Down Arrow
Section A

Art in Architecture

Frances Pruyn, CMO, CPSM

Art has been integral to architecture since the dawn of humankind: cave paintings and sculpture gardens, ornamental hardware and draperies, decorative cornices and sconces.

Estimated read time:
12 min

“Art” itself has always been an abstract term.  It is defined loosely to embrace many forms of human expression and creativity but until the 1930’s, American public art was routinely limited to paintings, statuary, and stained glass that was used to tell a historic narrative, to glorify founders, or to memorialize war heroes, veterans, and prominent political figures. Certainly, buildings were often ornamented but these embellishments were often considered decoration and not “fine art”.

Publicly commissioned statuary, paintings, windows, and sculpture tell the stories of the place, the time, the history and the culture in which they were created.  However, one generation’s hero can be the next generation’s dastard. George Washington’s soldiers and citizens tore down a statue of George III, cut off its nose and melted the rest down to make bullets for the revolution. Today we are seeing murals and statuary being removed, replaced and defaced.

That is why when we choose public art for a public place, built with taxpayer dollars, it is critical to choose wisely:

1) The art must be more than embellishment or decoration, but tell a story.  
2) It must speak to the setting where it was created.
3) Since public art communicates the values, people and events that the community wants remembered (and sometimes commemorated) it should reflect the culture and period when it was created.
4) Finally, it should last, both figurative and literally: it must pass the test of time.  

This last criterion is by far the most arbitrary, challenging, and important. Two of CRSA’s projects epitomize how the landscape of public art has changed in 85 years. The Davis County Memorial Courthouse’s stained glass window is an excellent example of a piece of art that was doubtless well received, and might be considered problematic today. Time will tell if future generations will treasure the art along the S Line Linear Park or trash it, but compare these two examples of public art from CRSA’s portfolio that speak specifically to their time, their place, and the built environment that surround them:

Davis County Memorial Courthouse – Stained Glass Window Memorial to Veterans of US Wars

The Davis County Memorial Courthouse was completed in 1932.  Sadly, there appears to be no archival reference to the artist who created the stained glass window that memorializes Davis County veterans. The courthouse was originally constructed in 1890, but the 1929 expansion encircled the original building, removed its towers and added wings to the east and the west.  According to the Davis County Clipper, August 16, 1929, the new courthouse was to be made a memorial to the veterans “who fought in WWI and in other wars.”

Although Davis County Clipper accounts have several mentions of the memorial, the stained glass is not referenced until its unveiling on June 28, 1936.  The 2020 Davis County Courthouse Renovation has just completed design and begun construction. CRSA architects say that the window has weathered its 84+ years well.  This is significant as the execution of any stained glass window requires a combination of the artistic skills to conceive and design it as well as the engineering capabilities to create a window that can fit snugly into the space, resist the elements, and support its own weight. Architectural glass must be at least 1/8” thick in order to survive the wind loads.

The unsigned, 8’ stained glass window depicts the Archangel Michael with a sword standing over a soldier and a sailor with a crossed US Flag, c. 1932 and a Navy Jack c. 1932.  The bottom of window is inscribed with the epigraph, “THEY WHO SACRIFICE MOST LIVE LONGEST IN THE HEARTS OF THE PEOPLE.”

The names of 683 Davis County veterans are etched into the marble tablets underneath the window. The tablets list the veterans from US wars from 1860 - 1920. According to the Clipper, this includes 27 names from the Civil War, 18 in the Spanish American War and Philippine Insurrection, 144 the Black Hawk Indian Troubles, and “482 and 2 nurses in the World War.”  The Davis County Commission noted (in 1929) that this observance of veterans was long overdue, and in 1936, by American standards, the memorial was in tune with what (one must assume) was Davis County values: it suited the location, theme and wishes of the patrons.   

Questioning Christian iconography in a public facility funded by taxpayers dollars did not become a major issue until the late 20th Century, despite the United States’ constitutional prohibition of establishing a state religion.  The Archangel Michael was the “illustrious leader of the heavenly army.” Certainly the preponderance of the Davis County population was certainly Christian and mostly members of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints.  In fact, according to the latest published numbers, 83% of the population are currently members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  

More problematic is the recognition of the veterans of the “Blackhawk Indian Troubles”.  This war, from 1865 – 1867, consisted of about 150 armed conflicts primarily between the white settlers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and members of 16 Ute, Paiute, Apache and Navajo tribes led by Ute war chief, Antonga BlackHawk.  There is no mention of the Native American losses, but technically, the white settlers were Americans, and the Native Americans were not citizens until 1924, so not veterans of US wars. Possibly these native fighters would not even be considered inhabitants of Davis County.  Still, in the 1930’s even if the native names could have been found, it is unlikely that anyone would have thought to do so.  

The outcome of this conflict was disastrous for the Northern Utes, who were forced permanently onto the Uintah reservation and had to abandon their traditional way of life in one of the least habitable areas of the state.  So here is the cautionary tale: this public art would have been in no way considered controversial in 1936, but in 2020, some might consider this omission insensitive at best and immoral at worst.  Likely, because of its historic nature, and its relative obscurity, the stained glass window at theDavis County Memorial Courthouse will remain in place as a heartfelt and quaint relic of its time.

Of course, many such pieces of art that jar the next generation’s sensibilities survive.  Nonetheless, art has certainly changed, and public art has evolved beyond decoration and visualization of national histories.

