A Mammoth Undertaking

Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is replacing its Pachyderm Building with the $25 million African Elephant Crossing experience. But first, it will need to remove and restore two priceless, 32-ton sculptures by Viktor Schreckengost. Then, they’ll have a n
The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is about to disassemble two of its most famous pachyderms. But noanimal-rights groups are up in arms: The beasts have been extinct for thousands of years.

“Mammoth” and “Mastodon,” life-sized relief sculptures and a popular backdrop for zoo photos for more than 50 years, will soon be removed from the Pachyderm Building wall as part of the $25 million African Elephant Crossing construction. Efforts are under way to raise the estimated $750,000 needed for the job.

Why the fuss over a few elephants? “Mammoth” and “Mastodon” were created by Viktor Schreckengost, a 2006 National Medal of Art recipient. “Everyone here sees the Schreckengost works as a regional treasure, if not a national treasure,” says Liz Fowler, executive director of the Cleveland Zoological Society. “We want them to be accessible to the next generation.”

The zoo has shown a commitment to preserving Schreckengost pieces in the past. In 2004, a series of Schreckengost bird sculpture panels — which made the cover of Newsweek when they were installed —were carefully removed during another demolition project. Several panels are on display in the zoo’s main exhibition hall.

But there are bigger plans for the pachyderm sculptures. “Our hope is that ‘Mammoth’ and ‘Mastodon’ will be reconstructed at the main entrance,” says zoo spokesman Tom O’Konowitz. “It’s perhaps the most prominent location in the zoo. I can’t think of a better place to have those pieces.”

O’Konowitz isn’t just talking about re-hanging some artwork. “What you’re dealing with is priceless,” says Dick Chodera, former superintendent of facility operations at the zoo, now a project manager with RFC Contracting. “It’s more like archeological excavation than demolition.”

Even after removal, the work is only half done. “You have to build a structure to hold them,” says Chodera. “The foundations have to be big enough to hold up a freestanding wall at least 15 feet high. It really is a mammoth undertaking.”

But zoo staffers know the job will be worth it, because enthusiasm for Schreckengost’s animal-themed work shows no signs of abating. In dozens of sculptures and paintings, he captures their defining, endearing qualities: the ungainly stride of a camel, the full-bodied leap of a tiger, the old-man hunched posture of a toad.

Many of Schreckengost’s “creature” works appear in two new exhibitions this year. All Creatures Great and Small opens at Historic Kirtland Jan. 12 and includes sketches, sculptures and other “process” pieces. Viktor Schreckengost — Legacy Exhibition opens in March in Massachusetts with several animal pieces.

The Bird Building panels remain on display indoors at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, and, of course, Clevelanders can still see “Mammoth” and “Mastodon” on the Pachyderm Building until construction begins later this year.

“The amazing thing about Schreckengost’s work is that it stands the test of time,” Fowler says. “ ‘Mammoth’ and ‘Mastodon’ are in really good shape. They’ve been weathering Cleveland winters for more than 50 years. The restoration will [ensure] they’re in great shape for the next 50 to 100 years.”

To contribute to the Mammoth and Mastodon Restoration Project, call the Cleveland Zoological Society development office at (216) 635-3329.
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