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Two beloved statues object of give-and-take

Bert and Mike are two of the most well-known figures in East Aurora, silently greeting students entering school for generations.

The idea that they would be forced from their home of 60 years is appalling to many and causing a rift in the community.

The fact that they are statues just makes it a little more interesting.

The bronze statues of Elbert Hubbard, the Arts and Crafts colony founder, and Renaissance artist Michelangelo are at the center of a dispute between the East Aurora School District -- their home since the 1950s -- and the Roycroft campus -- their first home.

The statues were given to the school district as a gift, and they have sat on the front of what is now East Aurora Middle School since.

But now the people behind the restoration of the Roycroft want the statues back.

"Clearly, they're a fixture. It would be a big deal. There's no sense at all that anybody thinks, 'Oh, this is a good idea,' " said Stephen Zagrobelny, longtime School Board member and an East Aurora graduate.

"We have a 100-year-old school building we've spent millions of dollars on -- to maintain what is a historic building. The statues only enhance its historic look and feel. To take those away, would be like taking the stone columns off a porch."

Originally located in front of the print shop on the Roycroft campus, the statues were almost lost when the campus fell into bankruptcy during the Great Depression. Records indicate they cost about $20,000 each when they were made.

Former Mayor Irving L. Price, also a founder of Fisher-Price, helped rescue them as part of Erie County Trust Co. bank, of which he was a board member. Price was determined to make sure they remained in East Aurora. So he purchased them for $80 apiece and later gifted them to the school district in 1942 as a community project, though they didn't actually get moved to the school lawn until 1952 at a cost of $1,150.

Hubbard had ordered the Michelangelo statue in 1908 from sculptor Paul Gordon Bartlettto to be erected on the old campus. Hubbard's statue has him sitting on a granite boulder and was made by sculptor Jerome Connor of Ireland, a former associate and friend to Hubbard.

Now that a restoration of the national landmark campus is moving forward, the nonprofit Roycroft Campus Corp. wants the statues returned to their original home.

"Now with us doing the restoration of the campus, we were hoping to have the statues back," said Christine A. Peters, the corporation's executive director. "Because of the work we are doing, we at least need to ask. They've been at the school awhile. We understand that. But we'd like them to consider [giving] them back."

It isn't the first time the Roycroft has quietly pressed the district to return the statues. The initial inquiry began a little more than a year ago, but nothing came of it.

School officials don't seem inclined to give Hubbard or Michelangelo back but say they'll listen to what the Roycroft has to say.

"I think we all sort of find it amusing," Zagrobelny said. "I don't think we'll seriously consider returning the statues. Obviously, we want to hear what Christine Peters has to say, but on the surface, there's nothing telling us we need to give them back."

Peters sent an April 29 letter to the district reiterating the group's interest. The letter notes that no articles exist indicating any agreement or contract regarding the statues.

School Board President Daniel Brunson, a docent at the campus, said the district is researching the matter. But he, too, is attached to the statues and what they've come to represent.

"There's a lot of emotional attachment to those statues. I said to Ms. Peters, 'It's not going to be an easy sell. There's a feeling that they're part of the school. They were gifted, and they've been happily residing [at the school] ever since.' "

Over the years, the statues and the community have enjoyed a cozy relationship. When the high school was located on Main Street, exuberant senior classes have been known to decorate Hubbard's statue and put hats on him or sit on his lap. Hubbard has even been dressed up as Santa Claus.

"There's a lot of fun history with that statue," Brunson said.

e-mail: krobinson@buffnews.com

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