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Tuesday, April 1, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Building makeover puts Capitol mural in tight spot

Seattle Times art critic

OLYMPIA — Plans to remodel the state Capitol's Joel M. Pritchard Library building have thrown the fate of one of Washington's public art treasures into question.

A preliminary design calls for the removal of a 170-foot Kenneth Callahan mural that is permanently affixed to the walls of the building's rare-book room. A conservator has estimated the cost of removal at $86,000 but says it's unknown how difficult the task will be — or whether the painting will be damaged — until he attempts to peel the canvas off the walls.

Remodel architects want to move the Callahan mural up from the lower level to the main floor, suspend it from the ceiling on partial walls and reconfigure it from its nearly square format to a rectangular one. A state government committee will consider the plan Thursday, with a final decision expected in June. If approved, the remodel would be finished in 2007.

"It's for the security of the building," said Tom Evans, architect for the state's Department of General Administration. "We want to keep all public areas on the first floor and allow all upper and lower floors for operational support."

But some legislators have already voiced concern about the plan.

"I don't like to consider myself a negative person, but I am very worried about those murals in many ways," said state Rep. Sandra Romero, D-Olympia.

The 1958 building has not been used as a library since shortly after the Nisqually earthquake in 2001, which forced an early start to long-planned restoration work on the Legislative Building. Officials moved the library to an existing building in Tumwater and set up temporary quarters for the Senate and administrative support in the Pritchard building, directly across from the main entrance of the Capitol. The Senate is slated to be back in its own chambers of the Legislative Building by 2005.

To move or not to move?

The vaporous, semi-abstract mural by Callahan, who died in 1986, depicts key moments of the state's history in a grand narrative, leading from the Earth's beginnings to an apocalyptic vision of the atomic age. The oil-on-canvas mural completely wraps the interior of the elegant Washington Room, originally a repository for rare books and Pacific Northwest history.

Building architect Paul Thiry, the principal designer of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, invited several of the region's premier artists — Callahan, Mark Tobey and James Fitzgerald — to create murals for the structure that would house the Washington State Library. Tobey created a compact, 8-by-9-foot mural for the main-floor reading room, and Fitzgerald built a massive, 320-square-foot tile mosaic leading into a stairway to the lower level.

The Callahan mural, the building's major artwork, is an intrinsic part of the Washington Room's design, according to Michael Sullivan of Artifacts, a consulting firm hired by the state to do architectural conservation at the Capitol.

"The Callahan mural may be one of the most important narrative artworks in the state. It's a masterpiece in many ways," Sullivan says.

"If you remove the painting from that room, it's like taking the clarinet track out of a symphony — it's so ingrained in the architecture. The best alternative is to have it remain there and make arrangements for public viewing."

State architect Evans maintains that bringing the mural upstairs would make it more accessible to the public. "The Washington Room is poorly illuminated and windowless. If it were moved (up) to the first floor, there's lots of natural light," he said.

The lower-level room would then be converted to a computer-training center. He dismisses concerns about the reconfiguration of the mural's shape.

"It's a continuous flow of thought and idea," Evans says. "Where it bends at a corner is not a crucial thing."

The state hired art conservator Bruce Miller to inspect the mural and determine whether it can be moved. Miller believes it can. "It would essentially be done very carefully," he said. "The wallpaper paste would be released, and then I'd roll off the canvas."

Miller said, however, that without first trying to remove a section of the canvas, it's impossible to predict what might occur.

Strong sunlight in the new location also could damage the painting, but Miller said, "I assume the architect would address the lighting and the issue of making certain that sunlight wouldn't hit the painting directly."

Evans says that project architect Bud Schorr has also considered moving the Fitzgerald mosaic to a different location in the building.

The Tobey mural, which was not glued to the wall but hung on a stretcher, has already been removed and is in storage. It will be displayed at the Tacoma Art Museum in May, as part of the museum's grand-opening exhibition in its new facility.

Architectural, financial worries

One of the Northwest's premier architects, Thiry introduced a sleek, modern style of building to the Pacific Northwest. Thiry, who died in 1993, designed the original Frye Art Museum and the Museum of History & Industry, both in Seattle, as well as many private homes.

In the heart of the Pritchard Library, Thiry created what Sullivan called "an architectural jewel box," the elegant Washington Room, a 40-by-50-foot space that served as the library's repository for rare books and Pacific Northwest history. Thiry saw it as one of the building's main draws, and for that special place he commissioned the building's most-extensive artwork.

Thiry considered every element of the room as part of a whole composition: the proportions of the mural and the custom-built glass-encased wood bookshelves; the way the painting hovers along the perimeter of the space; the custom lighting fixtures that gently illuminated it.

At first, Callahan turned down the commission. With his experience as a Works Progress Administration muralist, he knew how much work would be involved in a project of that scale. He also knew from experience that art and state politics don't easily mix. He had been commissioned in 1948 to paint several murals for the Legislative Building, but after he'd prepared 10 design sketches, the project was called off.

But Thiry eventually prevailed, and in 1958, Callahan agreed to create the library mural.

Thiry's library is the only permanent building on the Capitol campus not yet protected as a historic landmark. The State Capitol Committee and the Legislative Building Rehabilitation Oversight Committee, called the Joint Committee, will meet at noon Thursday to consider the preliminary remodel plan. They will meet again in June for final approval. If the Legislature appropriates funding, the Department of General Administration hopes to submit finished design documents by 2005 and to complete construction by 2007.

Proponents of the building's original design, including some state lawmakers, are expected to argue that moving the mural would damage the artwork and the architectural integrity of the building.

"It's a four-part narrative, and the cadence and the flow and the rhythm of the composition was so much a part of what he was trying to achieve," said art historian Barbara Johns, a former curator at both the Seattle Art Museum and the Tacoma Art Museum. "Callahan intended to signify the organic unity of human life and nature."

Others voice more pragmatic concerns.

"To be able to do it right will cost a lot of money, and given the budget crunch I'm afraid it won't be done right," said state Rep. Romero. "I would like to see that room go back to public use, so the murals could be enjoyed."

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

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