About the time that the Davis County Commissioners were building the courthouse, President Roosevelt’s New Deal enabled the standardization and regulation of public art by instituting the Art in Architecture’s program’s ½ of 1 percent for art program.  One half of one percent of the construction cost of government buildings was reserved for contemporary American Art.  Major tenets of this program were that art was required to be accessible to the public, site specific and much more about the public.  This too had challenges as the early programs had propaganda goals, but much of this structure is still in place across the US.  

The entire concept of public art changed drastically in the 1970’s, when artistic efforts began an alliance with urban renewal.  Artists found opportunities to be interactive, relational and were chosen and curated by public selection committees.  They embraced public movements like environmentalism and sustainability and designed pieces activating the setting in which it they are placed.

As time has progressed, artists who seek commissions in the public realm with taxpayer money have become sensitized to what the public contemporaneously believe is an appropriate use of its money.  The process itself has become more public, and representative selection committees are often utilized to select artists and/or artwork.  Although public art certainly can still be divisive, the public funding process has made it far less prone to political controversy.   Frankly, as art has become more abstract, it is more likely that the public will ask,“but is this art?” before they topple it because it offends their political or social sensibilities.  

S Line Greenway

Such is the case with the second illustrative CRSA project,The S Line Greenway.  The greenway has integrated a number of pieces of art that not only enhance the experience of traveling along this multi-modal trail, but also tell the story of the natural landscape between the foothills and the Great Salt Lake, and provide places to climb, rest, play and reflect.

The 66 foot wide pathway stretches 2.2 miles through a number of diverse communities in Sugar House, a neighborhood in South and East SaltLake City.  The strip was an abandoned Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad corridor opened in 1890, to reach the silver mines in Park City. It was long unused and derelict when in 2010, the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency and Utah Transit Authority hired the design team to create a greenway to facilitate traffic and enhance the open space experience through the rapidly densifying Sugar House neighborhoods. Completed in 2015, the corridor is now a flexible, multi-modal linear park, providing paths for cyclists, pedestrians and a new streetcar encouraging alternative transportation through this urbanizing section of town. They also wanted to create a series of outdoor living rooms for the community. 

There are seven rail stops, two walking/cycling paths, native landscaping, public plazas at each intersection, site furnishings, a bocce court, and safety lighting. The design team paid homage to the railroad history of the corridor by placing rain gardens with rails and ties along the center stretches between the two paths. In addition to the light rail, hardscaping and landscaped open spaces, the owner(s) felt strongly that public art should be integrated along the trail, as it builds a sense of community ownership and an opportunity for Sugar House to express its identity.  

An RFP was issued by the Salt Lake City RDA for artists to propose visual arts concepts for the greenway.  Three finalists were chosen to present their ideas and budget to a selection committee comprised of the stakeholders and design team.  The committee chose JAM Productions to work with CRSA and Infinite Scale for the breadth and project-specific pieces that they presented.

JAM Productions’ Michael Whiting and Jared Clark worked within the overarching design concept, which was to follow a drop of water as it falls from the Wasatch Mountains through the valley, making its way to the Great Salt Lake.  Michael and Jared worked in stone, steel and seasoned wood to create public sculptures that are playful, informative, interactive, and useful.

JAM used granite boulders to represents the “Granite” of the railway line, that was nicknamed the Granite Line, which ran to a quarry inCottonwood Canyon.  The stone from this pit was used to build the Salt Lake LDS Temple, and later, the Utah State Capitol Building and Administration Building of the Church of Jesus Christ ofLatter-Day Saints.  Granite is also a recurring name in the Sugar House Business District.

A line of granite boulders is scattered along the eastern mile of the trail. Many of them are seating elements. An engraved metal map of the Salt Lake Valley that traces the routes of the S Line/DRG Line and the Granite Line is adhered to a granite boulder at the easternmost terminus of the trail on 500 East Street.

Granite was fashioned into three sculptures and placed along the eastern section of the trail. A stack of three giant boulders, “The Boulder Cairn”, are reminiscent of trail markers found in the Intermountain West.  The sculpture weighs 40,000 pounds had to be forklifted into a sturdy concrete base, as cranes would interfere with ubiquitous overhead power lines. Further along the trail , two huge, long, square boulders were placed face to face and steel smoke stacks were fabricated and attached to them. They mimic the Juniper and #119 trains that met at Promontory Summit, Utah in 1869 to complete the transcontinental railroad.

Mid-trail are two solid wood, cube “houses” or bilds. They are constructed of wood reclaimed from the trestlewood bridges used to build the causeways of the Great Salt Lake. The wood had been in the (salt) water seasoning for over 100 years, when it was harvested from the lake.  Jared Clark made them uniform, stacked them high, attached them together, and cut one face flat of each house.  One house is painted white for Sugar House, the other painted pink representing the salt of the great Salt Lake. They face each other across the street, welcoming pedestrians into the City section of the trail.  

Closer to the Sugar House business district, Mike Whiting  installed two steel sculptures –a pixelated seagull and a pixelated sugarhouse. Mike’s public sculpture style forges a connection between 1980’s video games and full-sized, or bigger than life, forms. The seagull, which is the Utah State Bird, is an iconic and playful form. The sugarhouse appears as if it built of sugar cubes, and has a porthole that welcomes visitors into Sugar House, or down the rest of trail.  

The installation art that JAM Productions and the design team created, serves as way finding, furniture, interactive play stations, and along the way, somewhat educational tools.  And art – it is art: expressive and creative.

No doubt, many Utah citizens appreciate the stained glass at the Davis County Memorial Courthouse as much, if not more than the more abstract, and less reverent public art created for the S-Line.  And both should be respected for the texture, and the humanity they bring to public places. 

As illustrated by these projects, Americans have made long strides toward being more inclusive, more deliberate, more thoughtful, and more public, with their public art.