FORTY YEARS AGO, a young sculptor was commissioned by the City of Tacoma to create a piece of public art that might liven a run-down, two-block stretch of downtown Tacoma.
It could have been an exciting time for the 32-year-old artist, Tom Morandi, who earned an MFA in sculpture at Ohio University in 1971, and had only one other major public art commission on his resume — an arched, sleek, stainless steel sculpture originally commissioned by the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, Pa.
It could have also been an exciting time for Tacoma, which would soon see the construction of a 25-story, 338-room Sheraton Hotel near the corner of Broadway and South 13th Street, just steps from Morandi’s new sculpture.
The high-rise hotel would help announce the city as a destination for travelers, and Morandi’s sculpture would announce Tacoma as a city that embraced public art.
What happened instead was a fit of public uproar that cast a long shadow over Morandi’s “Sun King,” a three-ton, 15-foot-tall, 22-foot-wide steel frame sculpture wrapped in a silicon bronze skin.
“The sculpture was controversial from the beginning,” Morandi recently told the Tacoma Daily Index from his home in Corvallis, Ore. “To my mind, it was never considered a point of pride with most Tacomans.”
According to newspaper articles archived at Tacoma Public Library’s Northwest Room, one of Tacoma’s daily newspapers stoked much of the animosity. A columnist who followed the story at the time described the sculpture as “giant dinosaur droppings.” The columnist’s observations weren’t so much informed critiques of public art, but more like the work of a hyperactive, mouth-breathing teenager who had been given a typewriter and free reign over the opinion page of his high school newspaper. It was the kind of behavior that encouraged a public pile-on.
“I believe that most of these so-called sculptors are hiding mediocrity and trivial talent (if any) behind a facade of junk that is purportedly beyond the comprehension of ordinary folks,” wrote one Tacoma resident. “So I urge this little band of self-styled art ‘experts’ to gather at one of the local wrecking yards where they can cluck endlessly over the merits and true meaning of a rusted-out 1962 Chevrolet.”
Still, some people came to Morandi’s defense.
“Are you implying it would be better to have no works of art in Tacoma?” wrote one local resident in response to the columnist. “I’m glad that somebody cares enough about Tacoma to do something downtown. What have you done lately for downtown? Anything is better than nothing. And nothing is what gets done if you criticize everything that’s new or different.”
“We’re delighted about the Broadway Plaza sculpture,” wrote a married couple living in South Tacoma. “We’re glad we live where people care enough to save downtown instead of in New York or Detroit, which are slums downtown.”
In the end, a nine-member panel chosen by the Tacoma-Pierce County Civic Arts Commission awarded the federally-funded, $35,000 commission to Morandi in 1974. He was one of 47 artists who applied for the commission, which was part of a Broadway Plaza renovation project. Morandi spent two years creating the three-piece sculpture before it was strapped to the back of a flat-bed truck and hauled from his studio in LaGrande, Ore., to downtown Tacoma. It was installed in late-March of 1976, eight years before the Sheraton Hotel opened its doors (a brief newspaper article announced it was “ready to be cussed and discussed by the critics of modern art in Tacoma — everybody!”).
Morandi seemed unfazed (and even amused) by the criticism.
“I’m delighted over the controversy,” he told a local reporter at the time. “It’s spice in the pie, and it doesn’t change the quality of the piece. The attacks generate interest. People will start thinking about it. Even those who call it ‘giant dinosaur droppings’ are thinking about it. If it is giant dinosaur droppings, it was from a very tidy, very perceptive dinosaur.”
Morandi went on to a respectable career in art. He was an art professor at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore., for more than 25 years. He created public art for the State of Oregon, University of Portland, City of Aberdeen, Clark County, and Oregon State University.
The Sun King controversy died out over the next three decades.
SEVEN YEARS AGO, however, Sun King was snubbed again. The piece was placed in storage to make way for the glass-and-steel sculpture “Orizon” by Greek artist Costas Varotsos. The $700,000, 104-foot-tall sculpture was a signal of sorts for a new era: the former Sheraton Hotel was stylishly renovated and renamed Hotel Murano.
Two months ago, the City of Tacoma began to accept bids on a $25,000 public works project that would take Sun King out of storage and place it in a park located at South 15th Street and Dock Street, near Thea Foss Waterway (see “A new home for Tacoma’s Sun King?” Tacoma Daily Index, Dec. 3, 2013). In December, Tacoma Public Works Project Engineer Dan Cederlund cautioned that a timeline for installing Sun King was entirely dependent on the bids received. “If bids are reasonable (based on the $25,000 estimate), we plan on awarding just after New Year’s,” Cederlund told the Index. “The work window we want is for early spring, so grass can recover, but after the hard freezes are over. We want it open and finished by late-spring. If bids are unreasonable, we can shelve the project, so it’s not a done deal [until] we get the bids.”
The bid deadline expired on Dec. 19.
According to public documents on the City of Tacoma’s Web site, five contractors submitted bids: Lincoln Construction, Inc. (Spanaway, Wash.) — $71,938; Combined Construction, Inc. (Mukilteo, Wash.) — $47,358.75; D & D Construction 1, Inc. (Puyallup, Wash.) — $24,502.36; Star Construction (Puyallup, Wash.) — $54,410.25; and RCR General Contractors LLC (Auburn, Wash.) — $26,006.25.
Cederlund said Monday that he wouldn’t have an update on the project until next week.
ONE PERSON WHO would like to see the sculpture brought out of storage is Ellida Lathrop. Now 82 years old and still living in the area, Lathrop served on the original commission that selected Morandi. She’s as much of an animated booster today as she was 40 years ago.
“The artwork itself is significant because of what Tom Morandi viewed as a reflection of this particular area of the Pacific Northwest,” Lathrop told the Index this week. “Within the work itself is a mountain, wildlife, forests — everything that signifies the natural area. It really speaks to this area in terms of what he was trying to say to describe our geographic location and the feeling about it.
“The fact that he called it ‘Sun King,’ I thought that was significant because we rarely see the sun, and this work is bronze and it glistens,” she added. “Even as the patina grew old, it still was a bright, bright spot. Whereas the downtown area at the time where it was placed was incredibly sterile.”
Lathrop seems lukewarm on the proposed site near Thea Foss Waterway. “Wright Park would be so much better,” she said. “Tom Morandi always intended that it be a walk-around, touchable piece.”
She also believes that the longer it is locked away in storage, the more likely it is that people will forget about it. Lathrop notes that most of her colleagues on the original selection committee have passed away. Her message to Tacoma City Hall: “Put that thing out there before I die, or else I’m going to come back to haunt you.”
As for Morandi, who is now 70 years old and a professor emeritus at Oregon State University, he has gone online to see maps and pictures of the proposed site.
“I’d describe it as spare, but well-maintained and tucked away,” Morandi told the Index. “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,” he added.
More information about Tom Morandi is available online at tommorandi.com.
To read the Tacoma Daily Index‘s complete and comprehensive coverage of Tacoma’s Sun King, click on the following links:
- Could Tacoma’s Sun King see light of day by summer? (Tacoma Daily Index, February 26, 2014)
- Sun King In Storage: It’s no castle, but a Tacoma repair shop is home for now (Tacoma Daily Index, February 11, 2014)
- Sun King Dethroned: Can Tacoma ever appreciate this piece of public art? (Tacoma Daily Index, February 5, 2014)
- Tacoma Daily Index Top Stories — December 2013 (Tacoma Daily Index, January 2, 2014)
- A new home for Tacoma’s Sun King? (Tacoma Daily Index, December 3, 2013)
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 messengers; second-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.