Industrial past inspires Fairmont's 'Garden of Titans' Christmas tree

| Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

“A tree this cool deserves to be admired,” says the sign accompanying the 16-foot-tall Christmas tree in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel, Downtown.

It also deserves a second look.

Instead of a traditional blue spruce or Douglas fir that might have ended up in the hotel Dumpster, the whimsical, contemporary sculpture is spending its second Christmas on display, part of what the hotel's management team intends as a long-running tradition.

The hotel “wanted something that would tie into the hotel's themes of art and industry,” says Julie Abramovic, public-relations manager of the Fairmont Pittsburgh. They also wanted to highlight the Fairmont's commitment to recycling and sustainability.

“The Fairmont asked for a non-traditional Christmas tree. That set us free of the cone shape,” says sculptor Matt Clifford of Forecast Design/Build in Polish Hill, who had previously created most of the Fairmont Pittsburgh's display cases.

Pieces of oak, walnut, maple and cherry were salvaged from tree-maintenance projects in Polish Hill. Once stripped of their bark, they were assembled by Clifford to form the tree's angular trunk and its branches.

The pieces are held together by metal collars that make it possible to disassemble and store the tree for reuse.

A careful examination reveals decorations such as gears, chains, wrenches, hammers and other tools and machinery parts that are drawn from Pittsburgh's industrial past.

“In a couple of places, we cut gears apart and engaged the teeth. We started to look for opportunities to have wheel shapes … that imply you could wind it up,” Clifford says.

Many of the items come from Clifford's collection of found objects, including his grandfather's red-handled tack hammer. Others were salvaged from construction projects on which he worked, were contributed by friends or purchased from Construction Junction in Point Breeze.

The tree is illuminated by an assortment of vintage milk-glass light globes salvaged from old buildings.

While brainstorming ideas for the tree, Clifford and the team at Forecast Design/Build were inspired by an article about Pittsburgh titled “Playground of the Titans” from a 1939 issue of National Geographic magazine.

“That was the height of the industrial period here,” Clifford says.

The article led them to speculate on what the Titans' garden would look like. They called the finished sculpture “Garden of the Titans.”

He says the trunk's deliberate crookedness reminds him of the spindly, off-center tree in the Peanuts TV special “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

The tree may be composed of materials from the past, but that won't stop it from moving into the future.

This year, the glass globes have been augmented with energy-saving, computer-controlled LED modules that blink, change color and use less electricity than one 150-watt bulb.

Clifford also is thinking that in future years, additional lights might be imbedded in metal parts.

“We always knew and wanted the option to switch it up and keep it fresh,” Abramovic says.

The tree is on display through mid-January in the lobby of the Fairmont Pittsburgh Hotel, 510 Market St., Downtown.

Alice T. Carter is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or

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