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Iron artists

Rob Sabo

Reno Iron Works dips back into its century-old roots as it creates the decorative steel artwork cropping up along regional highways.

Reno Iron Works created the steel fish, birds, trees, stagecoaches, miners and trains that decorate overpasses, soundwalls and the shoulders of freeways in Reno, Sparks and Carson City.

Although Reno Iron, like most ironworks companies in the Truckee Meadows, specializes in fabrication and erection of structural steel the company “topped off” the structure for the baggage claim expansion at Reno-Tahoe International Airport two weeks ago it has a long history with decorative ironworks.

“My grandfather, the days that he started, he did a lot of artistic work,” says Bill Pelter, president of Reno Iron Works and grandson of company founder Andrew Ginocchio. “All work in steel had a lot of art involved in it, and he was a true craftsman. The structural steel industry didn’t come along until later when the building boom in Reno happened. Reno Iron Work’s roots definitely are in the art.”

The artwork currently being erected on Interstate 80 is a small but integral part of the $72 million design-build project by Granite Construction and the engineering firm Atkins. Nevada Department of Transportation Spokesman Scott Magruder says part of the federal funding for the renovation of Interstate 80 from Robb Drive to Vista Boulevard included money for aesthetic improvements, which includes stainless steel signage, decorative iron work and installation of native plants, shrubs and flowers and paint schemes that match Nevada’s desert topography.

The original design for the artwork was done by landscape architects at Stantec Inc., and final designs were done by landscape architects at Atkins, NDOT’s Magruder says. Reno Iron Works handled fabrication with assistance from fabricator Tutto Ferro of Reno. Paint was applied by Lindell Paint, and Moana Nursery will plant flowers, trees and shrubs around much of the artwork.

Reno Iron landed the work along I-80 after working with Granite to install the iron pine trees and steel plank retaining walls on U.S. 395 and the Native American basket in front of the Grand Sierra on Glendale Avenue. Reno Iron Works also installed the decorative steel trains, stagecoaches and miners covering the fencing on freeway overpasses on Interstate 580 in Carson City from Carson Street to the freeway’s terminus at Fairview Drive.

The jobs have kept shop hands bustling and led to four additional ironworkers employed in fabrication and erection that would be unemployed without the contracts, says Reno Iron General Manager Ralph Schindler. The decorative steel projects will account for about 20 percent of the iron company’s revenues in 2012, he adds.

It also comes at a time when vertical construction is at a near standstill in the Truckee Meadows.

“Any work is great, especially in these times,” Pelter says. “We are not going to turn down anything. Granite is a good customer of ours and participates in a lot of construction in the community and we want to be there with them.”

The steel trout, birds and trees on soundwalls along I-80 have been in place for quite some time, but the largest and most visible steel structures are yet to come.

Those big brown Stonehenge-looking monoliths erected at Vista, Robb and the Spaghetti bowl are actually cast-stone backdrops for large steel cutouts of birds, mustangs, grasses and trees along with city names. They will be cut from sheets of weathered steel that will oxidize with the weather.

Reno Iron also is installing stainless-steel pin-mounted signage of street names at bridges along the length of the I-80 freeway.

Some of the challenges associated with the work include transferring architectural concepts into work that can be engineered in the shop, and erecting and anchoring the structures. The steel plank retaining walls near the northbound Mill Street and Glendale Avenue off-ramps and the Native American basket both required unique anchoring systems, Shindler says.

Erection of the iron structures in front of the tank farm on I-80 at Nugget Avenue had to be done at night because the crane required to set the structures required 24 feet of safety distance and required a lane closure.

Reno Iron used its full array of shop equipment to create the sculptures, including plasma cutters and acetylene torches, and it subbed out water-jet cutting. Pelter says that although the decorative work is slightly outside the norm for his staff, it’s something of which they are proud.

“It is nice doing the artistic stuff. In this industry, one of the things we enjoy is that everything we do in steel is going to be around for years to come,” he says.

SIDEBAR

Reno Iron Works is re-purposing materials from a failed wind turbine that formerly stood at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center into a metal sculpture that will be placed at the corners of South Virginia Street and McCarran Boulevard.

The Reno Star will be commissioned in the first or second week of November, says Bill Pelter, president of Reno Iron Works. Reno Iron is reusing the high-grade steel and aircraft-grade aluminum from former Taba Turbine, which was commissioned in 2002 when the convention center underwent a $100-million dollar upgrade and expansion.

The 55-foot-tall turbine, built by Montana artist Patrick Zentz at a cost of $552,000, experienced problems after being wracked by northern Nevada’s severe winds, and it eventually was taken down.

Ben McDonald, communications manager for the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority, says the RSCVA board of directors concluded that it was not cost-effective to repair the turbine.

“The Taba Turbine was installed in accordance with the City of Reno’s ‘2 percent For Art’ ordinance,” McDonald says. “Unfortunately, the installation couldn’t hold up against the high winds which roll through the region, and it was removed as a safety precaution after less than 18 months. The agency is pleased to see that, 10 years later, most of what remains is being put to good use and is going toward the beautification of public spaces in Reno.”