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Archive for Tuesday, October 8, 2002

Misplaced bolts let Ad Astra grace dome only briefly

October 8, 2002

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— A sunny day, a cheering crowd and flawless execution.

Decades of delays, artistic disputes and the cost of the Ad Astra statue seemed to disappear Monday afternoon as a crane lifted the sculpture of a Kansa Indian 300 feet and gently placed it on top of the Capitol dome.

But four hours later, the 22-foot bronze statue was back on the ground, and workers were cutting off bolts that hadn't worked properly.

"You don't like to see it happen, but it happens," said Joe de la Torre, an assistant to Gov. Bill Graves. State officials plan to try again this morning to hoist the statue back atop the dome and bolt it down.

Five of 17 bolts that go through the base of the statue to hold it to the dome apparently did not line up correctly, Graves spokesman Ben Bauman said.

So workers from J.E. Dunn Construction on Monday evening cut off the bolts, drilled out the portions still in the statue's base and rethreaded the holes. They did that while working under the 3,900-pound statue as a crane held it about 5 feet off the ground.

Bauman said engineers knew there was a chance the statue wouldn't be permanently attached the first time up.

"There was some talk that it may not fit exactly right," he said.

Financial controversy

The additional work probably will not add much cost to the project, which has been under fire for months.

Graves has been criticized both by Democrats and fellow Republicans for spending more than $600,000 in state funds to reinforce the dome to hold the statue. The expense became a symbolic battleground as slumping revenue forced the governor to cut funds for education and social services.

But on Friday, Graves and the Topeka Community Foundation announced $500,000 in anonymous contributions from private individuals and corporations would defray most of the reinforcement cost.

Still, some were not satisfied. Latonia Wright, a social work student at Washburn University in Topeka, watched as the statue came back down and complained about the foundation's decision to help bankroll the statue.

"They could have taken those donations and helped people in Kansas," she said.

A small crowd of onlookers gathered when they saw the statue returning to the ground and joked the statue's name, which comes from the state motto "Ad Astra Per Aspera," seemed apt. The motto is a Latin phrase that means "To the stars through difficulties."

The first trip skyward

Earlier in the day, though, Ad Astra had gone up without a hitch. Planes and a helicopter circled the Capitol as the sculpture depicting an Indian with his arrow pointed to the North Star made a smooth ascent.

Hundreds of people stood on the roofs of nearby office buildings while an estimated 1,500 people watched from the ground, snapping photographs, shooting video, buying souvenirs and oohing and ahhing.

Richard Bergen, the Salina artist who has spent 14 years on the project, expressed relief as the moment neared to place the statue on top of the Statehouse.

"It's going to probably be the highlight of my life," he said.

Graves was on hand to inspect the statue for the first time.

"It's magnificent. In many ways, this is symbolic of how our state progresses both in good times and bad," the governor said.

He posed for photographs with workers and others in the crowd before retiring to the office of a lobbyist to watch the crane hoist the sculpture.

The statue itself, in addition to a smaller version that will be placed in a plaza on the Capitol grounds, is being paid for by private donors and will cost about $1 million.

Bergen said he had nearly completed the fund-raising goal even without money from souvenir sales when Ad Astra was carted through 30 cities on a statewide tour that included Lawrence on Saturday.

'Once in a lifetime'

Carol and Steve Grieb of Lawrence were among those who saw the statue in Lawrence. They decided to travel Monday to Topeka to see it raised onto the Statehouse roof.

"I think it's great that we have this," Steve Grieb said.

"This is exciting," said Carol Grieb, who remembered visiting the Capitol as an eighth-grade student and seeing the famous John Steuart Curry murals on the walls. She said the statue would be another attraction for students.

People in the crowd used words like "historic" and phrases like "once in a lifetime" when talking about why they were there.

Many mothers brought toddlers and infants for a quick photo in front of the statue.

Some said they were surprised not more was done to trumpet the event. Graves reportedly had planned to have a large ceremony, but when criticism mounted about the expense of reinforcing the dome, he canceled those plans for fear of protests.

A group of American Indians had a brief ceremony to bless the statue. They burned cedar, sage and tobacco to remove "negativity" surrounding the statue.

Christian Kramer, a member of the Yuchi Tribe and a group called the Standing Bear Inter-Tribal Brotherhood Society, performed the ceremony. He said the statue represented all American Indians and the building all state capitols.

Kramer said there was a certain amount of irony in the act of placing the image of an American Indian on top of the Statehouse. "The governor said he was honoring the contract to put the statue up there. It's about time the government honored some contract with an Indian," he said.

While many appeared apprehensive about lifting the statue, crane operator Steve Smith guaranteed there would be no problem. Smith of Kansas City, Kan., said he had lifted heavier objects but added he was excited about "being a part of history."

Asked if he had ever done a job like this before, he quipped, "This is the first time for an Indian sculpture on top of a dome."

Now he will get at least a second chance.

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