved the plan to replace the tile with much less expensive plantings. The grounds crew planted "appropriately somber plants" timed to bloom for Founders' Day, Jones said.

The angel is the final touch to a project that already is a success, Christofferson said. "The changes have been appreciated in many small ways by hundreds of people," he said.

"None of us have any doubt what Jane and Leland Stanford would have wanted," Jones said. "They gave us this amazing gift. There was a sense of obligation."


The "Angel of Grief." photo: L.A. Cicero