How midcentury mosaics were saved, weeks from the wrecking ball

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In a bold (and costly) stroke of preservation, oil tycoon and hotelier Tim Headington — backed by an unlikely team of architects and politicians, and one spirited art conservator — rescues some of the country’s most impressive large-scale tile works.

by CHRISTINA GEYER 

A close-up of a mosaic that was formally located in the Mercantile Bank Building, Dallas. During the next seven months, 73 mosaics will be transported from a warehouse to the expanded Joule Dallas hotel. Shannon Faulk/Special Contributor

“They’re goneAll the buildings?

All the buildings are down?”

California architect Rufus Turner has just learned, on a phone call, that a large part of his past has been demolished. I’m talking to him about the Mercantile Dallas Building, the site where Turner spent some of his most formative years working with the late California artist Millard Sheets, assisting in the installation of some of the most remarkable mosaics made in these United States.

“All except one building,” I confirm. The historic clock tower was spared demolition, when the Ohio-based real-estate company Forest City Enterprises Inc. bought the complex, filling a city block, in late 2005 and tore down three of the four buildings in 2006.

Six years after being rescued from the Mercantile Bank complex, a mosaic is moved into the under-construction Joule hotel. Shannon Faulk/Special Contributor

Twenty silent seconds pass as Turner digests what I’ve just told him. It has, after all, been nearly 50 years since he has been to downtown Dallas. Finally comes his reaction: “What a crime.”

In 1956, Turner had recently graduated with degrees in architecture and architectural construction from Texas A&M University. He was 27, and his employer, the Adleta Showcase & Fixture Manufacturing Co., had assigned him his first task: a job at the Mercantile National Bank complex in Dallas. “I was the intermediary between the artist Millard Sheets and my firm,” he says about the remodeling of the original bank, built in 1943, and the construction of the new Mercantile Dallas Building. Sheets’ large-scale mosaics were a key decorative element in the new building’s fresh, forward look.

A former Ford Motor Co. plant in east Dallas is now the site of the Mercantile mosaics restoration. Michael Van Enter and his team of conservators spend countless hours inside this vast warehouse, restoring the mosaics to their original beauty. Shannon Faulk/Special Contributor

Upon the announcement in 2005 that several buildings in the complex were to be destroyed to make way for an apartment building, many thought their demise was a wrongful act. The complex was first commissioned in 1940 by one of Dallas’ most memorable mayors and businessmen: R.L. Thornton, nicknamed “Mr. Dallas.” The Mercantile Dallas Building had been painstakingly designed with wood and travertine walls, fused-glass light fixtures, custom- made office furnishings and dozens of specially commissioned mosaics designed by Sheets. The building became a beacon of the city’s booming business and prosperity. It was a symbol of wealth intended to mirror the richness of the tycoons who worked in its executive suites and the customers who stored their money in its vaults.

The idea that the art inside these historic buildings was to be the target of a wrecking ball drew public outcry and attention. But things were complicated. “The city invested $58 million in a Tax Increment Financing District funding commitment for the Mercantile block,” says Karl Stundins, the area redevelopment manager for the city, in an e-mail, “and an additional tax abatement on the property with an estimated value of $4 million. Forest City invested approximately $135 million to restore the original tower, demolish buildings located on a portion of the site and build a new building.” For that new structure, called The Element apartments, and the reinvention of the clock-tower building into The Merc apartments, Forest City looked to the preservation-focused architecture firm Architexas and two of its key architects, Craig Melde and Jay Firshing, for direction. “You can imagine,” Firshing says. “It was a city taking down a complex built by maybe one of the most influential, popular mayors.” But what of those awe-inspiring mosaics inside? Forest City said, “If you want it, come and get it,” Firshing remembers. There was a catch: The buildings’ scheduled destruction would allow a mere four months to remove the mosaics. All the while, a demolition team would be tearing down walls and smashing windows around them. Posthaste, city council members Angela Hunt and Veletta Forsythe Lill, then-mayor Laura Miller, city public-art coordinator Margaret Robinette, the nonprofit organization Preservation Dallas and Architexas rushed two questions to the forefront: Could the Sheets mosaics be saved? Who would provide the blank check to have it done?

