It was massive. But it had to be moved.
The artwork stretched more than 30 feet wide and stood twelve-and-a-half feet tall. It was also heavy, weighing some 28,000 pounds. And, it was highly breakable.
Transporting something so large and fragile would be an exercise in engineering.
“Our whole job was move it, and don’t break it. It was definitely a challenge,” says Jonathon Waldrip (’14, ’16 MS Civ. Eng.). Then a structural design engineer with KPFF Consulting Engineers, he was on the team that helped orchestrate the mural’s relocation in February 2019.
“The mural illustrates what Washington is all about,” Waldrip says. “And the state wished to preserve that.”
Made out of masonry and glass, the detailed mosaic is adorned with 150,000 small squares, or “tesserae,” of Byzantine glass and stone. Each tile helps create imagery celebrating Washington state’s rich industrial and natural resources. Aerospace engineering. Nuclear science. Cattle ranching. Salmon. Timber.
The artist, Jean Cory Beall, had assembled the mural—commissioned by the State Capitol Committee—in 1959 on a gently curved wall of un-reinforced four-inch masonry with a ceramic coating inside the state’s now-mothballed General Administration Building in Olympia.
“The tiles were pressed into the plaster one by one. We couldn’t cut it up to move it; it had to be moved whole,” says Waldrip, who helped plan the mural’s big move. He designed a steel frame to support and transport the work.
“If you simply picked up the mural from each end, it would flex in the middle and the glass would crack,” he says. “The glass and ceramic parts of the mural were very brittle, so the steel frame had to be very stiff. This was especially difficult because the mural weighed so much and was curved, which put a huge amount of torsion on the frame. Nothing could be welded to stiffen things up because the heat could propagate through the wall and damage the artwork. So everything was bolted and assembled in place like an Erector Set.”
The design took about a month to complete. Prep work took about a week and included heavy shoring of the floor and front of the building. “To extract the mural, we actually had to cut open a large part of the front of the building,” Waldrip says. “The doors were not big enough to get it out.”
Once the frame was installed, the existing support was demolished around it, the frame put on airskates—“sort of like mini hovercrafts,” Waldrip says—then pushed out of the building. Once inside, the front of the frame was cut off, revealing the artwork. The back side of the frame remained in place, permanently anchoring the mural in its new home in Olympia’s 2017 Helen Sommers Building, which also houses the Washington State Patrol, Office of the State Treasurer, and other government agencies.
The move itself took a day. Waldrip, now a structural design engineer at Visser Engineering Co. in Federal Way, wasn’t able to be there. “But it’s really cool to me that the frame accomplished double-duty and is holding the artwork down in its final location.”