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Public Art Conservation:

Cleveland area art conservation center McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory was asked to remove a large, 780 tile mosaic mural from an underground light rail station in Pittsburgh. And to do so very quickly as its station was about to be demolished. This mural received considerable press attention nationwide in light of the planned demolition and after the mural was appraised at $15 million dollars.

Romare Bearden’s mural Pittsburgh Recollections was commissioned in 1981 and installed in 1984 in Pittsburgh’s Gateway Center light-rail transit (LRT) station. The artist had lived in Pittsburgh.

Planned expansion of the LRT by the Allegheny County Port Authority called for demolition of the old station and much of its underground rail line, and extension by a new underground route under the river to the North Shore – making “the North Shore Connector.”

When the station’s mural was appraised at the 15 million dollars, pressure to save the mural hit high gear.

The Allegheny County Port Authority was not prepared for a one million dollar cost increase in their already controversial project budget; and a mural, no matter what, would not be allowed to derail such a massive project that eventually cost $517 million dollars (mural saving included, presumably). But they nevertheless came to the cause and made allowances to save the mural for eventual relocation to the new LRT station, so long as that work did not affect the fast-paced demolition schedule.

A presentation of the work of this project would be extremely burdensome to put in print and still images. Hence a video was produced.

This exciting, fast paced video (apologies for the music) presents the 2009 collaborative work of expert concrete cutters and professional art conservators working quickly to safely cut free the 780 12 inch by 12 inch thin Bennington Pottery tiles of the 13 foot high by 60 foot wide mural from the underground station’s concrete load-bearing wall. The monumental and risky work had to be performed in a narrow window of opportunity and amidst rapidly approaching demolition. The work required nearly around-the-clock work, using two 10-hour shifts of conservators and cutters, seven days a week, and for two cold months of November and December.

Architectural specifications for the removal and remounting of the mural were put in place, but these did not seem to McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory to be feasible, and certainly not ideal, as it broke the mural into sections of concrete with tiles still attached. The specifications were put to bid.

After McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory completed a pre-bid study of the mural and the concrete wall after 2:00 am when the trains stopped running, it was clear that concrete cutting could play a potential role in the removal of the tiles from the concrete, instead of removing tiles with sections of concrete, even though they were strongly bonded to the load bearing structural concrete wall.

McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory, a corporate affiliate of the Concrete Sawing and Drilling Association (CSDA), took its ideas to an engineer at the nearby (Elyria, Ohio) facility of Diamond Products company, a maker of diamond concrete cutting tools. There the plan that was eventually executed was hatched, and Diamond Products presented the already existing necessary cutting tools to do the job.

Back to the demolition general contractor, the ideas were presented. The general contractor brought into the discussion the concrete cutting company already in place in the LRT demolition and construction project – Pittsburgh’s Matcon Diamond. Together, McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory and Matcon Diamond company worked out the final approach. Both companies were then contracted by the general contractor independently and asked to cooperate with one another.

The owner, Allegheny County Port Authority, passed to the general contractor, then on to McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory and to Matcon Diamond the responsibility that not a scratch should occur to any tile, and considered that each of the 780 tiles of a 15 million dollar mural “must surely have a value of $19,230.77.”

In the end, despite all the specialized and dangerous work of demolition of an underground railway, the general contractor’s project manager remarked that the only thing that worried him about his huge demolition project was that mural and its safe removal.

No damages occurred.

The video presents and explains the use of a $60,000 CNC concrete saw we had custom designed by Ron Sowers specifically for the automated removal of the final 2 inches of concrete from the reverse of each of the 780 tiles, at a rate of 5-7 per day. Ron Sowers, owner of Diam-Met company and others, is an expert at CNC cutting and grinding machines. Finally, after mounting of the tiles to modular, removable panel supports by the Intermuseum Conservation Laboratory of the Intermuseum Conservation Association in Cleveland, Ohio, the mural is presented in a restored condition and on display in the new Gateway Station which opened in 2012.

A link to a New York Times article on the Mural is located here.

Another Video Production of McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory, Inc.:
A Corporate Affiliate of the Concrete Sawing and Drilling Association</h3

Saving Romare Bearden's Pittsburgh Recollections


    • Owner: Port Authority of Allegheny County
    • General Contractor: North Shore Constructors II
      A joint venture of: Trumbull Corporation and Obayashi Corporation
    • Conservator: McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory, Inc.
    • Project Design: Robert Lodge, McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory, Inc.
    • Concrete Cutting Contractor: Matcon Diamond
    • CNC Concrete Saw Design and Manufacture: Mr. Ron Sowers
    • Mounting and Installation Contractor: Whiiting-Turner Construction Company
      Subcontractor: Intermuseum Conservation Laboratory
    • Camera and Video Production: Robert Lodge
    • Assistant Camera: Emmett Lodge
  • Post Production: Room with a View Productions, AcoustiK Music, Ltd. Oberlin
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