Arts and Sciences
The problem with the distant future is that it's impossible to fathom.
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 8/1/2010 3:50:00 PM
The problem with the distant future is that it's impossible to fathom. Say you were a Pittsburgh resident who threw a pistol down the well outside your home or shop 150 years ago. You would naturally assume that your illicit rubbish was gone. Forever. Never having seen an automobile-to say nothing of a backhoe-you couldn't have guessed that a real-estate developer might arrive in 2006 to dig up the entire lot, along with 13 neighboring ones, for an underground garage and the foundation of a skyscraper.
That's precisely what happened when PNC Financial Services Group hired Gensler to build the mixed-use 3 PNC Plaza, home to the Fairmont Pittsburgh hotel. Since tax dollars were involved, Pennsylvania regulations mandated a site-history assessment, even though prospects for historical revelations were uncertain. Nor did an initial report find any particular merit in the assorted buildings standing in the way of progress. Much altered over time, they were simply photographed for the state archives and demolished.
With the start of excavation, however, the first of nine abandoned wells surfaced. Being brick-lined and perpetually moist, they delivered a miraculously preserved bonanza. "Had we scraped things clean, we would never have had any understanding of what came before," managing director Doug Gensler says. (He's a son of the firm's founder, Interior Design Hall of Fame member Art Gensler.)
Instead, to preserve the artifacts while avoiding costly construction delays, Christine Davis Consultants returned again and again, on nights and weekends. "The construction manager gave me the key," archaeologist and historian Christine Davis offers with a certain amount of pride. As the pit deepened, her team sampled and screened the contents of the emerging wells, using a backhoe, trowels, and even sheer stockings. A layer cake of surprises emerged.
Taken together, they fill a gap in the history of the city. In 1868, the Atlantic Monthly described industrial Pittsburgh as "hell with the lid off." So it was interesting to discover that this particular block was quite genteel.
Pittsburgh's first department store, C. Yeager & Company, sold exquisite Bohemian glass there, and Davis postulates that someone unloaded a whole box of slightly imperfect discards down one of the wells. The glass goblets and perfume bottles in another well almost certainly came from Piaget's Fancy Store. Creamers, cups, and saucers were linked to the Hong Kong Tea Store, which Davis describes as "just like a Starbucks." Immigrant tenants of a boardinghouse probably deposited the dinnerware emblazoned with camels and palm trees. Of particular note were the delicate, translucent porcelain lithophanes from Germany, etched and molded to reveal three-dimensional images when backlit.
Gensler had just completed schematic designs for the Fairmont when PNC asked the designers to take a look at the 26,000 finds with an eye to showcasing them front and center. "We were like kids in a candy store," principal and design director Jeff Henry says. Once the selections were made, they were distributed to punctuate the transition spaces that Henry describes as "pause moments." Guests waiting for an elevator discover themed groups of historical objects in glass boxes supported by multi-armed steel structures that look like some kind of industrial-strength machinery. An English bird figurine, a Belgian perfume jar, and a Bohemian goblet and vases all occupy a longcase that's stair-stepped to follow the level changes in a hallway off the main lobby.
Because the artifacts are small, and the scale of the interiors is large, Gensler married the two by repeating key colors. The designers picked up the amber of beer bottles and used it for glass panels at the restaurant entrance as well as cast art glass set into the front of the reception desk. The blue of the wine bar's interior window and LED-illuminated guardrail references cobalt medicine bottles.
Enlarged, digitally enhanced photographs of other artifacts became part of the art program, developed by the Goodall Gallery in Louisville, Kentucky. In the lobby, blowups printed on 3 ½-foot-tall aluminum panels provide an effect that Henry calls an "exclamation point." A porcelain doll that features prominently in the lobby's display case appears, about seven times larger, in the vestibule of the wine bar.
Most guests can probably identify the repeat silk-screened portrait outside the wine bar, called Andys, as an homage to Pittsburgh's native son Andy Warhol. But such is the richness of the artistic and archaeological offerings that the Fairmont's management offers an explanatory brochure for those who might walk in off the street. Amateur historians and archaeologists are invited to whip out their cell phones and dial up an audio tour.