Surrounded by rivers and mountains, there are only so many ways to access Pittsburgh. From the northeast, unless you travel on foot, the most likely path of entry is Route 28, a road that’s been under construction and development for nearly 10 years. Unlike most reengineering projects, however, Route 28 will offer more than just swift passage once all the cones and work vehicles have gone home.
When PennDOT district executive Dan Cessna found the project was coming in under budget, he contacted Renee Piechocki of the Office of Public Art to commission a work for the almost 1,000 foot retaining wall that runs along the base of Troy Hill.
“This project is going where there’s been a lot of history,” says Cessna. “For the department and myself personally, it just made a lot of sense to look for a way to return something to the public that would hopefully be beautiful and reveal a little bit of history.”
Piechocki and her team compiled a list of five artists, from which PennDOT chose Laurie Lundquist, an Arizona-based artist experienced in working at large scale. Piechocki says the project required someone with a unique set of skills that Lundquist possessed.
“There’s a very difficult issue of scale; the work couldn’t be made of something that would require a lot of maintenance. And it wasn’t just about finding artists—we needed someone who could jump right in and had experience working as part of an engineering team.”
Lundquist worked with the project’s contractor, Michael Baker Corp. to create a concept for the wall. Using huge stencils, six historical images of Pittsburgh will be sandblasted into nine 30-foot wide stretches of concrete. Three walls will depict the former St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church.
Route 28 follows what used to be Allegheny City’s East Ohio Street corridor, home to one of the earliest Croatian communities in the United States and in 1901 built St. Nicholas. After the Pittsburgh diocese razed the building in 2013, Cessna says incorporating the church’s image was a way of honoring the past.
“An entire community was removed from that area. This is a way of capturing that history for the future.”
Other images include the Joseph Mahronic Bookstore, the Carlin Foundry, Avery College, and a Troy Hill trolley car.
As visitors or residents drive along Route 28, Cessna says the art will make an arresting gateway to the city. And due to its size, Cessna says you won’t have to look too long to be able to take it in. “Fortunately the roadway is very straight in that area. If you glance off to the side of the road for a second you’ll be fine.”
The total cost of the five-phase project is $120 million; the art $143,000. Pedestrian access from the 31st Street Bridge will allow for up-close peering.