Plans are underway to save a pair of mosaic murals inside the Mobile Civic Center, artwork locals feared was endangered by the 55-year-old complex’s proposed demolition. A firm that saved a similar work nearly 15 years ago is expected to visit the facility before October.
“We are currently working on a contract with a conservator, McKay Lodge, out of Oberlin, Ohio, to come down to Mobile and take a look at the mosaics and provide us with a scope of work and an estimate to remove, conserve/store and reinstall,” City of Mobile Head of Architectural Engineering and Real Estate Asset Management Brad Christensen said in an Aug. 6 email. “This will probably happen within the next six weeks or so. [We] really won’t know much until we receive their report.”
McKay Lodge President and CEO Robert Lodge confirmed the eminent visit. He said a contract hasn’t been written yet.
“Artworks like this outlast their buildings since the buildings sometimes become obsolete in 50 years. It’s a tough, brutal process but once it’s done you’ve got a mosaic by a prominent artist that will always be able to be moved to a new building,” Lodge said.
A media report on Aug. 1 raised concerns that wording in the city’s request for proposal on civic center demolition – the murals “should be” retained rather than “must be” – spelled doom for the artwork.
The 16-by-43-foot glass tile depictions of circus and Mardi Gras scenes were made by Conrad Albrizio. The New York-born son of Italian immigrants found fame by synthesizing mid-20th century American and European influences into a uniquely Southern art. Albrizio went on to teach at Louisiana State University (LSU) from 1936 to 1954.
How influential and important is Albrizio? His former home in New Orleans’ French Quarter has a mural in its foyer of neighbors in Mardi Gras attire. A recent resident said a former LSU art student and current muralist flies in from Italy “every couple of years to do touch-ups.”
Though he is more famous for his frescos, “The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture” said Albrizio executed nine mosaic murals between 1955 and 1965. Four of those are in Mobile.
When the previous Mobile courthouse was razed in 2005, an Albrizio mosaic above its South Royal Street entrance needed rescue. Mobile architectural firm Holmes and Holmes contacted McKay Lodge.
“That was the first we had done an Albrizio mosaic so that was our first time working out the process. It also was physically difficult. It was summer; the air conditioning was off; it was Mobile,” Lodge said, laughing.
They covered the mosaic with an adhesive and then glued layers of fabric to it, working up from muslin to burlap. Sometimes, wood can be applied as a final, firm layer.
The mosaic is numbered and cut into manageable sections before being separated from the building structure. Once the sections are shipped to McKay Lodge’s Ohio workspace, the substrate is removed to the layer of the tiles and then a specially formulated adhesive mounts it to mesh, then aluminum panels. The wooden panels and fabric are removed from the face – the initial adhesive softens with water – and the artwork’s surface restored.
“My graduate work focused on the recovery and restoration of ancient mosaics. This was a return to mosaics for me,” Lodge said.
The process took several months and the results now hang in the Government Plaza atrium. Mobile County Director of Public Affairs and Community Services Kathy Eddy said McKay Lodge’s conservation and hanging cost $73,357 while Holmes and Holmes was paid $15,322 for investigation, planning and administration. Using the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, that’s $92,606 and $19,342, respectively, in 2019 dollars.
It was Lodge’s first Albrizio project and he “fell in love” with the artist. Since then, he has relocated a pair of his Louisiana mosaics. One was on a second story so they devised a way to turn the sections and take them out a window to a forklift.
“Anything’s possible. I can’t imagine a situation that’s impossible unless it’s physically impossible,” Lodge said.
The Civic Center pair were initially created in Venice, Italy, in the mid-1960s, brought to the U.S. by boat and then transported overland to Mobile from Texas. The city paid Albrizio $37,890.
Lodge said salvation of the Mobile works would be recorded on video. A saving grace for Lodge on the possible new job could be timing, hurricane season aside.
“They want to get it done this fall. They promised to leave the air conditioning on for us,” Lodge quipped.
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