Using bricks salvaged from a demolished anatomy building, art and anatomy lecturer Lauren Toomer created “Renewal,” now gracing the medical school campus.
October 13, 2021 - By Mandy Erickson
Donald Prolo, MD, an emeritus adjunct professor of neurosurgery, hated to see the old anatomy building on Stanford’s campus torn down. He understood why it had to go — the brick structure had suffered damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake — but he’d had a soft spot for the place ever since he took anatomy courses there as a medical student in the late 1950s.
Condemned after the quake, the building was demolished in 2012. But Prolo managed to salvage some of its bricks, and Lauren Toomer, an art and anatomy lecturer, fashioned them into a sculpture. “Renewal,” which stands near the clinical anatomy labs in the Center for Clinical Science Research on campus, was dedicated in a ceremony Oct. 8.
“We’re really immortalizing the people who donated their bodies to Stanford medical students,” Toomer said at the event.
The artwork consists of 77 bricks atop rods of varying heights, forming a wave pattern. Its undulating form reflects the readout of a heartbeat on a monitor.
“The bricks were reborn, just as donors provide students with a new generation of knowledge,” Toomer said. “The title ‘Renewal’ honors that.”
When the Loma Prieta quake hit, students who were taking classes in the building dove under their desks, avoiding injury from the falling ceiling. The temblor rendered the building, erected in the early 1900s, unsafe and unsalvageable, and the university decided to tear it down.
Prolo sought to recover part of it. “I befriended a foreman on the job and asked him to save bricks for me,” he said. “It was a fixture of our education. There was a great fondness for that building from all of us who graduated from Stanford.”
A sculpture is born
Around 2017, Toomer began thinking of ways to use Prolo’s bricks. Once she designed the sculpture and received approval from the school's art committee, she started working on it in 2019. It proved more difficult than she initially thought. The first problem was that the bricks still had quite a bit of mortar stuck to them.
“I said goodbye to summer and hello to concrete,” she said. “I started visiting a lot of hardware stores, looking for ways to get rid of it without hurting the bricks. I ended up just carefully chipping away at it.”
Toomer then built a model of the sculpture out of sewing pins and Styrofoam and wrote out instructions for a construction crew. In September 2019, she supervised as they attached the bricks to the rods, which they set in concrete. But by the next day, the rods, which were supposed to be green, had turned red: They were made of brass, rather than copper, and the patina added to the surface had generated the wrong color.
She had the rods removed and enlisted the help of medical student Claire Rhee, who has a chemistry background. The two of them found a way to treat copper-coated steel rods so they would take on a green hue to complement the bricks’ red. The sculpture was re-installed in March 2020.
It stands in front of a bamboo grove near the Center for Clinical Science Research building, just off Governor’s Lane. A wooden bench across a walkway from the sculpture allows visitors to pause and reflect; a plaque provides a brief history, along with a QR code that can be used to call up a website about the sculpture.
When Prolo collected the bricks, he said, he didn’t have specific plans for them — only a vague idea that he wanted to honor donors along with the original anatomy building.
“I thought it would be good to have some memorial of the building that was so key to the education of all the doctors who studied at Stanford,” he said.
About Stanford Medicine
Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit med.stanford.edu.