A team of riggers and Balfour Beatty construction men guide a mosaic into the under-construction Joule hotel. Shannon Faulk/Special Contributor

Art conservator Michael Van Enter, a wild-eyed South African, has spent the past 20 years in Dallas. He works and lives in a modest white house in East Dallas, which he has converted into a studio and apartment. He restores sculptural works for important museums such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, has authenticated a Picasso sculpture for Christie’s and is known among art collectors as the go-to guy should your Alighiero Boettis or your Paul McCarthys need freshening. Van Enter works with a maniacal attention to detail and seeks unusual, historically accurate methodologies when restoring or re-engineering artworks. He is notorious for his fiery personality and doesn’t hesitate to let go of an employee if they, say, don’t learn how to properly hold a hammer. Perhaps one of Van Enter’s most respected abilities is his uninterruptable focus. (“I’ve made a new rule,” he says, “No music while working. You can’t make the Zen happen if you’re distracted. Conservation is very scientific.”)

Back to late 2005. Van Enter picked up his ringing phone. Architexas’ Craig Melde was on the other end, inviting Van Enter to come take a look. Down to the Mercantile Dallas Building he went. The mission? Prove various naysayers wrong who said the mosaics were too large — some are taller than 6 feet — too cumbersome and too delicate to be removed from the building.

Meanwhile, council member Hunt and Preservation Dallas sought potential donors to fund the costly mosaic-removal process. Throughout early December, several would-be investors were summoned to the building to see the works of tile art in their original context. When billionaire oil magnate Tim Headington and Michael Tregoning, the CFO of Headington’s namesake business, Headington Cos., walked in, Melde, Firshing, Hunt and Van Enter were there.

“It took less than 10 minutes for Tim to say, ‘Michael, I want this,’” Melde remembers. “Then Michael looked at me,” adds Van Enter. “He asked if I had ever done something like this before. I said, ‘Yes.’”

The art conservator Michael Van Enter on-site at the Joule Dallas hotel during the first mosaics’ move into the new building. During the next seven months, 73 mosaics will be transported from a warehouse to the expanded Joule. Shannon Faulk/Special Contributor

 In reality, Van Enter had never removed mosaics from a building. He had seen a mosaic floor extracted once in Bulgaria, but had fundamental differences with the way it was executed. Thus began the urgent process of inventing a careful new way. “Saving mosaics is a very expensive, tough operation,” explains Tony Sheets, the son of artist Millard Sheets, who has championed preserving or relocating his father’s work in California and in other Texas cities. Tony’s teenage memories are alive with visions of his father’s studio in Claremont, Calif. The birthplace of the Mercantile mosaics, this was a place where the shelves were lined with hundreds of tin cans filled with colorful tiles. Here, a team of artists translated Millard’s index-card drawings into large-scale designs made up of thousands of beautifully colored glass tiles, calledtesserae, made in Murano, Italy. Some tiles are actually platinum or 24-karat gold beneath a layer of glass. Sheets’ mosaics were installed in the Mercantile Dallas Building in two forms: freestanding with tile images on both sides, or embedded in walls of travertine. While the materials are delicate, the weight is anything but, with some pieces weighing more than a ton. The process of removing these meant-to-be-permanent works is a testament to unbridled manual labor and light-handed detail work. Extracting them is just as tricky, if not more difficult, than installing them. “Any change in setting will make them fall apart,” says Tony Sheets. “Michael Van Enter did it in a way that I’ve never seen done.”

For those mosaics embedded in the walls, Van Enter built a steel frame around each mosaic, matching its angular perimeter exactly. Next, a pulley system was fastened to the ceiling and secured to the mosaic’s frame. The pulley was cranked taut while the wall surrounding the mosaic was destroyed. Left hanging safely, the mosaic was lowered into a custom-made cradle, which was either lifted out of the building by crane or wheeled away atop a custom-made buggy, specially made to absorb bumps that might break the tiles.

