Kansas City Sky Station repair work is heating up

When it’s perched on top of one of Bartle Hall’s 300-foot pylons, Kansas City’s largest Sky Station sculpture does indeed bear a striking resemblance to a hair curler.

But down on the ground, cut in half and undergoing repairs in the yard of the internationally renowned Zahner metal fabrication company at Ninth Street and the Paseo, the sculpture looks more like pieces of a giant, whimsical jungle gym. No climbing on this thing, kids. It’s a valuable piece of public art and will soon retake its place as one of the most distinctive features of Kansas City’s downtown skyline.

Plans call for it to be reinstalled by helicopter Sept. 18.

This Sky Station piece, first installed in 1994 along with three other aluminum and steel ornamental sculptures, was apparently damaged last fall by a lightning strike and water damage. A giant gash near the base of the structure meant it needed to be removed and fixed. A helicopter performed the delicate removal process in May without a hitch; because the entire piece is 40 feet tall, 35 feet wide and weighs 24,000 pounds, it was removed in two sections so the helicopter could handle the weight.

Now the famous artwork is back at Zahner Co., where world-class metal fabricators worked with New York artist R.M. Fischer to build it in the first place. Even in two sections, it’s too large to fit into Zahner’s main building, so it’s in the yard out back, protected by a fence from curious onlookers.

The 7-foot aluminum and steel part that was gashed has been replicated, and now expert welders will spend some weeks getting it fully reattached. It’s a beastly, hot job, done in the cramped quarters of a shed that was built around the broken part to protect that portion of the sculpture from the elements.

This repair job has been logistically challenging to coordinate, design and accomplish, but so far everything’s gone well, according to City Architect Eric Bosch and Zahner project manager John Owens.

Partners in the project include HNTB, which worked on the original design and on designing the repairs, and Erickson Air-Crane Inc., which helicoptered the sculpture off of Bartle and will return it to its perch.

“It’s going very well,” Bosch said. “We’re very pleased.”

The repair job is estimated at $1.3 million, with all of that cost borne by the city’s property insurance policy except the $150,000 deductible.

While the sculptures already had built-in lightning protection and had withstood countless lightning strikes, that protection will be bumped up and enhanced, Bosch said.

All four of the Sky Station sculptures and pylons are also getting enhanced LED digital lighting, Bosch said, that will allow the city to program the lights from the ground and to coordinate colors in ways that celebrate the holidays, special events and sporting victories by the Royals, Chiefs and Sporting Kansas City. It will allow light displays similar to those now happening at Union Station.

During the repair process, Zahner Co. president and CEO Bill Zahner has enjoyed getting to see the work up close and personal again. Other than the damaged section, he says the sculpture has withstood the elements and looks as good as when it was installed 22 years ago.

Zahner said Fischer was a good friend, and collaborating with him to create the Sky Stations was a thrill.

“To do something like this for the city, it’s fantastic,” he said.

Zahner is well aware that many people initially mocked the sculptures as spiky metal oddities and that some critics still think they look ridiculous.

But that’s fine with him.

“Good art elicits an emotional response,” he said, adding that the skyline somehow seems “naked” while this one ornament is off its pylon.

“It’s become an iconic piece within the city,” he said.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley