A lone worker stood atop yellow scaffolding and began repairing the Central High arch on Wisconsin Avenue earlier this month. The sight brought sighs of relief from admirers of the arch, who noticed what seemed to be visible signs of structural disintegration this summer.

The arch is all that remains of the Cass Gilbert-designed Madison Central High School building torn down in 1986 to make room for an MATC parking lot. At that time, the arch was allowed to stand as a means of assuaging local preservationists, Central alumni, and the occasional fan of Gilbert, an architect whose works also include the Woolworth Building in New York City and the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C.

In 2002, a proposed development plan involving the Madison Children's Museum threatened the arch. It survived because the museum found another home.

However, many Central alumni and preservationists worried the arch's increasingly fragile condition continued to pose a threat to its existence. Some, including Central alumnus Mark Pankow, tried unsuccessfully to organize a project committee to raise funds to pay for restoration of the arch or to move it to another location. Others feared that MATC, which owns the arch and the property on which it stands, was deliberately allowing the arch to disintegrate so it would eventually become unsafe and have to be torn down.

Now the worrying can cease and the conspiracy theories can be abandoned.

Jacob Arndt, the stonemason and sculptor who is doing the repair and restoration work, says continued worry about the condition of the arch is unnecessary - and not just because of what he's been doing for the past several weeks.

"The arch is not delicate," he says. "It's robust and healthy: It just looks disheveled." Furthermore, says Arndt, owner of Northwestern Masonry & Stone in Lake Mills, "With regularly scheduled routine maintenance these masonry buildings last forever. My partner, Gayal Oglesbay, and I own one in France that was built in the 15th century."

\ Regular maintenance

Fred Brechlin, MATC professional services manager-facilities, says the current work being done on the Central High arch - including tuck pointing and making certain there are no loose bricks - is part of its regular 10-year maintenance program.

"We're maintaining the arch," says Roger Price, MATC vice president infrastructure services. "There's been no discussion about moving it."

One of the reasons the arch looked especially disheveled this summer was because white streaks were appearing on the stonework, particularly at the top of the arch. Arndt says the white streaks are salt deposits created by moisture leaking from the roof and pulling salts from the Portland cement used in the building. When the moisture evaporates, it deposits the salts on stonework.

Arndt says the maintenance work he's doing will solve this problem by replacing the roofing material - currently a rubber membrane - atop the arch. He originally planned to use leaded copper and masonry, but had some concerns about copper discoloration of the bricks and stone, so he will be using alternative materials.

The rubber membrane was a cheap and quick way for taking care of the problem for a few years, says Arndt. However, Douglas Maki, asset manager for Facility Engineering, says "Nowadays we would never specify using it, but for its time the skin was a pretty decent way to protect the roof."

Arndt, who has created stonework and sculpture for the Minnesota state capitol in St. Paul (another building designed by Cass Gilbert) and the British Museum in London, says he was eager to work on the restoration of the Central High arch because, "We didn't want to see them tear it down because you don't see this kind of exquisite fabrication any more." He notes that the heads and faces on the arch are "excellent, world-class sculpture."

\ History and reputation

But are the quality of the workmanship and the reputation of the architect enough to justify the continued existence of the arch? Five years ago, when it seemed likely the arch would have to come down to make way for a museum, city preservation planner Kitty Rankin told Isthmus reporter Melanie Conklin, "The only thing historic about the arch is that is used to be attached to a historic building."

Since then, Rankin has changed her mind about the arch.

"I don't believe that any more," she says when asked about the comment she made in 2002. It was telephone calls from Central alumni responding to her comment that persuaded her to reassess her original opinion. "For a lot of people who grew up in the Bush, much of their neighborhood is gone," she says. "The arch is a reminder of their youth and a monument cherished by a lot of people."

\ Reminder of another day

Central alumni from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s agree with Rankin that the arch is a reminder of their youth but also believe it is historically significant not because it was designed by a pioneering architect, but because it represents both a bygone era in Madison history and a unique institution.

"The Central High arch is the last remaining, nostalgic sign of where I went to school," says Joan Severa (Class of 1943), retired Curator of Costume & Textiles for the Wisconsin Historical Society. She recalls that, "We took a lot of ribbing from kids at other schools because it was popular to be prejudiced and Central had so many Jews, Italians, and blacks." Like alumni from at least three decades, she still remembers the way students from other schools substituted ethnic and racial slurs for some of the lyrics of Central's school song.

"The arch is a very valuable piece of history to me," says Donald Gothard (class of 1953), a retired electrical engineer who now lives in Michigan. One of the first black electrical engineers to graduate from Notre Dame, Gothard worked on the guidance and navigation systems for the Apollo Lunar Landing Mission. During his senior year at Central, he served as student council president and remembers, "At that time Central was a very diverse school, but we were all working together harmoniously, not like East and West."

Judy Karofsky, a longtime Downtownresident and activist, who is not a Central alumna, says it was "pathetic" to save such a small piece of Central High School, but she's glad the arch survived. "At the beginning, it may have seemed frivolous, but the importance of the arch has increased over time," she observes.

"The presence, size and elevation of the arch influences people as they walk by," says Arndt. "Beautiful architecture inspires a sense of worth that's not there in today's fabricated buildings."

But if there seems to be a broad consensus that the Central High arch is something that should be maintained and preserved, why has it taken so long for routine maintenance to be performed? Terry Gulmire, who recently retired after 15 years as MATC's facility director, says a 1999 exterior repair cost estimate for the arch prepared by Angus-Young Associates was $152,000. Repair of the arch was one of four projects MATC was considering and the high cost could not be justified, says Gulmire, because at that time the arch was deemed to have little historical significance.

The cost of the current maintenance work on the arch is $18,500, says Brechlin.

"One of the things we specialize in is historic structures," says Maki. "They (MATC) have their priorities in place. The arch was up in the air. We provided a second opinion."