A close-up of a mosaic that was formally located in the Mercantile Bank Building, Dallas. Shannon Faulk/Special Contributor

The removal of all the mosaics continued through late 2005 and into the early months of 2006. Van Enter and his team worked around the clock, even inventing tools and removal methods specific to the project.

The last mosaic’s removal was one of the most memorable. “I rappelled down an elevator shaft to grab the last bit of art,” says Van Enter, a gleam in his eye. For the dedicated, thrill-seeking art conservator, it was his Indiana Jones moment, the Holy Grail in his clutches. Alas, Headington hadn’t a place in mind to display the works. He had his hands full starting a new project: the luxurious Joule Dallas hotel on Main Street, just blocks from where the Mercantile Bank complex once stood, set to open in 2008.

“We were having a hard time deciding where to display the mosaics appropriately,” Tregoning says. “We always wanted to put them in an historic building in the same neighborhood as the Mercantile.” There was a gentlemen’s agreement to keep in mind, too. Though not set in stone, Tregoning says that in return for eventually restoring, relocating and keeping the mosaics together as a publicly visible collection in Dallas, the city volunteered some assistance with the project. “It was helpful in making certain things happen,” says Tregoning, “and giving leeway in terms of using the street and giving us access to the buildings.”

As Melde says, “It’s a good story about government actually working.”

From the archives. The Mercantile complex, circa 1958, as shot by the noted architectural photography firm Hedrich Blessing.

Safely removed but with nowhere to go, the more than 70 mosaics were put in storage. They became orphans waiting for Headington to find them a permanent home.

It’s just after 11 a.m. on Friday, May 18, 2012. Downtown traffic is moving along Commerce Street: Taxi cabs linger outside the Adolphus and the Magnolia hotels; a trickle of out-of-towners observes the oddly serene cityscape; a lady with a platinum-blonde bob surrenders her Range Rover to a valet at Neiman Marcus. An 18-wheel flatbed truck interrupts the mise-en-scène and pulls in front of a construction site. Its cargo is supremely precious and exposed: four otherworldly mosaics standing upright on the truck’s bed. Their subjects — earth, air, water, fire — are illustrated with Murano-glass tiles, gleaming in the sharp morning sun. The address where the truck has stopped, 1511 Commerce St., will soon be part of the newly expanded Joule hotel. Come 2013, Tim Headington will debut a sprawling complex that is more than twice the size of the original hotel at its opening in 2008. The Mercantile mosaics are orphans no longer, six years after being rescued from the Mercantile Bank complex.

Van Enter climbs onto the truck bed, carefully examining each mosaic after the sub-20-mph trip from whence they came. He wears a highlighter-orange construction vest with the misspelled phrase Art Consevator, followed by Studio Van Enter, all handwritten in Sharpie block letters on the back. In contrast to the hard hats worn by the Balfour Beatty construction men around him, Van Enter dons a World War I helmet. (“My father wore a similar one,” he says. “They’re more comfortable.”) Van Enter has a team of riggers with him. These men are specially trained to move valuable works of art. One by one, they will hitch each mosaic to the end of a crane cable.

Today, Millard Sheets’ mosaics will fly.

The dramatic depiction of fire — a sun of 24-karat-gold tile and flames of tile fire in hot red-orange — begins to elevate steadily. An eerie hush overtakes the construction site as dozens of scruffy-bearded workers tilt their heads up, their eyes glued to this abnormal sight. The crane rotates slowly, directing the mosaic to an opening in the future Joule’s roof. For a moment, just before it begins its descent, the tile sun eclipses the real sun. The mosaic is then lowered, where a handful of riggers receive it. The sun and flames slowly disappear into the opening — much like a coin being dropped into a piggy bank, only in slow motion. Then it’s on to the next mosaic.

The mosaic Birds in Tree shown in its original context, prior to removal, on the second floor of the Mercantile Dallas Building. Photographed in 2005 by Kye R. Lee/The Dallas Morning News.

