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After Two Decades, Milwaukee Woman Continues Quest to Restore Outdoor Sculptures

Back in the 1990s, Diane Buck surveyed the multitude of monuments around Milwaukee and zeroed in on 12 in desperate need of repair. Ever since, she's been working to rally stakeholders and secure funding to restore each and every one of them.

The first sculpture Buck helped restore is the eight-foot bronze of Norse explorer Leif Ericson on Lincoln Memorial Drive. The sculpture was “planted” atop the bluff in 1887. By the time Buck laid eyes on it in 1994, it was in jeopardy.

“Leif Ericson was going to slide down the hill and they moved it to the west – that was a big project,” Buck says.

Buck never expected to fall for statues – or Milwaukee. She grew up in Portland, Oregon, three-quarters of a century ago.

“My parents were middle class working folk and I wasn’t exposed to art until I was in high school, “ Buck says. Buck discovered she loved creating art but her no-nonsense parents steered her toward teaching.

“When I was young the standard thing that women did were teach, nurse or airline hostesses and I sure didn’t like the last two and I always enjoyed children, so there it is,” Buck says.

Buck taught grade school, before she married and had two boys of her own. When her husband landed a teaching job at UW-Milwaukee, she expected a brief, pleasant stay.

“To raise two children and to enjoy a new community. I’m kind of surprised we’ve become such cheeseheads over the years, because I sort of thought we wouldn’t stay in Milwaukee, but we liked it so well,” Buck says.

Her love of art stuck too. Buck worked her way into the Milwaukee Art Museum – first as a volunteer and then on staff, but opportunity shifted her passion inside out. It started with a book she co-wrote about outdoor sculpture in Milwaukee.

“And just as that was coming out, a really interesting project was started by the Smithsonian and that was to identify and assess all of the outdoor sculptures in the United States," say Buck. "And so I was hired by the City of Milwaukee to train volunteers to go out and do this. I did that for about a year." Until funding ran dry.

“And by that time we had identified the ones that were fragile and needed to be restored,” Buck says. She coined them, her Dirty Dozen. For 20 years, Buck has worked relentlessly to restore them.

“I’m very big on the fact that as community you need to relate to your neighborhood or your community and public art helps you do that when it’s good, and it also, if it’s done right, it also reflects the culture and the history of that particular community,” Buck says.

Credit Susan Bence
The restoration of the General Thaddeus Kosciuszko monument was celebrated on Veterans Day 2013.

In Kosciusko Park, a gleaming statue of Polish-born American Revolutionary War hero – General Thaddeus Kosciusko – sits on horseback, his sword raised to the sky. Buck says, not long ago, the general was in tough shape.

“The sword that Kosciusko was holding had dropped off so there was great concern but the conservators were able to reattach it,” Buck says.

Buck inspired descendants of families who lived in the neighborhood to rescue the piece and create its plaza.

“This neighborhood used to be 90 percent Polish; most of the Polish folks have moved, but the Poles were interested in doing this and they were able to raise almost $300,000,” Buck says.

Buck is so close to polishing off her Dirty Dozen, she can practically taste it. The project that has eluded her all of these years is located north of Washington Park. It’s another equestrian – this one a German-born hero.

“Von Steuben was a American Revolutionary hero. There were thousands of people who came when this was dedicated,” Buck says.

Buck frets about the toll traffic has taken on the monument. “All of the exhaust from the buses – see this has stood here since 1921 – have caused a lot of oxidation on this bronze,” Buck says.

The 75-year-old is determined to rally support to return von Steuben to its resplendent original condition.

“I made a commitment, I have a passion for it and I decided it would be a great challenge to see if I could get it done before I pass away - and I think I’m going to have it done,” Buck says.


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