Standing 28 feet tall and 49 feet wide, the giant rubber stamper might be the most conspicuous piece of public art in the city.
While its current location next to City Hall seems appropriate, the sideways stamp, created by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen, was originally intended for Public Square with its base — and the word “FREE” — flush against the ground, its handle extended skyward.
But Standard Oil Co. had commissioned the art in the mid-1980s, just prior to its merger with British Petroleum Co., and the company’s new executives weren’t crazy about the piece. They banished the 35-ton piece to an Illinois warehouse before donating it to the city.
When Willard Park was chosen as the Free Stamp’s home, the artists modified their design, which nods to the era's pop art style and the emancipation of American slaves. The now-visible base of the stamp was purposely positioned toward the BP building.
“It’s pointed on a diagonal to the 23rd floor, which were the corporate offices,” says Case Western Reserve University department of art history chair Edward Olszewski. “It leads the viewer back to the original site.”
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2009 as part of our “Icons of Cleveland” package.