By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
"Father Biondi has done more to make the city look good than anyone else," Aronson says. "What a pity to pick on him."
Biondi's leadership in the midtown corridor made the university a good candidate for the sculpture, Smith explains, especially because no one in city government had expressed an interest in it in years. "Saint Louis University has done a lot for the city," Smith says. "We didn't feel, after we'd done a series of checks and balances, that it was an outrageous request."
She adds, "Father Biondi was extremely persistent about this."
Although the city originally planned to lease the piece for approximately $1,000, Smith says the amount was reduced to $10 because Saint Louis University spent several thousand dollars restoring the finish, manufacturing new bolts to replace rusted ones and moving and installing the piece.
"It was a pimple on an elephant's butt, notoriety notwithstanding," Mike Jones says of leasing the sculpture. "If I would have known it was going to cause this much trouble, I would have left it in the basement, no disrespect to Mr. Trova."
In January 2002 Bob Orchard asked Frank Ferrara, then president of the St. Louis Ambassadors, to visit Biondi. "I said, 'Tell him this is dishonest,'" Orchard remembers telling Ferrara. "It could damage Saint Louis University's reputation for morality and integrity."
Ferrara is a Saint Louis University alumnus and the brother of the late John Ferrara, who co-founded the Pasta House Co. with J. Kim Tucci. (Orchard also called Tucci, who is the chairman of the Convention and Visitors Commission, the quasi-government agency that oversees the America's Center convention complex where AV/Bedu had been stored. Tucci, who also sits on SLU's board of directors, never returned the call, Orchard says.)
During Frank Ferrara's meeting with Biondi, he told the university president that moving AV/Bedu had upset Orchard, Trova and the Baer family. Biondi offered that he could break the lease with the city but needed to be reimbursed for the cost of moving the sculpture and erecting it on the SLU campus.
Orchard was outraged at Biondi's $100,000 price tag. Since 1971, when Mayor Alfonso Cervantes named him chairman of the St. Louis Ambassadors Arts and Fountains Foundation, Orchard has raised thousands of dollars to restore sculptures in city parks, including Aloe Plaza across from Union Station. The foundation also commissioned the controversial Richard Serra sculpture, Twain, on downtown's Gateway Mall and is restoring all the mayors' portraits that hang in city hall.
But raising money to "pay off a ransom" was out of the question, Orchard says.
Ferrara visited Biondi again. This time the reverend said he would return AV/Bedu in exchange for $27,000. "It was very costly for the University to rent a crane and a truck to move the sculpture to SLU," according to the school's official statement. "SLU would not have made that investment if the University had known that the city would want to cancel the lease after a short period of time."
On August 7, 2003, Orchard went to see Mayor Slay and remembers telling him, "Francis, you ought to call Biondi directly and tell him this was a mistake on the part of the city."
The mayor's chief of staff, Jeff Rainford, sat in on the meeting. He told Orchard that the city's legal department felt the contract with SLU was valid. "We couldn't just take it back," Rainford explains. "We did say, 'We want it back,' and Father Biondi indicated if he got his costs covered, we could do that."
During the meeting with Orchard, Rainford volunteered that the city could raise half of the $27,000 that Biondi had demanded if Orchard could raise the other half. Orchard replied, "I can't get money to rectify a theft!" He suggested that the city should pay for half of the costs, with Saint Louis University paying the other half.
Not long after the meeting, Orchard claims, he received word from a south-city funeral home director who had been appointed by the mayor's office to communicate with the Ambassadors. Orchard says the liaison sent this message: "Rainford says don't call city hall anymore."
"What chutzpah!" Orchard exclaims. "Every mayor before Slay used the Arts and Fountains Foundation to do things for the city, and I was told, 'Don't call city hall!'"
Rainford denies the accusation. "I don't remember that ever happening," he says. "What I remember from our conversation was that [Orchard] was going to raise the money, and we're waiting for him to do it. It's not that large an amount of money. I'm just curious why he hasn't done it."
After the meeting at city hall, Orchard resigned himself to raising the $27,000 to pay SLU. Not everyone can come up with that kind of money. But Orchard, the former owner of an international plastics and printing company, has been scaring up money for the arts for more than 30 years. And he's well connected with many wealthy people.
"I go to them and say, 'I need some help; it's for the city. Can you give me $10,000?'" Orchard explains. "Sometimes I have to go to a person and say, 'Come on over to the corner of Broadway and Olive and take your pants down and I'll kiss your ass.'"