Pittsburgh Art Places


Blue Cross of Western Pennsylvania

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Lidji, Pickering

Artwork Type

Removed, Sculpture

Historical Relief, 1963

H. Douglas Pickering


Commissioning Entity Blue Cross of Western Pennsylvania
Owner Blue Cross of Western Pennsylvania

As construction of its headquarters at Smithfield Street and Fort Pitt Boulevard neared completion, in 1963, Blue Cross of Western Pennsylvania devoted considerable resources to honoring the ground beneath its five-story building. In a commemorative booklet for its dedication ceremony, the insurance company published a 16-page history of the location, starting with the Native American tribes who had inhabited the land before European settlers arrived and continuing until the present day. The company also commissioned Carnegie Institute of Technology art instructor H. Douglas Pickering to make a commemorative relief to hang on the white Botticini marble walls of the lobby.

The work, titled simply Historical Relief, was five small sculptures, each showing the Monongahela waterfront at a different moment in time. The first was based on a Leander McCandless painting from about 1825 and had a modest boatman ferrying a passenger across the river. The second depicted the original Monongahela House hotel being destroyed during the Great Fire of 1845. The third featured President-elect Abraham Lincoln giving a short speech from a balcony of the new Monongahela House in 1861. The fourth showed the waterfront crowded with paddle-wheel steamboats in 1890. The fifth captured the Blue Cross Building at the time of its dedication in 1963.

Within a few years of completing the commission, Pickering would become an admired sculptor, best known in Pittsburgh for making intricate mechanical assemblages in metal, wood and experimental materials like polyurethane, fiberglass and plastic. At the time, though, he was still best known as a traditional painter and draftsman, as well as a craftsman who had won awards at Associated Artists of Pittsburgh exhibitions in the 1940s for his elegant silverware and jewelry. He put all those skills to use on Historical Relief. Starting from studies and models, he made full-scale paper templates of each relief, which he then produced from 11-gauge sheet brass using a metal handsaw. He hammered the shapes into low-relief and welded them together into his completed designed. He was able to give the relatively flat sculpture some visual depth by cleverly exaggerating the perspective of each individual scene, by strategically polishing and oxidation the metal, and by using the wall behind the reliefs as a component in his design — the white marble made the windows of the hotel appear to be illuminated and served as the water buoying the various vessels floating on the river. He hung the five reliefs in two rows — three over two — in order to place Abraham Lincoln in the central spot. 

Blue Cross was sufficiently impressed by the work to give Pickering a second commission for its Harrisburg offices, which commemorated the Susquehanna River.

Historical Reliefs hung in the lobby for decades but appears to have been a victim of the local real estate market. Blue Cross became an anchor tenant of Fifth Avenue Place in 1988 and sold its Smithfield Street building in 1991. The five reliefs disappeared from the lobby sometime after the sale, and their whereabouts are currently unknown. 

By Eric Lidji, writer 

H. Douglas Pickering (1921-1991) was born in Wilkinsburg, Pa. and raised in Forest Hills. He earned a bachelor’s degree in art from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1943 and a master’s degree in art education from Penn State University in 1953. He taught at Allegheny College in Meadville from 1948 until 1960 and Carnegie Mellon University from 1960 until he retired in 1986. He sat on the boards of the Three Rivers Arts Festival and the Pittsburgh Plan for Arts, served a term president of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh and was chairman of the city Art Commission.