In Route 28 redo, a 'grand entrance' of art

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What can you get for $100 million? If you're PennDOT, the answer is, and always has been, concrete. Lots of concrete.

But now you'll also get ... art.

When Route 28's overhaul wraps up next year, the retaining wall along the base of Troy Hill will boast something Pittsburgh hasn't ever seen.

It will also celebrate some old things Pittsburgh hasn't seen for years, even decades: Avery College, canal boats, the Carlin Foundry, a Troy Hill trolley car and East Ohio Street's old Joseph Mahronic Bookstore.

Although news of this project has been slowly spreading, its "big reveal" couldn't come at a lovelier moment.

That's because the wall will also feature a depiction of the former St. Nicholas Church -- a gesture revealed Saturday night, when PennDOT district executive Dan Cessna shared it at the Croatian community's annual St. Nicholas dinner.

That's quite a large gift for a Croatian Christmas stocking: "It gives me chills just talking about it," said Susan Petrick, who fought for the church's preservation.

But it's also a big gift for all of Pittsburgh. With some 60,000 vehicles traveling its "tight urban footprint" each day, Mr. Cessna said, "it's going to create such a grand entrance to the city."

The wall will stretch for almost 1,000 feet, comprising 32 panels that are 30 feet wide by 14 feet high. Six historical images will be sandblasted into nine strategically placed panels, with three at the far eastern end depicting the old St. Nicholas Church.

The wall will bend midway through those three panels (where the rectory still stands), facing inbound travelers and evoking a three-dimensional feel.

Farther east, on the church site, will be a seating area -- octagonal, like the bases of the church's iconic onion domes, and dotted with huge stones from the old Pennsylvania Canal (recovered during I-279 construction) to serve as benches.

Well before the church's demolition, PennDOT had launched discussions with the Heinz Endowments and Pittsburgh Arts Council about including public art in its projects.

At Route 28, Mr. Cessna said, "we wanted a project that would be aesthetically pleasing for many years to come and that also somehow tied to history."

Earlier plans accommodated a repurposed St. Nicholas Church as well as a walkway that would bring bike and foot traffic from the Riverfront Trail over to the North Side via the William Raymond Prom Memorial Bridge, formerly the 31st Street Bridge.

But "once we understood that this [retaining] wall was required [post-demolition], we thought it created a great opportunity to use it for art."

But time was short. PennDOT turned to Renee Piechocki of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council for a shortlist of artists.

Laurie Lundquist, a Maine native now based in Arizona with a Penn State degree in landscaping, got the call in April.

PennDOT "very much wanted an exclamation point at the end of this roadway," Ms. Lundquist said.

She plumbed the region's ample archives, including the "cultural resources department" at Michael Baker Corp., the project contractor.

Church preservationist Jack Schmidt alerted her to the canal that once ran where railroad tracks now lie. And Mr. Cessna appreciates the inclusion of Avery College, the black school and Underground Railroad stop lost to construction of I-279.

A computer-driven machine transforms the photos into huge stencils that are then applied to the concrete panels and sandblasted. Rough areas will get a darker stain for greater contrast with smooth surfaces.

Cut-stone blocks giving way to sandblasted images "creates a metaphor," Ms. Lundquist hopes, "that if you chipped away at the block you'd uncover all that history ... that lingers in people's memory."

The $143,000 cost for "aesthetic elements" -- the cut-stone look, sandblasted images, explanatory bronze plaques and the artist's fee -- is 7 percent of the wall's $2.05 million price tag.

"You couldn't add 7 percent to every project," Mr. Cessna acknowledged, but a total Route 28 project cost well under 2007's estimate made it feasible.

As you follow the public walkway, on foot or bike, from the riverfront all the way to the Penn Brewery, he said, "this wall can tell a story about the past."

Yes, and it will also tell future generations something admirable about who we are right now.

Ruth Ann Dailey:

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