After Nearly 30 Years, KC’s Floating Sculpture Needs a Fix

Hallmark’s Iconic “Triple Crown,” by Kenneth Snelson, Will be Renovated and Reinstalled This Fall

One of Kansas City’s most prominent pieces of outdoor art — and one of my favorites, I might add — is on the verge of a nip and tuck.

It’s Kenneth Snelson’s “Triple Crown,” the tri-polar web of stainless-steel tubes and cables that sits on the southernmost grassy point of Crown Center, where Main Street and Grand Boulevard converge at 27th Street.

The sculpture was gently lowered off its footings in July and now awaits some relatively small repairs and a general cleaning.

Commissioned by Hallmark Cards Inc. in 1989 and installed in 1991, the work tends to delight passersby with its reflective surfaces, its airy form and the happy marriage of art, physics and engineering that keeps the tension-filled arrangement from flinging apart.

Recently, a regular inspection found some stress points in the connections atop each pylon, the first time in all these years that a repair was called for. Replacement parts will be fabricated, and other adjustments will be made as needed, pending an analysis by Zahner Metal Conservation, a unit of the Kansas City-based architectural metal fabricator A. Zahner Co. A contract for the work was slated to be signed in early September.

The 7,500-pound piece is expected to be hoisted and re-installed sometime this fall, said Mark Spencer, director of Hallmark’s art collection. The reset is not expected to carry the same level of drama as the sculpture’s initial installation, which lasted more than a week, or its recent dismounting. Snelson, who shot video of the original construction, once referred to the process as “The Spider Ballet.” It may well be entertaining, however, to view the choreography of four Belger cranes and workers on the ground over the period of perhaps a day. “We’re thinking of inviting engineering students to watch it,” Spencer said.

Given the extremes of Kansas City weather, it’s a wonder the piece has lasted so long without a hitch. (For comparison, consider the wind-shortened life this summer of that kinetic outdoor sculpture down the hill at Union Station.)

“It’s so strong,” said Sean Kelley, development director at Zahner. Yet, he said, “It has never been conserved or fully taken down and examined.”

Merging art and engineering

Snelson, an Oregon native who died in late 2016, made a career of basing large sculptural works on scientific principles and formulas. He employed the term “tensegrity” to describe the properties of tension, compression and equilibrium that define his towers, cantilevers and woven structures. “Floating compression structures,” he called them, or simply, something like balloons made of metal.

As a student at the famed Black Mountain College in North Carolina in the late 1940s, Snelson studied among some of the era’s leading modern and abstract artists from many disciplines and was introduced to the geometric design ideas of Buckminster Fuller. Snelson at the time gravitated from painting to sculpture. Over the years he sometimes had to rebuff criticisms that his works were less art than engineering, but he outlasted such sniping, and his creations endure. “His work,” the critic Eleanor Heartney has written, “is governed by a sense of the connection between the visible and invisible worlds.”

“Triple Crown,” spanning 85 feet at its widest, remains one of Snelson’s largest outdoor installations around the globe. A similar piece, slightly smaller, stands in Baltimore.

The “Triple Crown,” of course, is meant as a symbol of Hallmark Cards. Beyond that, the sculpture is one of the most visible expressions of the extraordinary investment the company has made in visual art over seven decades. An ever-growing number of paintings and other works line the hallways of Hallmark’s corporate headquarters and its facilities elsewhere. Its contributions to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, including an encyclopedic collection of photography, have been transformational. And that’s before even considering the family foundation legacy of Donald J. Hall, Hallmark’s longtime chairman and Nelson trustee.

At Crown Center, the Snelson makes an enlivening statement on its roadside green space, while major Hallmark-owned works by Alexander Calder (outside the Westin Crown Center), Louise Nevelson (at the Sheraton Hotel) and Sol Lewitt (in the lobby of the Shook, Hardy & Bacon tower, built by Hallmark’s development arm) have somewhat less of a public presence.

At the time of the sculpture’s installation, Snelson described it as embodying the push and pull of forces within a finite space. As such, it becomes — and very much remains — a metaphor for contemporary life. “Is this not,” he asked, “a fair characterization of the world we live in?”

In its current, displaced state, “Triple Crown” is sapped of its powerful energy. Given a few months of attention, and as the last cable gets tightened in place, perhaps in November, the forces will be with us once again.

Above: Kenneth Snelson’s stainless-steel sculpture “Three Crowns” was recently lifted off its three pedestals pending small repairs and maintenance. The work has enlivened its prominent Crown Center site since 1991. (Photo by Steve Paul)

Steve Paul

Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and a forthcoming biography of Evan S. Connell. He has been a writer and editor in Kansas City for more than 45 years.

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