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Book review: “Manhole Covers,” text by Mimi Melnick, photographs by Robert A. Melnick

Manhole covers are beautiful.

There, I’ve said it. Just give them a look. I mean, really look at them. You’ll agree.

Take these six from Manhole Covers, the 1994 book by Mimi Melnick with photos by her husband Robert. Look at the one on the top right. It looks like a rose window on the front wall of a cathedral, doesn’t it? They were created out of the same spirit.


Like the other five, this one was created to sit inside a rim in the pavement of a street or sidewalk as the door to a hole six to 18 feet deep, leading down to a sewer or maybe a clump of electrical wires or any of a variety of other underground systems that, out of sight, out of mind, serve the modern metropolis.

These six covers, like all of their sort, had to fit snugly in their rims. They had to be easy for workers with the right tools to open. And they had to have some sort of height difference across their surface so that, originally, horses and, later, autos and other motorized vehicles wouldn’t slip and slide on their metal surface as if across a patch of ice.


Functional and artistic

That’s why there are designs on these cast-iron covers. That practical need, though, was what paid the bills. It’s clear that the people who determined how these covers would look had more on their minds than practicality.

This is industrial art. Beauty knee-deep in the functional.

Like lamp posts. Like bridges. Like Chicago’s elevated railroad Loop.

These designs weren’t created just to serve a purpose. They were also — even more — designed to be attractive.

Attractive, even though the designers knew their work would be walked on, driven over, covered in slush, obscured by garbage.

This is art just because.

The designers knew that few people would give these covers much of a look, if any look at all. Yet, they made beauty. And it’s a beauty that the years and decades of wear have only enhanced — the worn and shiny areas serving as a tribute to the generations who have walked across or driven across these covers, almost always unknowingly.


Singing a song

Yes, look at these details of other covers in Mimi and Robert Melnick’s book.


Functionalists aren’t responsible for these covers. They were artists. They were singing a song in the cast iron.

They wanted their manhole covers to work.

But also please.


Manhole cover history

melnick.manhole...Manhole Covers contains 250 images of the covers of manholes and their smaller version handholes from across the nation. Most are round, a few rectangular, a small number square.

In her text, Mimi Melnick provides a short but thorough, and much-needed, history of manhole covers. Which is to say, a history of the implementation of sewer systems and utility systems and all the other underground systems.

It’s a history that dates back to the 1840s, and Melnick’s story details not just the uses of manholes, but also the dimensions of the manhole covers (22 inches to 36 inches in diameter, smaller for the covers of handholes), their weight (up to a half ton), their durability (some are more than 150 years old), and the loads they can bear (eight tons for those in the street).

She also answers the question: Why are most round?

Round covers are easier to machine accurately [at the factory], one reason for the popularity of their shape. Round manhole covers are also preferred because they won’t fall into the manholes, and because, once removed, they can be rolled rather than lifted repeatedly.


A rose and a kaleidoscope

Yet, Melnick’s history is akin to reading about the provenance of an art work, its dimensions and its date of completion. Interesting, perhaps, but nothing compared to looking at the work face to face.

Earlier, I mentioned that one of the manhole covers in the book is reminiscent of the rose window of a cathedral. Here it is again, next to the image of the rose window of the Norte-Dame de Strasbourg Cathedral in France which, between 1647 and 1874, was the tallest building in the world.


Sure, the manhole cover is less colorful. Sure, its purpose, its function, is different.

Still, there is something in the human spirit and psyche that finds this multiplicity of patterns within a circle particularly pleasing — whether filling a church wall or a spot near the curb.

Look here at a couple of other manhole covers and an image from folk art, a quilt:


This is called Kaleidoscope Quilt, 80 inches by 82 inches, one of 653 quilts in a 2011 show in New York City by the American Folk Art Museum and collected last year in the book Red & White Quilts: Infinite Variety by Elizabeth V. Warren with Maggi Gordon (Skira Rizzoli, 352 pages, $60), with exquisite photographs by Gavin Ashworth.

Red & White Quilts shows the wondrous vitality, exuberance and beauty of quilts, just as Manhole Covers shows the sturdy, yet insistent art of those cast-iron circles in the street and on the sidewalk.

The manhole to the left of the quilt in the combination above is from Des Moines, Iowa.  The other was photographed in Louisville, Kentucky, and displays a waffle pattern that has been warped kaleidoscopically.


Take a look

The point should be made, though, that a manhole cover doesn’t need to call forth an image from some field of art to actually be art.

Consider these four from Chicago, part of the everyday, mundane world that Chicagoans live in:


They are simple, modest and beautiful.

Take a look at them sometime. Or their cousins in your town.

Patrick T. Reardon

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