The Class Gift
NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – Mother Nature destroyed the Class of 1883’s first gift to Smith College and human nature, the second. Now, a group of students is attempting to turn back the clock.
On the occasion of its 40th reunion, the Class of 1883 gave Smith a sundial and semicircular bench designed for the college and each emblazoned with peacocks – the Byzantine symbol of immortality. The objects were placed over what remained of the initial class gift: the roots of an elm tree that had fallen victim to disease.
But not long after it was installed, the bronze sundial became a target for vandals. First the gnomon disappeared, then the remainder of the timepiece, leaving only a faded rubbing and single photo as evidence of its design.
That was enough for a group of art and computer science students who spent the semester recreating the sundial’s image on paper, in clay and online so that a mold could be made of the object and a new one cast.
Senior art major Makana Hirose used the photo to create a detailed drawing of the piece. (See below) And, she placed the drawing over a piece of clay and began carving in the design to create a model.
"I began to poke holes where all the lines are," said Hirose. "After all the designs were there, I started going over the holes with the needle tool to carve the design into the plasticine. The challenge was to get the depth of the carving about the same and to remove all the clay bits as I was carving."
Hirose also gave her drawing to computer science students who recreated the sundial in its actual size – measuring 12 inches in diameter – using state-of-the-art software and a three-dimensional printer.
“I’m in no way artistic,” said Gillian Riggs, a senior computer science and mathematics major who worked on the project. “So it’s really satisfying to me to have created this beautiful model that I never would have been able to do by hand.”
The project was the idea of with Smith faculty members Bosilijka Glumac and Richard Lim, who organized the Kahn Institute’s current project “Telling Time: Its Meaning and Measurement.”
The pair became curious about the fate of the timepiece that once commanded a prominent spot in front of the cement bench on the lawn between Lawrence and Morris houses and did a bit of sleuthing.
Until it vanished a few decades ago, the sundial stood atop a marble pedestal, they learned. Acid rain and vandals combined to destroy the pedestal, according to David Dempsey, associate director of museum services.
The original dial was designed by Smith alumna Faith Leavens, Class of 1900, and artist Mabel Webb and officially presented to Smith on June 16, 1923, at a ceremony attended by a former and a seated Smith president.
In addition to the peacocks, the dial was engraved with the class motto, taken from the Greek lyric poet Pindar, which translated “Opportunity has short measure.”
Glumac and Lim located part of the broken pedestal in the Facilities Management building; the rubbing and photo of the sundial were stored in College Archives. The semicircular bench remains near Lawrence House, which is, coincidentally, named for a member of the Class of 1883.
Even after the students graduate, Dempsey plans take the project to the next level – having a new sundial cast. The semicircular bench may also need some preservation work, he added.
“The peacock bench and sundial are a unit – they go together and I’d like to see them reconstituted,” said Dempsey. “If we get a good mold made, we could make more than one dial and ensure that we’d always have it.”
Smith College educates women of promise for lives of distinction. One of the largest women’s colleges in the United States, Smith enrolls 2,800 students from nearly every state and 62 other countries.