Pittsburgh trying to save tunnel mosaic under Bigelow Boulevard | TribLIVE.com
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Bob Bauder
Segments of Virgil Cantini's mosaic is seen along the walls of a pedestrian tunnel Downtown on Sept. 13, 2018.

Pittsburgh preservationists and government officials hope to save an abstract mosaic that graces an obscure Downtown pedestrian tunnel slated for demolition during the building of a cap and public park over the Crosstown Expressway.

The mosaic, created in 1964 by late Pittsburgh artist Virgil Cantini, is owned by the city and lines both interior walls of the 60-foot-long pedestrian tunnel that runs under Bigelow Boulevard and links Chatham Street with Seventh Avenue.

Pittsburgh City Council is expected to approve a contract Tuesday with McKay Lodge Fine Arts Conservation Laboratory Inc. of Oberlin, Ohio, to conduct tests of the 28-piece mosaic and see if it can be removed safely.

“We want to preserve the whole thing,” Pittsburgh Planning Director Ray Gastil said of the Cantini mosaic. “We want to try to get all of these panels out. We think we can do it.”

It didn’t start out that way.

In 2016, city officials informed Cantini’s daughter, Lisa Cantini-Seguin, 68 of Shadyside, that it could save only three pieces of the mosaic and intended to bury the rest during construction of the $26.4 million cap and three-acre park designed to link Downtown and the Lower Hill District.

“We were kind of in shock,” said Cantini-Seguin, adding that her dad’s artwork had been removed in the past from several private locations in Pittsburgh. “It was like, ‘Oh my god. Do we have to go through this again.’ We really didn’t know what to do.”

A chance conversation in 2017 between Cantini-Seguin and Highland Park art consultant Brittany Reilly changed that.

Reilly enlisted the help of local preservationists and architects and set off on a year-long crusade to save the mosaic. She conducted research of Cantini and his work at the Heinz History Center, created a website and attended numerous meetings with city officials.

“They’re not just random panels. One connects to the next,” Reilly, 35, said. “I consider this as one holistic artwork, and anything less than that would be a partial destruction of this work. Putting three of these up is a good as throwing the whole thing in the Dumpster, in my humble opinion.”

Because the cap is being built through a $19 million federal highway grant, Pittsburgh was required to conduct a historic review of the area. In January, state officials classified the Cantini mosaic as a “historic resource.” As such, the city must attempt to remove it intact.

“If it weren’t for Brittany and the preservation architects they would have destroyed my dad’s artwork,” Cantini-Seguin said. “They were persistent.”

Cantini, who died in 2009, was a prolific artist and his works are displayed in numerous locations across the city, including the University of Pittsburgh. One of his best known sculptures is a fountain christened “Joy of Life” outside the First Presbyterian Church in East Liberty.

An Italian immigrant, Cantini founded Pitt’s Department of Studio Arts and taught at the university for more than 40 years.

The mosaic came through a contract with the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority, which was attempting to improve the Lower Hill District during the late 1950s and early 1960s. It included the building of the Civic Arena and demolition of the Lower Hill, a dense residential and commercial area.

Cantini-Seguin remembers her dad driving around the city, day and night, in a green Rambler station wagon searching for inspiration. He constructed the mosaic consisting of colored glass and glazed tile set in sculptured concrete in the back yard of his studio on South Craig Street in Oakland.

The abstract work represents a bird’s eye view of the city at night and in the day. It sits at eye level along walls of white marble. The tunnel’s ceiling is white mosaic tile. Light glinting off glass in the mosaic gives the impression of city lights. The city recently had the tunnel cleaned.

“Now’s the time to see it,” Reilly said.

Cantini-Seguin said her dad included recognizable city structures, including the Civic Arena.

“I was 12 or 13, and I remember going to the opening when they cut a ribbon,” she said. “It was very exciting. It was supposed to be part of the urban renewal of Pittsburgh in the 1960s to try to connect the Hill to Downtown, which obviously didn’t work out the way they hoped.”

Reilly said the piece is unique to Pittsburgh and an important part of Cantini’s contribution to art history.

“A modern mid-20th century mosaic is a very important part of art history,” she said. “Point me to another one that Pittsburgh has in its collection. There isn’t one.”

Gastil said McKay Lodge would conduct its test before the end of the month, and Reilly plans to be there along with other supporters to witness it. McKay Lodge is the same company that successfully removed a large tile mural by Romare Bearden entitled “Pittsburgh Recollections” that was embedded in concrete at the original Gateway light rail station in Downtown. The company reinstalled the 780 tiles in 2012 after the station was rebuilt.

If the mosaic is successfully removed, it would go into storage until the city finds an acceptable location. Reilly said the community should be permitted to participate in the decision for a new location.

She said it should be Downtown and publicly displayed as Cantini originally intended. The enclosed Portal Bridge in Point State Park is one suggestion.

Cantini-Seguin agreed, saying her dad felt art should be available for viewing by the “common man,” and not displayed just in galleries.

“Everyone is watching Pittsburgh right now,” Reilly said. “If the city can cooperate with us to move this and refresh it, it would be a celebration, and it sets an example. Art’s cool. Everyone loves art. Why would the city want to say, ‘Oh, we just trashed it.’ It’s not the decision I would make.”

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bob at 412-765-2312, [email protected] or via Twitter @bobbauder.

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