PITTSBURGH — Romare Bearden’s enormous ceramic tile mural “Pittsburgh Recollections” was first installed in the original Gateway Center T station (light rail station) in 1984 during its initial construction. After it was appraised prior to the station’s renovations, the Port Authority scrambled to find a way to save it.
An entire wall of the station bursts with color from the expansive mural. Made of 780 Bennington Potters-made ceramic 12-by-12 inch tiles, the completed mural measures 60 feet long and 13 feet high. Bearden made the mural on a $90,000 budget and painted each of the stoneware tiles himself.
Pittsburgh’s rivers stretch the length of the mural, and provide a scaffold for Bearden to include everything from historical scenes to his more modern personal memories of summers spent in the city at his grandparents’ boarding house.
The mural was water-damaged and covered in years’ worth of accumulated grime, and was cemented on to concrete walls three feet thick. The station was slated for demolition as part of the North Shore Connector project, and it was unclear how the delicate tiles could be separated from the wall. Saving the mural wasn’t part of the original plans.
The Port Authority had the mural appraised and was startled to find it was worth an estimated $15 million (nearly $20,000 for each tile). The authority was not financially prepared to save the mural and could not allow its preservation to derail the massive construction going on around it.
“We did not expect it to be that much,” Port Authority of Allegheny County spokeswoman Judi McNeil said at the time. “We don’t have the wherewithal to be a caretaker of such a valuable piece.” Insurance costs for the mural after its appraisal were estimated to be more than $100,000 a year.
By March 2009, the Port Authority had secured the funding necessary to remove and reinstall the mural in the new Gateway Center T station being built as part of the North Shore Connector.
The groundbreaking techniques used to remove, restore and reinstall the mural cost over $1 million. Initial plans to move the tiles in sections proved unwieldy and instead McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory opted to dismantle the mural tile-by-tile, giving each a unique identification number.
Diamond-coated saw blades attached to chainsaws on a specially-made jig and circular saws were used to slice the tiles cleanly off the wall and separate them from each other. The process took six weeks, with cutting operations running 20 hours a day.
McKay Lodge shipped 13 wooden crates of the tiles back to their Oberlin, Ohio facility for restoration, with each crate traveling in a separate truck to ensure the entire mural would not be at risk of loss from a highway crash.
The tiles were each cleaned, restored and then mounted into a portable aluminum frame. The new frame will allow for the mural to be more easily removed for future restorations, or to prevent damage from future construction.
One tile that was mistakenly installed upside down in the mural’s original installation was reinstalled in the same orientation to honor the mural’s history. Observant visitors should direct their attention to the mortar joints in front of the marching soldiers.
Born on Sept. 2, 1911, in North Carolina, Bearden and his family spent much of his childhood in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. He grew up surrounded by the Black cultural, political, and intellectual elite in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance.
As a result, Bearden is more closely associated with the New York art scene, but actually lived in East Liberty in his grandparents’ boarding house later in his childhood, even graduating from Peabody High School. It was during those years that Bearden’s interest in art was kindled by a friend named Eugene, who drew on paper bags and newsprint.
While attending Boston University, Bearden’s baseball pitching talent on the varsity team caught the eye of Philadelphia Athletics owner Connie Mack. Mack is said to have offered Bearden a position on the professional team — 15 years before Jackie Robinson became the first Black player in major league baseball — but Bearden refused, after he was told he would have to “pass” for white.
After graduating from New York University in 1935, Bearden found himself serving in the U.S. Army during World War II on the European front. After the war, he returned to Paris and studied art history and philosophy at the Sorbonne, and reportedly visited with Picasso and other artists.
Bearden returned to the U.S., married in 1954, and became an increasingly prolific and diverse artist, most notably in forms of collage. His compositions were unapologetic about their call to civil rights activism and depictions of life in the Black community.
Many of Bearden’s works draw on his experience and memories of Pittsburgh. A similarly-themed collage from the same year as the Gateway Center mural can be found at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland.
Bearden died in New York City on March 12, 1988, from complications of bone cancer.
Among his posthumous awards are a doctorate from Carnegie Mellon University and a National Medal of the Arts, presented by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. One of his collages was also used as the national poster for the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2000 Census.
Bearden’s legacy was further honored when he became the first Black artist to have a solo retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 2003, where 130 of his works were shown.
In 2011, a series of Forever stamps were issued by the U.S. Postal Service featuring four of Bearden’s paintings.