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The mystery of ‘Passport,’ a 28-foot-tall sculpture disappears

Passport

“Passport,” one welded piece, weighed 3,000 pounds when it went into the ground on property at 1833 Alton Pkwy in 1984.

(Courtesy of Hal Pastorius)

How could a 28-foot-tall sculpture at the entrance to an office building disappear without a trace?

That is the mystery Kay Pastorius Waller, widow of Laguna Beach artist Hal Pastorius, the first president of the Sawdust Art Festival, has tried to solve for the past two years, ever since she stopped by the Irvine property where “Passport” once stood.

Pastorius, whom the Los Angeles Times once referred to as “dean of the nation’s art-in-public-places practitioners,” designed and built “Passport” in the 1980s for architect George Seitz, who designed the office building at 1833 Alton Parkway, once owned by Emerald Bay resident and real estate developer John Parker.

Parker paid $41,500 for the 3,000-pound, bright yellow steel sculpture, which went into the ground in 1984 in what was then known as Amberdon Plaza. The sculpture is one piece welded to tabs embedded in concrete, Kay said.

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Kay, who remarried and now lives in New Zealand, was in Laguna last week to celebrate the temporary installation of another of Pastorius’s sculptures, titled “Bulkhead,” at a space near the bus depot at 375 Broadway Street.

To commemorate the Sawdust’s 50th anniversary, Festival of Arts officials wanted to honor Pastorius’s role in the art festival’s development, Kay said. “Bulkhead” was gifted to the Festival of Arts after Pastorius died in 1995 at age 58 of a brain tumor.

Pastorius was not afraid to design pieces that stirred controversy.

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Laguna Beach residents may remember the 16-foot-tall steel sculpture “Vestige,” which stood near Main Beach in 1980.

Critics called it a blight on the landscape, while others claimed it blocked the ocean view, Los Angeles Times reporter Mike Spencer wrote in November 1987. The city asked Pastorius to remove it the day before the California Coastal Commission was to weigh in on the piece, the Times reported.

“Passport” didn’t raise as big a fuss.

Pastorius designed site-specific art work, thus “Passport” was meant to guide visitors to the Irvine property toward the building’s front entrance, Kay said.

For a time Kay had a model of “Passport” in her backyard and wanted to show current husband Joe Waller the real thing during a July 2014 visit to Orange County.

They drove to the Alton Parkway property and WallerKay noticed the sculpture was missing.

“I was horrified,” Kay said. “It was one of the best sculptures he ever did.”

Kay called Irvine officials, but said their hands were tied since the artwork was on private property.

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The city’s only responsibility was approving a building permit, which it issued in March 1984, Kim Mohr, media services coordinator, wrote in an email.

Waller said they didn’t file a police report because, “at that point [in 2014] we didn’t understand anything we could do about it.”

“We don’t think it was vandalism,” Waller said, adding that he is not aware of Hal having any enemies who would want to tamper with his artwork.

Kay Pastorius Waller

Kay Pastorius Waller, seen here at the Sawdust Art Festival last week, is trying to find out what happened to a sculpture built by her late husband Hal Pastorius, a noted Laguna Beach sculptor who was the Sawdust’s first president. She said the sculpture “Passport” went missing from an Irvine office park between 2005 and 2007.

(Courtesy of Joe Waller)

Kay also contacted K.M. Williamson, director of the Public Art in Public Places project, to find out if she could help solve the mystery of “Passport’s” disappearance. Public Art in Public Places is an organization that encourages appreciation of public art, providing information on thousands of pieces in more than 200 cities in Southern California and Hawaii.

Williamson discovered overhead and street view photos of the property from Google.

The sculpture is painted blue in one photo from 2004, and is missing in two overhead images from 2007 and 2008. The overhead photos also reveal different landscaping on the property.

Kay believes the sculpture disappeared between 2005 and 2007.

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Irvine officials said they had no information on whether any redevelopment occurred.

“It’s unfortunate, but happens all the time,” Williamson said of missing sculptures and other artwork. “It happens mostly in corporate areas where there is the least amount of scrutiny.”

City staff are typically not in those areas and, “psychologically and sociologically, you don’t have the public that has buy-in to it,” she said. “It’s a challenge with property owners to make clear they don’t have exclusive rights to the art.”

The 1980s were also a time before cities had committees specifically dedicated to overseeing public art, and written contracts between property owners and artists detailing a piece’s care and upkeep, Williamson said.

“The ability of a property owner to dispose of a piece of public art was open ended…it was easy to argue it was removed for repairs,” Williamson said, not suggesting that is what occurred in this case.

In 1985, one year after “Passport” was installed, Parker, chairman of commercial real estate firm Equidon Cos., lost the building in bankruptcy, a casualty of a glut of office buildings and not enough tenants.

“He loved art and felt ‘Passport’ added a lot of value to our marketing of the building,” Parker’s son, Russ, wrote in an email last week.

Hines, a real estate investment firm with properties in several countries, currently owns the building. The company purchased the property in 2011 from Legacy Partners Commercial, Inc., which changed names to SteelWave in 2015.

Hines representatives researched title records and discovered Legacy may have purchased the land in 2005.

SteelWave did not return two calls seeking comment.

Kay is hoping by getting the word out about “Passport” that someone will come forth with information regarding its whereabouts.

She is offering $1,000 to any one with information leading to the sculpture’s recovery, and another $200 for proof as to what happened to “Passport.”

“I always felt my role is to protect Hal’s sculptures,” Kay said.

Kay can be reached at kpastorius@xtra.co.nz.

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Bryce Alderton, bryce.alderton@latimes.com

Twitter: @AldertonBryce


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