A Search for Our Symbol

Defining Pittsburgh in visual terms has been a challenge. A look at some ideas: past, present and future.

Some will contend that Pittsburgh’s most dramatic symbol was once the dark-at-noon pollution from steel mills. When the air was cleaned up and a renaissance was begun, people had more chances to take note of or to imagine other, more positive things that could be a symbolic statement of Pittsburgh’s identity.

One notable example that resulted from Renaissance I (1946-73) was Point State Park, which was expanded from a postage-stamp-sized green space at the meeting of the three rivers to the city’s front lawn around the time that the city was celebrating its 200th birthday. The effort culminated in the 1970s with the completed park’s pièce de résistance, the Point Fountain.

Several other proposals around the mid-20th century were of such a scale that, had they succeeded, they would have significantly marked the city. In 1951, sculptor Frank Vittor proposed a 100-foot sculpture for the park at the Point. His 3-foot plaster model shows an immigrant steelworker named Joe Magarac, a Paul Bunyanesque superman from Pittsburgh with a back as broad as a mill gate. Stories varied on his height from 7 feet to as tall as those leftover smokestacks at the Homestead Waterfront.

According to the myth, Magarac, who was made of steel, drank hot steel like soup and chomped on cold ingots. He invented 24/7, working all day, every day. He could bend steel rails in his hands. He appeared suddenly to save steelworkers in danger. Don’t ask his nationality. He’s been identified as Slovak, Hungarian, Serbian and Croatian. His last name means "donkey" in Croatian. While Vittor’s work wasn’t called a symbol of the city at the time, its proposed size and placement would have made it one. The city’s planning commission vetoed the idea.

Another alternative vision for the Point came from department-store owner Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr. In search of a home for the Civic Light Opera in the late-1940s, Kaufmann commissioned architect Frank Lloyd Wright to create one. Wright produced drawings for a nine-story, circular structure to sit in the middle of the present-day Point State Park site and contain an opera house, movie theaters, convention center, museum, zoo and civic center – all auto-accessible. That, too, was voted down.

As a compromise, the city now has the Civic Arena, dedicated in September 1961, featuring the "largest movable dome in the world" and an uptown location. "Kaufmann not only had an outdoor place for the Civic Light Opera, but also it could sell the world on the idea that the city was clean enough and the view was beautiful enough that having an open arena would communicate that," says Rob Pfaffmann, principal at Pfaffmann + Associates. (On page 56, you’ll see his proposal for taking the Arena, the city’s 200th-birthday building, and retooling it into the 250th-birthday marker.) In a 1979 Pittsburgh Press article, Rich Gigler described the Arena as "the crowning jewel of a redevelopment Renaissance" until music groups started to use it.

Meanwhile, back at the Point, the Pittburgh Post-Gazette praised the proposed fountain at the time of the 1958 city bicentennial as a "great Pittsburgh symbol" with an "echo of 17th century Versailles."

Fed by Pittsburgh’s legendary "fourth river," what geologists call an aquifer, today’s fountain rises 200 feet into the air. It’s basin also stretches 200 feet. It was "the largest fountain in America," with 90 percent of it unseen, reported Carnegie Magazine in 1975.

But not all aspects of that fountain are successful, some will argue. "It’s frustrating that you cannot touch the fountain," says Bill Kolano, president/owner of Kolano Design. He goes on to explain that while the water sprays through the air, catches light and makes rainbows, the big berm around the fountain prevents real interaction with people. The new concept, he says, seen in fountains at the SouthSide Works and the water steps at North Shore Riverfront Park, "lets people interact with the water."

But Riverlife, an organization guiding development of the trails along the city’s river banks and continuing revitalization of Point State Park, plans to add interactivity to the fountain, says Edward Patton, director of capital projects. It won’t encourage people getting into the fountain but will allow water to spill over.

Another way to improve on the fountain came during a burst of creative activity in 1989 and a program called "Point to ‘Port," sponsored by the local chapter of Artist’s Equity Association. It envisioned sculptures lining the route from downtown to Pittsburgh International Airport. (Kolano, whose proposal for this month’s feature appears on page 54, was among the participants.)

