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Restored mosaic by famed Pittsburgh artist finds new home in Steel Plaza station

A multicolored mosaic on a wall.
Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
A detail of Virgil Cantini's 1964 mosaic, as relocated to the Steel Plaza T station.

A landmark public artwork by a prominent Pittsburgh artist was slated to be buried beneath tons of earth. Instead, as of this month, it’s found a new home at Downtown’s Steel Plaza T stop.

Virgil Cantini's untitled 1964 abstract mosaic is comprised of 28 panels of various sizes. It originally ran for 60 feet along both sides of a pedestrian tunnel Downtown, beneath Bigelow Boulevard between Seventh Avenue and Chatham Street. Now its small, shard-like glass tesserae shine in gold and green, and gleam in deep orange and yellow, in a setting of carefully worked concrete on the walls of the corridor leading from the T station to Sixth Avenue.

“It’s almost like walking through a tunnel of jewels,” said Lisa Cantini-Seguin, the late artist’s daughter, who played a key role in the mosaic’s preservation and restoration. “They all glisten. It’s mind-boggling how beautiful they are.”

A mosaic lines both walls of a corridor.
Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
The full mosaic as seen from one end of the corridor.

The mosaic’s story is bound up with everything from the mid-century modernist art movement to the troubled history of urban redevelopment schemes in Pittsburgh.

Cantini, who was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 1957, was one of Pittsburgh’s best-known artists. Born in Italy in 1919, he emigrated as a child, grew up in Weirton, W.V., and studied art at Carnegie Tech. After serving in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II, he returned to Pittsburgh and did his graduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh, where he’d later teach and help to found the studio arts department, which he also led for years.

Primarily an abstract sculptor, and a champion of public art, he was prolific and remains among the city’s most widely exhibited artists. His many public works include “The Joy of Life” fountain, in East Liberty, and “Man,” the sculpture visible from Fifth Avenue that adorns Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health.

The relocated mosaic was a commission from the Urban Redevelopment Authority as part of its project to level and redevelop the Lower Hill District, which began in the 1950s. The scheme traumatically displaced hundreds of businesses and thousands of residents, most of them Black.

But while the old Civic Arena was built on the site, ambitious plans for a sprawling cultural district there never materialized. Nor did the foot traffic that might have accompanied it. Ultimately, Cantini’s mosaic was seen by few along the lightly traveled walkway and mostly gathered grime. It was half-forgotten until threatened with burial.

That threat was the result of a plan to help undo the damage done by the original redevelopment, which had severed the rest of the Hill District from Downtown. About a decade ago, the city announced plans for a “cap” park that would create a roof over I-579 there, forming a walkable connection between the neighborhoods.

Virgil Cantini had died in 2009. But in 2016, his daughter Lisa Cantini-Seguin was informed that because the mosaic was embedded directly into the pedestrian tunnel, it would be interred rather than saved.

Cantini-Seguin soon connected with Brittany Reilly, a local arts administrator active with Preservation Pittsburgh.

“This is Pittsburgh’s only modernist abstract large-scale mosaic, and I think that’s special,” said Reilly.

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Working with city and state officials, the activists leveraged a law that required development projects with federal funding to save eligible artworks that might be adversely affected.

Cantini’s mosaic was eligible — it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2018. In 2019, Oberlin, Ohio-based McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory removed the panels and began conservation work. Meanwhile, the City of Pittsburgh launched the search for a new home for the mosaic, said Tony Cavalline, the arts, culture, and history specialist for the Department of City Planning.

Cavalline said the Steel Plaza T station was chosen because it most closely replicated the physical proportions and other qualities of the original (and now buried) site.

“All of that motion and movement and kind of the hustle and bustle of the city was all part of the artist’s original intent for this piece,” he said, noting its proximity to transit and street life.

He echoed Cantini’s own words: “The art is supposed to lend a feeling of movement, not of a specific image,” he wrote in text replicated on interpretative signage in the T station. “I want to give an experience of sensing the city — both day and night.”

Installation, also by McKay Lodge, was completed in early February. Cavalline said the restoration and reinstallation cost $725,800.

More information about the project is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: