Sun King Rising: Moving Tacoma’s massive Sun King involved more than heavy lifting

Dan Cederlund was at the City of Tacoma’s Fleet Operations Headquarters on Wednesday afternoon describing how Tacoma’s Sun King—a three-ton, 15-foot-tall, 22-foot-wide bronze-and-steel sculpture—was recently restored when he paused.

A contractor perched atop a ladder was reaching his arm inside a 2,300-pound section of the sculpture and grabbing for heavy-duty straps that would be fed through and around the piece. Meanwhile, another contractor was rolling out wrestling mats and laying down wooden planks to help cushion and lift the massive piece. Finally, a driver behind the wheel of a forklift was prepared to hoist the section onto one of three flatbed trailers waiting to carry their cargo on a roughly four-mile drive to a public park near Thea Foss Waterway.

It was a precarious scene that caught Cederlund’s attention. “If something goes wrong with this project, it’s going to reflect on me,” he said. “I’ll have egg on my face.”

Cederlund is an experienced engineer. He worked in the construction industry for 20 years before landing a job at an engineering firm that designed a dry dock facility in Aberdeen, Wash., where the Washington State Department of Transportation is building pontoons as part of a project to replace a section of State Route 520 that crosses Lake Washington in Seattle.

Since he was hired by the City of Tacoma nearly two years ago to work as a project engineer in the Public Works Department, Cederlund has worked on a variety of projects: remodeling fire stations; replacing a 40-year-old heating/ventilating system atop City Hall; and restoring the Children’s Bell sculpture along Ruston Way.

But Sun King was different.

The enormous sculpture was disassembled into three somewhat manageable pieces so they could be moved out of Fleet Headquarters, the latest in a string of temporary homes for a piece of public art that sat in storage for nearly a decade. If Cederlund and the contractors could re-assemble Sun King in the public park, it would mark the end of a long journey for a piece of art that was installed in late-March of 1976 near the corner of Broadway and South 13th Street, just steps from the 25-story, 338-room Sheraton Hotel. Sun King was warehoused seven years ago, however, to make way for a bigger and more expensive glass-and-steel sculpture that signaled a new era—the former Sheraton Hotel was stylishly renovated and renamed Hotel Murano; Sun King, which was originally commissioned for $35,000, was displaced (see “Sun King Dethroned: Can Tacoma ever appreciate this piece of public art?” Tacoma Daily Index, February 5, 2014).

Last year, the City began to accept bids on a $25,000 project to put Sun King back on public display (see “A new home for Tacoma’s Sun King?” Tacoma Daily Index, December 3, 2013). Five companies submitted bids. Puyallup, Wash.-based D & D Construction was awarded the contract.

But the project involved more than just heavy lifting that took place this week. For decades, water leaked inside Sun King during rainy seasons. According to Cederlund, as the water evaporated during warmer temperatures, steam escaped through tiny cracks and rotted the metal inside the sculpture. Cederlund spent several months designing a sloped, concrete base that would drain water out of Sun King and into dry wells. It’s an engineering trick that sort of allows Sun King to “breathe.”

“We did a lot [of design work] for ventilation and drainage so there is no more deterioration,” Cederlund explained. He also engineered huge plates to keep the sculpture secured to its relatively narrow concrete base. According to Cederlund, the move will prevent Sun King from acting as a sail—and possibly tipping over—during heavy winds. “Getting it down secure and having it breathe at the same time are really important.”

By Wednesday afternoon, contractors had completed the cross-town move without incident and were assembling the heavy pieces. The following morning, the trailers and forklift were gone, and Sun King offered a striking pose against the park’s trees and lawn.

