COLUMBIA — The six celebrated columns on the MU campus were built in 1842, just as wagon trains were heading west on the Oregon Trail.
Since then, the stones have been lashed by rain, scorched by flames and battered by sun and humidity. They have been scaled by students and painted by football fans and engineering majors.
Now, MU is preparing to restore and protect this landmark on Francis Quadrangle at a cost of $550,000. Over the summer, cracks will be smoothed and sealed with grout, loose stones will be attached with tiny metal pins, and veins will be sanded to prevent additional scars.
Scaffolding went up last week and work will begin Monday. According to Jeffery Brown, senior director for campus facilities at MU, the columns are structurally sound, so workers for the Joplin-based Mid-Con Construction Co. will perform only preservation work.
They will waterproof and preserve the columns by grinding down and sealing water-absorbent cracks with five types of grout. Moisture has settled into some of the cracks, Brown said, widening them during extreme temperature shifts and releasing loose stones.
The university has decided not to use a protective waterproof coating in this year's efforts, he added, as it might prematurely fail and be more costly to maintain over time than simply targeting the cracks and loose stones.
"When you think about the columns, you can't think about 20 years," Brown said. "You've got to think about 100 years."
Workers will use masonry conservation, which protects stone from natural elements. They will fasten loose and fractured stones to the columns with glue-coated micro-pins, the same technique used to join concrete sidewalk or road panels together to keep them from sinking unevenly into the ground. The pins are similar to those used in surgical procedures, Brown said.
Attention will also be given to the decorative scrolls, some broken, at the top of the columns. They have suffered more damage because they extend beyond the columns, shielding them from the elements.
The scrolls are also exposed to more rising heat on a daily basis, Brown said, and their decorative carvings let moisture collect in crevices, causing cracks and loosening stones.
To monitor shifts and fissures, 20 workers on the project will install six prisms beneath lead-coated copper caps on the tops of the columns. MU will use the tiny GPS devices to provide precise measurements of elevation and position.
The information will be transmitted to a station set up on the quadrangle's south side to track the columns’ expansion and contraction due to heat and humidity, and make recommendations on future preservation efforts.
The north side is in the best shape, Brown said, but extra work is needed on the south surface of the columns — which sustained the most damage from an 1892 fire — and on the east and west sides, which have had more sun exposure.
Neither Brown nor Majid Amirahmadi, the principal architect on the project, could predict how long the repairs would last.
"It is difficult to predict the longevity of any masonry conservation," said Amirahmadi, owner and principal of the International Architects Atelier in Kansas City. "We can say with certainty that it will preserve the landmark for many years to come."
The 43-foot Ionic columns were designed by A. Stephens Hill, also the designer of the state Capitol. They were built of limestone blocks from Hinkson Creek, each weighing 9 to 18 tons.
The columns are all that remains of MU’s original Academic Hall on the quadrangle. (The cornerstone was saved and is on display in Jesse Hall.)
The hall burned down in 1892 during a fire sparked by defective wiring in the space between the building's chapel ceiling and library floor. The fire was intensified by gunpowder from 14,000 rounds of ammunition stored in the dome of the building by the Cadet Corps.
After the fire, the columns were nearly hauled away in August 1893 by members of the Board of Curators, who considered them unsafe and ugly. When an inspection showed they were structurally sound, however, a group of supporters — including Gardiner Lathrop, the first university president's son — rallied to preserve them.
The board reconsidered, although there were temporary plans to move two columns each to the north, west and east entrances of campus. Ultimately, the university decided the removal work would be too difficult.
There was also a notion at one time to build an arch over the top of the columns to "improve their beauty." That, too, was abandoned.
Over the years, the columns have been the focal point of many MU traditions. Graduating seniors walked around the columns before commencement until 1950, and for a time, only the seniors could sit beneath them.
Today, they are the site of the annual Tiger Walk for freshmen in the fall, when students head toward Jesse Hall, and the Senior Sendoff in the spring, when students reverse the journey.
The columns have also served as an international symbol of the university's reach, gracing many photographs and souvenirs. In 1921, a geologist reported that he had found a postcard of the columns in the small Peruvian town of Ambo during his fieldwork.
The row of six pillars has also survived plenty of human pressure. KU football fans painted the lower parts of the columns in 1926, and Washington University fans painted them red and green before a football game 11 years later. The columns had to be sand-blasted in 1958 after engineering students painted them green during St. Patrick's week.
The Missourian reported that twice in the 1950s, students scaled the columns to perch on top. (One, "Perching Paul" Ferber, did so in a red cape.)
Over the years, the columns haven't just been the target of pranksters. They have been drawn by art students, measured by future engineers and adapted as a stage set by theater majors.
While the columns can be fragile, the bases are made of concrete and more resistant to use by students and others.
The preservation work is expected to end Aug. 4, two weeks before freshmen stream through the columns for the 22nd annual Tiger Walk.
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.