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Stone reliefs in Downtown alley keep art sleuths guessing

| Sunday, May 6, 2012, 11:18 p.m.
Coffee Way alley, Downtown,there are four stone reliefs, including this one, that adorn the back of the building at 808 Liberty Avenue. Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Coffee Way alley, Downtown,there are four stone reliefs, including this one, that adorn the back of the building at 808 Liberty Avenue. Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Coffee Way alley, Downtown,there are four stone reliefs, including this one, that adorn the back of the building at 808 Liberty Avenue. Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Coffee Way alley, Downtown,there are four stone reliefs, including this one, that adorn the back of the building at 808 Liberty Avenue. Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
'I had never even been in the back of the building before,' said Louise Silk, one of the owners of the Liberty Avenue building Downtown where four stone reliefs can be seen. 'I think it's ridiculous that they're back here in the alley.' Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review

No one will ever know why four of the oldest stone sculptures in Pittsburgh ended up on the back wall of a vacant building facing a Downtown alley where few people see them, a public art expert says.

The reliefs are carved into pieces of stone about 2 feet square. They have baffled historians for generations because of their peculiar location behind the old Arbuckles Coffee building in Coffee Way.

The identity of only one is certain, adding to the mystery, said Renee Piechocki, director of the Pittsburgh Office of Public Art, a joint partnership of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council and the city Planning Department.

"Obviously the one is very clear. You know it's Abraham Lincoln," she said.

The other reliefs show a man, a woman and what appears to be a Native American wearing a headdress. Speculation on the identity of the woman varies from Mary Todd Lincoln to Pittsburgh philanthropist Mary Croghan Schenley to Pittsburgh-born abolitionist Jane Grey Swisshelm, according to old newspaper accounts.

"I think the woman is a mystery, but it's certainly the earliest depiction of a woman (as opposed to a mythical figure) in sort of an architectural setting in Pittsburgh," Piechocki said.

The other man could be George Washington or Henry Bouquet, a British officer at Fort Pitt during the French and Indian War, art historians say.

The stone pieces came from the front of a building at 808 Liberty Ave., built during the Civil War era and demolished in 1936 after the St. Patrick's Day flood that year, according to the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. After the flood, the Arbuckle company rebuilt on the site, using the foundation and incorporating the four reliefs into a back wall. The two-story brick building at 808 Liberty Ave. opened in 1936 and has changed hands several times since.

John Arbuckle, born in 1839 in Allegheny City, which became the North Side, developed a process for preserving roasted coffee beans and marketing them in 1-pound paper packages. His Ariosa coffee, still available today, was the most popular brand of coffee in the United States for decades and was known as "the coffee that won the West" for its popularity among cowboys and other Westerners during the 19th century.

Arbuckle died in 1912 and is buried in Allegheny Cemetery. The company continued under the management of his heirs.

South Side quilt maker Louise Silk, one of the current owners of the Liberty Avenue building, said her father and two uncles -- who owned the National Record Mart chain in Pittsburgh -- bought it as a store location and investment for their children in 1974. The most recent tenant, Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts, recently closed.

"I had never even been in the back of the building before, and I'm sure no one in my family knew about (the reliefs)," said Silk, 61. "I think it's ridiculous that they're back here in the alley."

Why the builder saved the reliefs but placed them in an alley is a mystery, Piechocki said.

"You've got to wonder if some stone mason said, 'Oh, wait, let's save these,' or if someone salvaged them from the scrap heap," she said.

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