“I think it will be a nice anchor down there,” said City of Tacoma Arts Administrator Amy McBride. In the long-term, she sees Sun King and its new home fitting in well with the Prairie Line Trail, which will eventually connect the University of Washington Tacoma campus to Thea Foss Waterway and pass near the park. The Sun King’s new home is also close to the Tacoma Art Museum, which is in the middle of an expansion project that is expected to draw more visitors and art patrons to the area. “Right now, it’s sort of in a transition point, but it’s a transition toward more activity—and more vibrant pedestrian activity.”

McBride also noted the new location could mean a new appreciation for Sun King.

“I took [Sun King] for granted when I walked past it all the time outside the Sheraton,” she explained. “It was kind of this big thing I couldn’t get around. As I become more intimate with it, whether you look at it and say, ‘Oh, I know what it is’ or ‘I like it’—or not!— I can’t imagine that you can’t appreciate what it must take to make those compound curves. I think it’s majestic. If nothing else, people will say, ‘Hey, what’s that thing down there?’ and go explore and see what it is. Even if they scratch their head, that’s a good thing.”

The City of Tacoma will host a public dedication ceremony for Sun King on Weds., June 25, at 12 p.m.

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Sun King Interview: Sculptor Tom Morandi

Nearly 40 years have passed since Pacific Northwest sculptor Tom Morandi was commissioned to create “Sun King”—a three-ton, 15-foot-tall, 22-foot-wide steel frame sculpture wrapped in a silicon bronze skin.

The piece is an interesting chapter of Tacoma’s public art history. Sun King was controversial from the moment it was commissioned in 1976. It served as a target for anyone who wanted to direct their white hot animosity and resentment—much of it stoked by a local newspaper columnist who described the sculpture as “giant dinosaur droppings”—toward perceived elitists who appreciated abstract art.

But Morandi’s skin proved to be as thick as the sculpture’s hardy silicon bronze. Morandi completed the piece and Sun King sat outside the Sheraton Hotel, near the corner of South 13th Street and Broadway, for decades. When it was displaced seven years ago to make way for a new sculpture, some people wondered if it would be warehoused forever.

On Wednesday, Sun King was taken out of storage and put back on public display—this time in a public park near South 15th Street and Dock Street along Thea Foss Waterway. Morandi will be in town next month for a public ceremony to formally dedicate Sun King.

The Tacoma Daily Index, which began to report on Sun King’s return last year, spoke with Morandi—a professor emeritus at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore., who has created public art for the State of Oregon, University of Portland, City of Aberdeen, Clark County, and Oregon State University—on several occasions to gather his thoughts on Sun King and its connection to Tacoma. Here are some of his observations, condensed and edited for publication.

Sculptor Tom Morandi. (PHOTO COURTESY TOM MORANDI)

Sculptor Tom Morandi. (PHOTO COURTESY TOM MORANDI)

ON THE ORIGINAL SUN KING COMMISSION

As I recall, the original Request for Proposals talked about a Federal grant to revitalize a two- or three-block section of Broadway that would include large public sculptures at each end. Or perhaps it was a sculpture at one end and a fountain at the other. In any event, my piece was chosen for the south end and was, in fact, installed before the Sheraton was constructed.

ON THE DECISION TO PLACE SUN KING IN STORAGE

The sculpture was controversial from the beginning and, to my mind, it was never considered a point of pride with most Tacomans. So I was neither surprised nor disappointed when I was told it was to be moved. “Resigned” would be a better word. However, it does, in fact, belong to the City, and it’s disposition ultimately resides with the City. I believe that, at the time, I was told that my sculpture needed to be relocated because the footprint of the new hotel would not accommodate it.

ON THE NEW LOCATION FOR SUN KING

I’ve checked the site on Google Earth and I’d describe it as spare, but well-maintained and tucked away. However, pedestrian access all around suggests that it might be a more popular venue than it seems on a map. Any site that offers the public the opportunity to see the piece and, if interested, to study it more closely is a good site.