When plans were approved to expand the Joule, Headington and Tregoning knew it would be the ideal place to finally house the artworks. “We went through the blueprints with the architect, Adam Tihany,” Tregoning says, “and specifically designed spaces that the Mercantile art would be.” Van Enter was given the green light to restore the mosaics to their original splendor. Hundreds of hours were spent inside a gargantuan warehouse near Fair Park — in the 1920s, Ford Motor Co. assembled cars there; today, invaluable artworks populate the capacious space, waiting for Van Enter’s sensitive restorations to prep them for their new home.

During the next seven months, 73 mosaics will be transported from the warehouse to the expanded Joule. Van Enter will set up shop there, and as the wall finishes go up and the furniture is arranged, the mosaics will be installed — ideal viewing angles carefully considered, proper art lighting expertly installed.

A representative for Headington confirms that to date, more than $2 million has been spent on the removal, storage and restoration of the Mercantile mosaics. “The certainty that these pieces would be destroyed by a wrecking ball,” Headington says, “seemed unconscionable to me.” There may have been no price too high for such purely evocative pieces. “What’s great about these is that they talk,” says Tregoning. “They come at you.”

Shout may be more like it — all the way to Oregon. From his home there, Tony Sheets has followed this saga, via phone calls, since its inception. He calls the fate of the Mercantile mosaics — his father’s legacy, a symbol of Dallas and the career-shaping project for young architect Rufus Turner — one of the greatest rescues of all time.

“I love it when people say it can’t be done,” he says. “Usually, that means it can.”

THE MAN BEHIND THE MOSAICS

The late California artist Millard Sheets was a Renaissance man: a painter, muralist and architectural designer who possessed charm in spades. “A blond Bond bombshell,” as longtime colleague Rufus Turner describes him. Good looks and charisma aside, Sheets was best known for designing the Southern California Home Savings buildings during the 1950s and ’60s. His banks united art and architecture in a highly stylized, trendsetting fashion, often incorporating dozens of glass-tile mosaics in signature modern designs. The popularity of Sheets’ art-filled California banks soon spurred commissions for him in Texas, where he worked on projects in Tyler, Lubbock and at the Mercantile Bank Building complex in Dallas.

Sheets was not alone in executing the Mercantile mosaics, though. He had help from a team of artists based in his Claremont, Calif., studio. The team included Jean and Arthur Ames, known as the parents of the California mosaic revival of the late 1930s; noted watercolorist and textile artist Martha Menke Underwood; and Susan Hertel, one of the lead artists said to have been assigned to oversee the Mercantile mosaics project in Dallas.

But with more than 70 mosaic works to install in the Mercantile buildings, it is speculated that Sheets may have tapped other professional mosaicists, too, to assist in the fabrication and installation. “Martha and Sue could not produce all of them themselves,” says Adam Arenson, assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso and a noted Millard Sheets expert. Lillian Sizemore, a California-based specialist in the American mosaic muralist movement, theorizes that many of the Mercantile mosaics were probably worked on by the Ravenna Mosaic Co. in St. Louis, which may have employed artists based in Venice, Italy, to assist. In 1959 and 1960, Sizemore says, “Sheets completed 11 major architectural mosaic installations, including the massive Mercantile project. It is unlikely his Claremont studio could have produced and installed that amount of work in-house …. Using outside fabricators was critical while adapting the medium to his signature modernist style.”

Assembling thousands of small, delicate glass pieces — the Mercantile tiles were made in Murano — into final works of art was a tedious process, indeed. Typically, the tiles were first carefully glued face down onto a brown-paper cartoon, a large-scale drawing of the design projected backward. Next, the tile-laden brown paper was applied to the wall in sections, this time with the backs of the tiles adhered to the wall. The brown paper was then dampened and peeled away from the tiles, revealing the final design for the first time, now ready for grouting and finishing touches. Recalls Rufus Turner of being on-site during the installation of the Dallas mosaics: “I was in the building at night, saw a motion in the dark and looked up,” he says. “There was a woman working on the scaffolding, finishing up the tiles. I’d never seen anything like it in my life — except for in picture books about Italy.” — C.G.

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