'Lotta Terra Cotta

A downtown parking-garage courtyard provides a home for charming statues.

I first spotted these stubby little statues in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article this past summer.

The piece was about “urban oases,” places where Pittsburghers can go and pause or just relax beside some body or “bubbling basin” of water. There were a few pictures of these statues, and their location was identified as the Wood-Allies Garage. I couldn’t tell the size of the figures from the newspaper article, but I thought they were very interesting in shape and execution, and since I’d never seen them, I had to find them.

They’re in a little park—a courtyard of sorts in the parking garage at 228 Blvd. of the Allies directly across from Point Park University. This garage includes the offices of Pittsburgh Parking Authority, and if you go to get a city parking permit, you will see the statues. There are 15 freestanding sculptures (all of them about 3 feet tall), and there’s a flat tower that features bas-relief images of another dozen or so figures that appear to be riding in elevators.

This parklet was included in the Post-Gazette article because these statues were originally standing in pools of water or fountains, and there was a man-made waterfall cascading down the sides of the tower. Last winter’s cold weather caused some problems, and the fountains haven’t been working much lately, but that doesn’t diminish the charm of the statues.
These figures were created in 1985 by sculptor Jerry Caplan (1923-2004), who was born in the Hill District. Caplan lived in Shadyside for many years and taught at Chatham University and at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. He called this collection of figures “Pittsburgh People” and cleverly constructed the statues by manipulating tubes of soft clay that are often used for sewer pipes.

According to Carol Siegel, an art dealer who helped put this art installation together, some of the figures were based on photographs, some are depictions of well-known Pittsburghers (like former Mayor Richard Caliguiri and Teresa Heinz) and there’s even a self-portrait of Caplan, who’s wearing a big pair of eyeglasses, in the elevator car that has four people.
A figure at the top end of the installation was added years after the others. Made in the same style and materials and sculpted by one of Caplan’s associates, it’s a reproduction of Wasindar Mokha, who was director of engineering for the Parking Authority. When he died in August 2000, his colleagues asked if they could remember him by adding his likeness to the statues in the courtyard. I think it might be the only statue of a Pittsburgh engineer in this city of great engineers.
I am not sure what exactly makes me like these statues so much, but I do. It’s probably some combination of familiarity, accessibility and the solid, thick-legged nature of most of them. None of them appear to be very happy, and except for the mother and child beside the elevator tower, they don’t seem to be interacting at all.

They’re individuals, pausing, maybe trying to get from one place to another, but they’re planted here. And why be in a hurry? They’re Pittsburghers. And I think they’re a wonderful work of art.

Rick Sebak is producing a new weekly program, “It’s Pittsburgh and A Lot of Other Stuff,” premiering on WQED on Wed., Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m. These statues of “Pittsburgh People” will be one of the first stories.

Categories: Rick Sebak