ON WORKING WITH THE CITY OF TACOMA REGARDING SUN KING’S RETURN

I have been consulted or notified at virtually every major step over the years from dismantling the sculpture [and] through the current site selection. My primary contact has been [City of Tacoma Arts Administrator] Amy McBride. In addition, both Amy and Dan Cederlund, the project engineer, have provided extensive overviews of the park’s future and Sun King’s place in it.

ON PUTTING SUN KING BACK ON PUBLIC DISPLAY

Of course, I’m pleased at the prospect of having Sun King sited in a public place again. The time spent in storage is negligible when compared to the decades and beyond I expect it to be at the park. I plan to be at the dedication and am very much looking forward to seeing the piece again.

Sun King Interview: Tacoma Project Engineer Dan Cederlund

City of Tacoma Public Works Project Engineer Dan Cederlund has overseen the logistics of moving Sun King out of storage and putting it back on public display. The Tacoma Daily Index spoke with Cederlund this week to gather his thoughts on some of the engineering work behind the three-ton sculpture. Here are some of his observations, condensed and edited for publication.

City of Tacoma Public Works Project Engineer Dan Cederlund. (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

City of Tacoma Public Works Project Engineer Dan Cederlund. (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

ON ENGINEERING WORK TO LET SUN KING ‘BREATHE’

Originally, the base was set down on a concrete footing and then a four-inch sidewalk was poured around it. The sidewalk was actually higher than the base, so the inside of it leaks. There’s actually an access hole where water drips in when it rains a little bit. You get a couple cups of water inside Sun King every time it rains. When they mounted it that way years ago, it pooled water inside. It took months to get rid of because it had to steam out through tiny cracks. So from October to July, there was water inside Sun King and it rotted out the base. Also, the steam that was generated from the water rusted all the metal that was inside of Sun King. One of the things we have designed are drain holes, which you will never see because they are right in the middle [of the concrete foundation]. They drop into a dry well, which is just a big sand pit that is a couple feet deep. So any water that gets in there will drop down into a drain hole. We did a lot [of design work] for ventilation and drainage so there is no more deterioration.

ON SECURING SUN KING IN ITS NEW LOCATION

It’s sitting on the waterfront. Even though it’s blocked by an on-ramp, we designed it for a wind load [similar to] a hurricane. Huge plates hold Sun King down. The base is only eight inches wide, and Sun King is 12 feet tall and four feet wide. So you have a 12-foot-by-four-foot “sail” that’s sitting on a narrow base. When the wind hits it, it’s real “tippy.” So we designed it so that if the on-ramp ever went away and Sun King had complete exposure for five miles of open water, it could [withstand] a 60 or 70 mile per hour gust. So getting it down secure and having it breathe at the same time are really important.

ON LONG-TERM MAINTENANCE OF SUN KING

It’s made out of silicon bronze, which is a really inert material. It’s what people who build ships use a lot because they are in a saltwater environment—the most corrosive environment you can be in—so it doesn’t corrode. It holds up really well. There are other types of bronze that react much more to acids in rain. The long-term maintenance shouldn’t be much at all.

ON HIS CONNECTION TO SUN KING

I’ve grown attached to it. I feel like this is my baby. If something goes wrong with this project, it’s going to reflect on me. I’ve put my arms around it, so to speak, and have said, “I’m going to take care of you. I’m going to get you there.”

Sun King Interview: Tacoma Arts Administrator Amy McBride

City of Tacoma Arts Administrator Amy McBride tried to find a suitable location for Sun King for most of the seven years it was in storage. The Tacoma Daily Index spoke with McBride this week to gather her thoughts on Sun King, its connection to Tacoma, and the significance of putting the piece back on public display. Here are some of her observations, condensed and edited for publication.

