PHILADELPHIA — In a yard full of police tow trucks in North Philadelphia, a massive green sculpture of copper pipe and welded bronze sits outside a vehicle workshop, its extravagant curves forming a startling contrast to the gritty surroundings.

The sculpture is “Free Interpretation of Plant Forms,” completed by the artist and furniture designer Harry Bertoia in 1967 for a prominent position outside the Philadelphia Civic Center, a municipal complex, but which since 2000 has been hidden from public view in a purpose-built shed outside the police workshop.

Now it is poised for a return to outdoor display on the grounds of the Woodmere Art Museum in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood here. It will be repaired, conserved and placed on a site designed to celebrate its connection with the natural world.

The museum, on six acres surrounded by lawns and trees, will highlight the sculpture’s connections to nature, unlike the original site outside the now-demolished Civic Center, whose closing left the sculpture without a public home for more than a decade.

The shed that protected the sculpture from weather and vandals for the past 16 years has been dismantled, and at 3 a.m. on Wednesday, the four-ton artwork will be lifted by crane onto a truck to be driven about 11 miles to its new home in this city’s northwest suburbs. The nighttime journey of the work — about 14 feet long and 12 feet high — will require a police escort and some street closings.

Mr. Bertoia, perhaps best known for the 1952 diamond-shaped steel-wire chair he designed for Knoll, a furniture company, was initially an artist of the Machine Age, and was influenced by the Futurism of his native Italy, where he was born in 1915, said William Valerio, the museum’s director. (The artist died at 63 in 1978.)

But after Mr. Bertoia moved to Bally, Pa., to work for Knoll in 1950, his art turned toward nature, away from the strong lines of industrial design to the dramatic curves in “Free Interpretation.” “It has an organic energy; it’s alive and moving, and full of the vitality of life,” Mr. Valerio said.

The sculpture’s return to public view follows a $2 million fund-raising campaign by the museum and is the outcome of a long search by its owner, the City of Philadelphia, for a new home.

“There aren’t a lot of spaces where you can place a 14-by-12-foot thing,” said Margot Berg, the public art director for Philadelphia, which is providing the sculpture to the museum on a 99-year loan.

Ms. Berg said that the police yard, an obscure location for audacious work, was chosen because it was secure, with a 24-hour police presence. The sculpture is in good shape, Ms. Berg said, but will require the repair of some cracks, the removal of wasp nests and cleaning once at the new location.

“The Civic Center was a hard-edged, urban environment, and by reframing the ‘Free Interpretation of Plant Forms as the centerpiece of Woodmere’s six green acres, we are changing the way it is experienced,” Mr. Valerio said in a statement.

To emphasize the sculpture’s connection to the natural world, the museum will install solar panels to power a pump that drives water through the copper pipes to create mist around the sculpture.


Margot Berg, Philadelphia’s public art director, with Harry Bertoia’s “Free Interpretation of Plant Forms,” at a North Philadelphia police yard. CreditJessica Kourkounis for The New York Times 

“Bertoia was an artist who really wanted his sculptures to bring nature into people’s consciousness, and it’s in an environment where we are doing the very same thing,” Mr. Valerio said. “It’s really using art as a starting point for understanding our responsibilities to nature.”

He said that the new location would be more fitting for the Bertoia sculpture than its original site, where spraying water from a flawed installation prevented people from fully experiencing it.

“He wanted his sculpture to be directly interactive, and what was thrilling to find out was that he actually didn’t like the installation at the Civic Center,” Mr. Valerio said, citing the artist’s writings and conversations with Mr. Bertoia’s children. “He felt that the ring of water jets separated the sculpture from interacting with people.”

At Woodmere, people will be allowed to touch the sculpture in a way that Mr. Valerio said the artist would have welcomed.

“There are elements of this sculpture that are womblike, that are openings that really invite people to come in,” he said. “He wanted the sculpture to pull people into it.”

Throughout the 1960s, Mr. Bertoia produced monumental works in metal, some of which were flexible and designed to be interactive: Their rods vibrate when they are gently touched, producing musical tones.

In association with the newly installed sculpture, the Woodmere is running an exhibition, “Harry Bertoia: Free Interpretations,” through Nov. 6, that includes monoprints and related sculptures that provide context for his career.

In recent years, the value of Mr. Bertoia’s sculptures has sharply risen along with other works of midcentury modern art, said Joshua Holdeman, president of Hammond Advisory Group, a New York art advisory firm specializing in postwar contemporary works.

“Like all midcentury modern sculpture and art and design, the curve in the collectability and the value of objects is dramatically arcing,” Mr. Holdeman said. He noted that Mr. Bertoia’s works have become a familiar part of sales of art from that era.

Penny Balkin Bach, executive director of the Association for Public Art in Philadelphia, said Woodmere is the right place to move the sculpture.

“The museum celebrates artists of Philadelphia and the region,” Ms. Bach said. “This piece, by being sited there, becomes a logical extension of that collection.”

For Philadelphia, the re-emergence of the sculpture onto the square is a high-profile affirmation of the city’s pioneering Percent for Art Program, which since 1959 has required 1 percent of the cost of any city-funded construction project to be devoted to site-specific public art.

The city commissioned “Free Interpretation using funds from the Civic Center construction, and in 1962 the sculpture was an early recipient of funding under the law, the first of its kind nationwide. The work is now insured for $425,000.

“People have missed it and they have wanted to know what’s going to happen to it,” Ms. Berg said. “So for us it’s going be delightful to know that it’s coming back into public view, that it’s being restored.”