For this project, sculptor Virgil Cantini offered "The Golden Point," a piece that would be incorporated into the Point State Park Fountain and extend to the height of the main water jet. Cantini made a gold model to be produced in Cor-ten steel or bronze and an even more elegant aluminum version. Composed of triangular sail-like pieces with pipes running up through the center, the sculpture would retain the existing fountain and also carry water through the pipes and allow it to tumble out at different heights. The piece offers the advantage of a dramatic structure throughout four seasons, unlike the fountain, which diminishes considerably on windy days and disappears in winter and during frequent breakdowns.

Back in 1972, artist Van-De R. Campbell came to town from California with the idea for a national artists’ corporation to be supported by a Statue of Life – a sculpture to rival the Statue of Liberty. The Statue of Life, according to the organization’s magazine, Stuff, "visually and psychologically aided in the preservation of all living things." To underscore the purpose, the Statue of Life would house an International Egg Museum. Campbell had selected the egg as "the universal symbol of life."

Reached in Florida, where he now resides, Campbell recalls that the statue was born in Berkeley in the heat of Vietnam, Cambodia and Kent State protests. Well in advance of today’s environmentalists, Campbell foresaw the statue as a tribute to all living things – except people. It encapsulated all of the things that humanity was given to care for, says the artist. The Statue of Life was to be a reminder.

By a manipulation of numbers, based on nine, Campbell figured the Statue of Life would stand 1,521 feet high. To put that in perspective, that’s about 1,300 feet taller than the fountain at the Point. The 351-foot base of the statue formed a figure 8, an infinity symbol. Elevators in the base would carry visitors to a four-floor Egg Museum. A 1,053-foot river of glass (a nonbreakable plastic shaft) would travel from the museum to the top, where a 27-foot egg would rest.

While the Pittsburgh Point clearly matched Campbell’s ideal location for the Statue of Life – "a valley with high mountains surrounding" to provide "the worm’s and bird’s eye view" – it never was intended for the city, he says. At one point, he recalls, the city did discuss a 100-foot version of the Statue of Life, but Campbell was too involved in setting up the artists’ corporation to follow through. He now regrets not putting his energy into having the statue built. Had it been built in Pittsburgh, its size alone – even at 100 feet – would make it a substantial symbol.

City-symbol selection is clearly not an easy game. Especially when the goalposts move every 50 years – sometimes prompted by unexpected events and inventions. For its 150th birthday in 1908, for example, Pittsburgh built Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland to honor Allegheny County Civil War veterans and also electrified the downtown area.

In the 1980s, sculptor Mark di Suvero, backed by a group of private citizens, proposed a controversial 90-foot steel abstract sculpture/symbol for Gateway Center.

Around that same time, one enormous sculpture that did come to fruition was Richard Serra’s four-steel-plate "Carnegie," a signature piece in front of the Museum of Art. Of course, there are some other notable local sculptures as well. Those with "Pittsburgh" as a title include the Alexander Calder mobile at the Pittsburgh International Airport and John Henry’s massing of slender fingers of yellow-painted steel, sometimes called "French Fries," reclining in Frank Curto Park along Bigelow Boulevard heading into downtown.

Speaking of downtown and its skyline, there are some architectural landmarks that often qualify as symbols of the city. There’s downtown’s highest skyscraper, the U.S. Steel Tower, or the landmark it bested as No. 1, the Gulf Building, not to mention H. H. Richardson’s Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail and PPG Place. Some would cite Oakland icons such as the Cathedral of Learning or Mellon Institute. For sports aficionados, there’s always Heinz Field or PNC Park.

And in another leisure-related note, as well as a nod to Pittsburgh-based inventions, some have dreamed of constructing a version here of the world-renowned marvel that was the brainchild of George Washington Gale Ferris – the Ferris Wheel. Imagine it turning against a blue Pittsburgh sky. Well, OK, a gray Pittsburgh sky.

Ann Curran, a contributing editor of Pittsburgh magazine, favors construction of a Ferris Wheel on the North Shore to commemorate Pittsburgh’s most whimsical invention (if you don’t count Silly Putty).


Categories: Arts & Entertainment