At One Oliver Plaza, two Modern, monumental, once-cherished artworks need new homes


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Ten years ago, when a new owner invested more than $10 million in a renovation of One Oliver Plaza, two large murals in the lobby were retained as original and integral parts of the 37-story, International-style tower designed by William Lescaze and completed in 1968.

But they may not be so lucky next time around. It appears the murals will not survive another renovation, this one to accommodate the law firm K&L Gates, which plans to lease 200,000 square feet of the 629,474-square-foot building next year.

The murals "are not consistent with the design of the firm's planned renovations to the building and surrounding plazas," K&L Gates spokesman Mike Rick said in an e-mail.

He said the firm in recent weeks reached out to several organizations and individuals to offer them the opportunity to remove the murals.

"Thus far, only one family member has expressed any interest in the possibility of retrieving either of the murals," Rick said.

The law firm wants the building's owner, One Oliver Associates, to dispense with a ceramic mural by French-born painter Pierre Soulages and an enameled steel mural by Italian-born artist Virgil Cantini of Oakland; both were born in 1919.

Although no one is willing to say so on the record, one of the issues seems to be that the future tenants just don't like the murals, which are attached to walls on either side of the elevator tower at the central core of the building. Thanks to the glass window-walls at the building's base -- a hallmark of the International style -- both murals are visible from outside; the Soulages can be seen from Sixth Avenue and the Cantini from Oliver Plaza.

Both murals capture the spirit of their time, not only in content but also in their monumental scale: Each measures 20 feet long by 14 feet high and dominates its side of the lobby.

The tower's original developer, the Oliver Tyrone Corp., wanted a strong artwork as a focal point at its entrance, a piece that would "express well the purpose of this building in beautiful, harmonious terms," as Michael Rea, one of its vice presidents and an avid art collector, said at the time.

"I can't think of another lobby Downtown that's as sophisticated as that," said Concept Art Gallery owner Sam Berkovitz. "The continuity of that lobby with that art is spectacular."

The French-born Soulages, now in his 90th year, was one of several artists suggested by the architect. Lescaze and Soulages began their collaboration on the mural when the building was still in the conceptual stage. It marked the first time Soulages had worked in terra cotta tile, but the bold black and blue swaths on a white ground are consistent with his abstract expressionist paintings, often dominated by the color black.

Soulages' work had special currency in Pittsburgh, where his work appeared in six Carnegie Internationals from 1955 to 1970. Carnegie Museum of Art purchased one of his paintings, titled "24 November '63," from the 1964 International. About 7 feet wide and 8 feet high, the painting, made two days after President Kennedy's assassination, is composed almost entirely of broad bands of black against a white and ochre ground.

Although that painting is not currently on view, his work is still highly regarded. One Soulages painting sold at Sotheby's in Paris in December for $1.5 million euros, a record for the artist at auction. It's difficult to place a cash value on the Soulages mural, Berkovitz said, because it's likely unique among the artist's work and the cost of moving it may exceed its value.

"In its location is the place where it has its maximum value because it was done for that building."

About 10 years ago, Berkovitz gave the building owner an insurance value of $150,000, because that was approximately the beginning replacement cost for a mural by an artist of similar stature. Today, the mural's power is diminished because the view of it is blocked by the lobby desk. The expansive Cantini mural, which the artist called "Aerial Scape," is mostly unobstructed.

"It expresses our interest beyond the terra firma," the artist told The Pittsburgh Press as he worked on the mural in 1971, two years after Neil Armstrong's moon walk. "Man's knowledge has gone beyond the earth, and so art takes on an entirely different view because we aren't bound by our ideas. This mural expresses our ability to go on and beyond."

"Virgil was very, very affected by space," said his son-in-law and spokesman, Jim Seguin. "It had a huge effect on his world view."

Seguin and his wife, Lisa Cantini-Seguin, are contacting local schools and other organizations Cantini, now 90 and an emeritus art professor at the University of Pittsburgh, was associated with. "There's interest," Seguin said. "But finding a place is only one half of the game. The other half is completing all the details of how this is going to happen."

Rick would not identify whom K&L Gates had contacted about taking the murals, which would be donated. But he said the firm "is happy to cooperate with anyone interested in removing" them.

One of the people the firm turned to was Renee Piechocki, director of Pittsburgh's Office of Public Art, who said she'd like to see the murals stay in place.

"If they have to be removed, we'd like to see the building manager follow best practices and make sure that they are removed in a way that they don't get destroyed, and get relocated in a place where the public can still view them."

Unfortunately, she said, no one associated with the building is offering to help pay for the relocation. "It's more like, 'come and get it.'"

Neither the city Art Commission nor the Office of Public Art, which provides technical assistance for public art projects and increases awareness of them, has jurisdiction over the murals, which were privately funded and are in a privately owned building.

"I would call them not public art but art in public places," Piechocki said. "Here in Pittsburgh the majority of public art Downtown was funded privately."

The murals are featured in the Office of Public Art's "Pittsburgh Art in Public Places" Downtown walking tour book, published in 2006.

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust is investigating costs associated with removing, conserving and storing the Soulages mural until another location can be found. But with the current economic downturn, staffers there are not optimistic.

"We project that the funding to remove the piece is cost-prohibitive at this time," said spokeswoman Veronica Corpuz. Earlier this year, the trust laid off 10 employees, including a senior vice president in charge of operations.

Seguin said the Cantini family's hope "is that those involved in the renovation will step up and chip in and help with the removal and installation in a new home."

Apart from their intrinsic aesthetic and monetary value, the murals also are important for their association with the city's great steel-making era. Michael Rea, the man who commissioned them, was the great-grandson of Pittsburgh steel magnate Henry W. Oliver. The family ran its real estate business, Oliver Tyrone Corp., for seven decades.

If the murals, so evocative of their time, are removed or destroyed and the building's lobby severely reconfigured, the loss would be another sad blow to the legacy of the Modern movement in Pittsburgh, which is slowly and inexorably being whittled away.


Architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.


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