City of Tacoma Arts Administrator Amy McBride. (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

City of Tacoma Arts Administrator Amy McBride. (PHOTO BY TODD MATTHEWS)

ON SITE SELECTION FOR SUN KING

We considered a couple different locations. Many years ago, I thought perhaps the top of the [South] 19th Street steps at the University of Washington Tacoma might have been a good idea, but it didn’t really work with the master planning of the university. Then I thought perhaps down at the end of the other side of Dock Street, where the park was done, but there were plans for that, as well. Then I remember [Tacoma City Councilmember] David Boe had done kind of an envision Tacoma series—I think it was before he was on the council. I think it was even ‘pre-Prairie-Line-Trail.’ Having a sculpture walk that kind of connected the museums, a light went on because we own that property. If we own the property, it’s easier to place something, obviously. But it also made sense in the forward thinking of the onset of the Prairie Line Trail and the Museum District, kind of making a connection with a signature piece. That’s kind of how we came to [the park].

ON SUN KING’S EARLY CONTROVERSY AND NEARLY-40-YEAR HISTORY IN TACOMA

I think plenty of people remember because Tacomans have long memories. But so much has changed since then. The same people that have the memory of it write me hand-written letters asking why it hasn’t been reinstalled yet. I think there are still a lot of people out there who want to see it. It’s a public asset. It needs to be in public. I also think it’s a new day. If we were to commission a monumental piece of this scale and size, we wouldn’t be able to afford it. It just couldn’t even happen now. I also think being in the new location with some air around it, some greenspace, it will be really nice for it, and put it in a new light, as well.

ON SUN KING’S DISPLACEMENT

The Hotel Murano had plans for their frontage and the redevelopment of their streetscape that didn’t include [Sun King]. That happens a lot. With public art, if the site changes drastically, sometimes we have to de-accession a piece. I’m just grateful that, although it’s taken seven years, we are able to re-install it, finally. Because sometimes the loss of a site means the piece goes away. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

ON THE NEW LOCATION VERSUS THE OLD LOCATION

I think it needs greenery around it. Also, with the cultural district and the connection it’s going to make with the Prairie Line Trail coming through and the museums. That whole waterway is going to be changing in the future, too. Right now, it’s sort of in a transition point, but it’s a transition toward more activity—and more vibrant pedestrian activity. I think it will be a nice anchor down there. I took it for granted when I walked past it all the time outside the Sheraton. It was kind of this big thing I couldn’t get around. As I become more intimate with it, whether you look at it and say, “Oh, I know what it is” or “I like it”—or not!— I can’t imagine that you can’t appreciate what it must take to make those compound curves. I think it’s majestic. If nothing else, people will say, “Hey, what’s that thing down there?” and go explore and see what it is. Even if they scratch their head, that’s a good thing.

ON TACOMANS VIEWING SUN KING AGAIN

It’s abstract. One thing to know, as well, is that once it is installed, we’re going to have it cleaned and waxed. The poor thing has been in storage. It’s all dusty. I think when it’s really in the light and the sun, and you can see the facets of it—it’s a beautiful piece—people will come upon it and they will have their own interpretation. Everybody doesn’t like everything. But there are plenty of people out there who value monumental sculptures. As far as bronze goes, to fabricate something this intricately, it’s amazing.

To read the Tacoma Daily Index’s complete and comprehensive coverage of Tacoma’s Sun King, click on the following links:

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index and recipient of an award for Outstanding Achievement in Media from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation for his work covering historic preservation in Tacoma and Pierce County. He has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including first-place honors for his feature article about Seattle’s bike messengerssecond-place honors for his feature article about whistle-blowers in Washington State; third-place honors for his feature article about the University of Washington’s Innocence Project; and third-place honors for his feature interview with Prison Legal News founder Paul Wright. His work has appeared in All About Jazz, City Arts Tacoma, Earshot Jazz, Homeland Security Today, Jazz Steps, Journal of the San Juans, Lynnwood-Mountlake Terrace Enterprise, Prison Legal News, Rain Taxi, Real Change, Seattle Business Monthly, Seattle magazine, Tablet, Washington CEO, Washington Law & Politics, and Washington Free Press. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.