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Manhole covers as works of art

Who would have thought that such mundane objects as manhole covers would ever be regarded as works of art? A quick tour of the internet shows that several of the world's great cities have made a feature of these essential pieces of road furniture, and encourage artists to suggest new designs. They're proud of their manhole covers, which are found with a wide range of patterns.

The idea for artist-designed manhole covers in Seattle came from that city's Arts Commissioner Jacquetta Blanchett, after she admired hatchcovers (US term for manhole covers) in Florence, Italy in the late 1950s. Paul Schell, then director of Seattle's Department of Community Development, agreed it would be a good idea to replace some of the old and battered covers downtown.

He persuaded Blanchett to make a private donation, which paid for 13 covers designed by artist Anne Knight. Other donors came forward, and 19 covers designed by Knight were installed.

Vail, Colorado even offers replicas of its manholes for sale. Its official website says "The custom cast iron manhole covers resemble the real ones, but are slightly lighter. The two-foot diameter, 52-pound version retails for $295. Suggested uses include end tables, patio or driveway inlays, garden conversation pieces, landscaping, etc. The smaller version, an eight-inch, six-pound gate valve cover sells for $65, with possible uses to include hot pads, deck pieces, decorative wall pieces (inside or out), etc."

The Vail Daily reported on June 29: "The town is asking for help in preventing the theft of Vail's coveted manhole covers. Call the Vail Police Department to report any suspicious activity."

In Canada, the City of Vancouver last year held an Art Underfoot competition, inviting all who lived, worked, or went to school there to submit design ideas for new manhole covers. The Public Art Program received 640 entries.

In 1998, the Sewer Museum of Paris (Musée des Egouts de Paris) held a Sewers and Colours art exhibition which displayed prints in relief created from nearly 100 manhole covers from some of the world's largest cities. An American artist, Ralph G. Brancaccio, first coloured the covers with paint, laid a sheet of paper over each of them, and rolled it to imprint the design on the paper. "I want to show people the beauty at their feet," he said.

Two graduates of Stroganova's Industrial Art Institute in Moscow, Alexander Kholopov (aka Kholopov Trouser) and Natalie Lamanova (aka Lamana Wooma) have set up an interesting Moscow Collection, comprising 3052 images of manhole covers from 71 countries, entitled "Sewers of the World - Unite!"

A picture is better than a thousand words, so check out some of the many interesting links listed below.

FOOTNOTE
People who worry about gender and language want the term "manhole cover" changed to "sewer cover." But that's a grievous misreading of their purpose. The word manhole was first used for access holes between the decks of the old, all-male sailing ships. It had nothing to do with sewers.
- John H. Lienhard.

POSTSCRIPT
American Airlines unveiled the first phase of a new $1.1 billion terminal at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on July 27. Imbedded in the floor of the shower area in the Admiral's Club are replicas of the city's manhole covers.

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Story first posted July 2005

Copyright © 2005

Eric Shackle

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