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A stream of tears where molten metal flowed

Saturday, April 21, 2001

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

Obligingly, the rain held off until the very end.

  Architect James O'Toole gets a hug yesterday at the south end of the Hot Metal Bridge after the dedication of the monument that he designed. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

And by then it hardly mattered, because so many faces in the crowd already were more than a little damp.

People remembering their fathers and grandfathers stood shoulder to shoulder with gray-haired men in union ball caps and jackets to dedicate a monument to a shared heritage, the men and women who made steel.

"This is really very much a bittersweet day," said Mayor Tom Murphy, who wanted to celebrate the city that Pittsburgh is becoming while holding on a little longer to the Pittsburgh that once had been.

Towering above him at the southern end of the Hot Metal Bridge was the new monument, architect James O'Toole's abstract representation of the mill's powerful presence.

"For me this is a very personal day because my father worked here for 51 years," Murphy said in a wavering voice. "In many ways, World War II and [World War I] were won right here in Pittsburgh."

Still buried in the land on which Thomas Joseph Murphy Sr. worked are the massive concrete foundations of Jones & Laughlin's South Side Works, shut down by LTV Corp. in 1987.

On top of them the new Pittsburgh is rising -- the sports facilities, offices, shops and housing of the South Side Works development.

The mayor wanted to make sure the contributions of his father and thousands of other steelworkers weren't forgotten. Four years ago, he asked the city Planning Department to initiate a public art project that would celebrate their lives.

O'Toole's design, which won a 1998 competition, represents a steel mill in symbolic form, incorporating a ladle, a shed where steelworkers could take shelter inside the mill, a catwalk and train tracks. Circles cut out of the ladle represent the graphite that snowed constantly.

Eventually, the ladle might become a fountain, raining water down into a concrete pond. For now, real rainwater, symbolizing molten steel, will collect in a concrete trough under the ladle; the trough empties both into the pond and onto the sloping Monongahela riverbank.

"This is one of the happiest days of my life, to give this to the city of Pittsburgh," said an emotional O'Toole, with his wife, Jody, beside him, holding their son, Evan.

O'Toole, who lives in Shadyside, has no steel workers in his family. In planning the monument, he visited a steel mill and talked to former steel workers to understand how it worked and what it meant to them.

Painted blue-gray -- a neutral color that lets the form dominate -- the monument is 50 feet square and 35 feet high. The names of steel workers will be etched on its "memory wall," although the process for choosing the names has yet to be worked out.

At night, the illuminated sculpture casts shadows that, to O'Toole, speak of the legendary ghosts of the old mills.

Along with the competition, the 37-year-old O'Toole, who grew up in Beechview and Shaler and works for L.D. Astorino Cos., won the job of raising what turned out to be the equivalent of $350,000 in contributions.

"I started out with $5,000 from the city," said O'Toole, who found "the Astorino name opened every door." Among the donors were Wilhelm & Kruse Inc., which fabricated the monument, and Multi-Phase Inc., which erected it.

And his employers, brothers Lou and Dennis Astorino, "believed in me, supported me and encouraged me the entire time."

"It took a great deal of perseverance and commitment [on O'Toole's part] to get this built," said architect Lou Astorino, who took a personal interest in the project.

"Our grandfather worked here, and three of our uncles."

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