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When you look for art, it’s everywhere

by Marilyn McDevitt Rubin
Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Sunday, September 08, 2002

A walk in the middle of a working day does a person good. This person. It relieves tensions, blows away cobwebs and gives me something new to think about. Walking through Downtown every day, I’m looking for adventure, for ideas and for lunch, and it’s a rare day when I don’t find two out of the three.

Just breezing through Lazarus one sale day recently, I chanced to look up and see two porcelain female heads that I’d passed without noticing, many times. I stayed to marvel at their exceptional beauty.

“White glazed terra cotta art nouveau icons procured from the original 514 Wood Street building, circa 1905,” the plaque read. “One of the best examples of art nouveau ornamentation in Pittsburgh.”

So they’ve always been Downtown and, until moved into the two Wood Street entrances of Lazarus, always out of sight. Originally they were hung three flights up, on the outside of a building whose last tenant appears, from an old photo, to have been Foot Locker. When the building was razed, someone made the decision to save the four women. Praise be.

Walter Kidney, architectural historian with the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, kindly shared what he knew, and he was the only one who knew anything. He suggested calls to the architect, the builder and the executive offices at Lazarus. Not one person I spoke to could offer any information. What I most wanted to know was the artist’s name so that I could repeat it like a mantra, giving recognition long overdue. The name appears to be lost.


At least 35 years ago, living in Chicago, I bought a friend a signed Pierre Soulages lithograph for his birthday. As I recall, the frame cost more than the print with its broad swipes of dark color, and both cost less than $40.

One day recently, when I walked into One Oliver Plaza at Wood Street for an Arnold Zegarelli haircut, those wide swaths of midnight blue paint behind the guard’s desk in the lobby jogged my memory.

Pierre Soulages?

It was indeed!

The ceramic wall relief is composed of 294 glazed, 11-inch tiles arranged in a rectangular grid that covers the wall. It is signed in the glaze, on the lower right, on two panels. Though there seems to be no other place for the guard’s desk, its present position in front of the mural surely compromises the power of the work.

James Sterling, general manager of Grubb & Ellis Management Service, provided an estimate of the work’s value as assessed by Sam Berkovitz of Concept Art Gallery in Regent Square.

In his report, Berkovitz noted that the value is reduced by the work’s stationary position. Removing it would be difficult and expensive and, as he puts it, “fraught with risk of destroying the mural.”

He recommended, instead, insuring the Soulages for $150,000.

“The mural probably could not be replaced,” he writes. “However, if an artist of similar stature were to make a replacement, the cost would begin at $150,000.”

Soulages is 83.

My friend in Chicago, a collector on a modest scale who still treasures his Soulages, estimates its present worth to be at least 30 times whatever I paid for it.

There are four art-related reasons to visit the lobby of the Frick Building. To see them all in one sweep, enter on Grant Street and, after looking up and to the right and left, walk straight through to the lobby with its exits to Fifth and Forbes.

In windows above and to each side of the Grant Street entrance, two majestic bronze lions stand guard. Their upright posture and exaggerated elegance suggest to me bankers and businessmen. Sculptor of the Frick lions was A. Phimster Proctor, who, over lunch, received his commission directly from Henry Clay Frick.

Several lions near the Frick Building are more magnificent. On the outside wall of the Allegheny County Courthouse, lions, done in a pseudo-Byzantine style, are gorgeous beasts in mid-roar. The dates given are 1884-87, sculptor unknown. The two grand and terrifying lions sprawled across pedestals outside Pittsburgh Dollar Savings Bank (circa 1871), at Fourth Avenue and Smithfield Street, have a don’t-mess-with-me look in their eyes. These were sculpted in stone on the site by Max Kohler.

Two other important pieces in the neoclassic Frick Building are a John La Farge stained glass window, “Fortune and Her Wheel,” mounted overhead in the main lobby, and a Malvina Hoffman white marble bust of Henry Clay Frick, directly below the window.

Mr. Frick, businessman, has been on my mind of late. While his misdeeds are not easy to forgive, they seem less terrible when compared with those of today’s executives at Enron, ImClone, Tyco, Adelphia and WorldCom. Toward the end of his life, Frick would have trouble sleeping and would rise to wander through the halls of his New York City mansion. But he left us that magnificent mansion, after having filled it with masterpieces.

Although I can’t read his character from Hoffman’s sculpture, I do recognize the work as quality. Hoffman studied with Rodin and admired Michelangelo, and both of these influences show.

I’m not at all sure about the quality of the La Farge stained glass window. Fortune is depicted riding a winged wheel across the water. She has been described as a giddy, disheveled strumpet, possibly because she let the neckline of her gown slip below one breast, or perhaps because of the abandon with which she showered riches on some, leaving others to starve. John La Farge (1835-1910) is considered an important American painter and decorative artist. Whether this piece is important, each viewer must decide.

Marilyn McDevitt Rubin can be reached at or 412-263-1749.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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