How PHX Airport managed to move and save a historic mural

Nov 13, 2021

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There’s a big, colorful reason to stop at the Rental Car Center at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX), even if you’re not renting or returning a car.

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After many community meetings, strategy sessions, technical workarounds, and a good dose of luck, the airport and its art museum (yes, PHX has an art museum) were able to save and relocate a giant, beloved mural by Paul Coze from Terminal 2, which was being demolished, to a space in the rental car center where it can more easily be seen and appreciated.

The mural is titled “The Phoenix,” and it is big: the triptych is 75 feet wide and 16 feet high. It is also a beloved local favorite because when Terminal 2 was being built, back in the early 1960s city leaders invited local citizens to come to the Phoenix Public Library to vote on which art should adorn the terminal when it opened in 1962. Paul Coze’s design, which represents the city’s past, present, and future with imagery that includes Hohokam symbols, Latino heritage, mining, and modern technology, was the winner.

T-2 Mural finished_PHX
T-2 Mural finished_PHX (Photo courtesy Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport)

The mural debuted when Terminal 2 opened and was a prominent feature of what was then one of the country’s most modern airport facilities. The terminal had an indoor baggage carousel, a long concourse with 10 separate gates, a hotel reservation kiosk, and a nursery where travelers could drop off their kids while they shopped or snacked. Back then, the terminal also had a rooftop observation deck, a bank, a barbershop, and Herman Miller chairs in pumpkin, aqua, and black.

Related: These 7 airports have such stunning artwork

Over the years, the terminal was remodeled. And more things were added to what started out as a mid-century modern, open-style terminal lobby. Carpeting covered up the polished marble floor. Trees were added. And eventually, the mural was difficult to see and be cared for. “It lived through the era of people smoking in airports,” says Gary Martelli, Phoenix Airport Museum manager and curator. “And in one of the remodels there was a restaurant exhaust hood right up against the center panel.”

When it came time to demolish the terminal, art museum staff supervised moving the mural to the Rental Car Center. But it was no easy task. The three-panel mural was made up of 15 different canvases that had been glued to the plaster. And the artist had embellished the mural with 52 different materials, including seaweed, glass and ceramic mosaic tiles, soil, and sand from around the state, plastics (including a steering wheel from his daughter’s car seat), aluminum, shells, and gemstones.

The construction team was able to move the mural by removing the exterior walls of the building, creating armature support for the mural and then lifting the mural out. They then put it on a flatbed truck and drove it across the airfield, Martelli explains.

This short video shows the mural relocation process and includes some great throwback images of the original terminal.

“The Phoenix” can now be viewed on the southwest corner of the central escalator lobby in the Rental Car Center. Nearby are exhibit cases with information about Terminal 2 and artist Paul Coze, along with photos from the initial installation of the mural. The airport has also installed viewing telescopes (at two heights) to allow visitors to take a closer look at the details and embellishments in the mural. Signs nearby suggest items to look for. And there are free postcards of the mural here too.

Being able to view “The Phoenix” now, as you come down the escalator in the Rental Car Center “is pretty stupendous,” says Martelli, “It’s brighter and more dimensional than it’s ever been.” And it is very accessible. “I tell people the rental car center is like a museum. It’s easy to get to, easy to park, and free to enter.” And besides the mural, there’s museum-quality art scattered throughout the building.

Soon it will be even easier to get to the Rental Car Center. In mid-2022, the airport’s PHX Sky Train extension will start running from the terminals to the Rental Car Center.

Featured image courtesy Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport

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