At the end of Wickenden Street, just off the roadway, construction equipment stood guard over piles of steel and rubble: remnants of an old Route 195 overpass taken down over the last month or so as part of a larger effort to shift the highway.
Still standing, early in the week of February 8, were the two abutment walls that held up the highway. And with them, one of the city's most useful and recognizable pieces of public art: a set of murals — replicas of famous paintings — that has served as a colorful alternative to grime and graffiti for some 13 years.
As the Phoenix went to press, crews were moving to demolish the southern wall — taking down facsimiles of an Andy Warhol self-portrait, a Paul Cezanne self-portrait, and Fernando Botero's La Familia Pinzon, among others.
The northern wall, which includes images from Pablo Picasso's Guernica and an imitation of Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, will have a reprieve until the summer, according to a spokesman for the state's Department of Transportation.
Brent Bachelder, the designer behind the project, confesses to a certain amount of relief at the demolition. Maintaining murals on an underpass subject to the smearings of pigeons and vehicles was a headache.
"Every year it was, 'Oh God, we have to work on it again,' " he says. "It became this drudgery after awhile." But the designer says he will miss the familiar sight of the artwork.
Bachelder and a pair of then-Brown University students, Lauren Reba and Alicia Woodley, began planning the beautification project in 1996. The next year, they sketched the outlines of murals on the northern wall of the underpass and recruited friends, volunteers from local colleges, kids with the Fox Point Boys & Girls Club, and passersby to paint between the lines. In 1998, a similar crew completed work on the southern wall.
Local merchants helped sponsor the project by buying small ads on either side. And when advertisers went out of business, Bachelder sold sponsorships to other businesses to help pay for the upkeep.
Maintaining the murals was a challenge. A bird flu scare kept Bachelder and friends from touch-up work one year. The pigeon droppings, already unpleasant, suddenly looked lethal. And once, the designer had to fend off an overeager RISD student who approached him when he was on site. "He said, 'I'm redesigning this, I'm going to put my own mural here,' " Bachelder recalls. "I was like, 'Um, no.' "
But the maintenance work, if burdensome, proved something of a boon to his design business, Club Neopolsi Creations Design Studio. Future clients, driving by the patch-up crew, would frequently stop to ask for business cards.
Bachelder went on to spearhead other mural projects, including a couple on underpasses: one on Broadway, which hasn't required much maintenance, and another on Chestnut Street that quickly fell prey to vandalism.
On the tenth anniversary of the original mural project, nicknamed "Wonderful Wickenden Street" by Bachelder and friends, the designer was planning a major restoration.
It was then that state officials told him of the demolition to come. Extra supports for the bridge, meant to keep it operational for its last few years, blocked access to the artwork and prevented even routine maintenance.