The iconic city-owned “Triumph of Civic Virtue” statue might be carted away from Queens to its retirement in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, if our elected officials do not advocate for a halt. A public statue might be privatized, and the Queens community might continue to have no say in a democracy.
Civic Virtue, a cornerstone just west of Queens Borough Hall on Queens Boulevard and Grand Central Parkway since 1941, is not only corroding from the elements and physical abuse, but now sits behind a jail-like fence, barring it from public vision and touch.
On July 17, 2012, the NY Daily News broke the news of a "secret plan,” in which the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) was negotiating a decision on its future.
Richard J. Moylan, president of Green-Wood Cemetery, confirmed the proposal.
“Green-Wood Cemetery has offered to be the permanent home for Civic Virtue,” he said in a statement. “While we have had discussions with city officials, nothing has been confirmed.”
“We had always wanted the statue restored, but there was no money to do this,” Queens borough President Helen Marshall told the Daily News. “We are glad that it will now be restored, but would have preferred that it stayed here in Queens at its present location.”
In a statement, Marshall said she envisions Civic Virtue's replacement to be a statue dedicated to notable women in Queens.
An artist's vision is bound for misinterpretation. Civic Virtue's true meaning is frequently misinterpreted and devalued by political debate. At a February 2011 press conference, ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner proclaimed Civic Virtue as “sexist” and anti-women. He called for its privatization and removal, or envisioned obscuring it. It was wrongfully posted for sale on Craigslist.
Civic Virtue is not sexist, but allegorical, and denounces vice and corruption. It depicts a muscular nude Hercules who stands over, but not atop, two mermaid-like sirens depicting Vice and Corruption.
“Mac Monnies 1920” is engraved at the base, with four omni-directional aquatic gargoyles, and is surrounded by a four-sided fountain atop three pebble-finished steps. It reads, "This Fountain Was Erected By The City Of New York With Funds Bequeathed By Mrs. Angelina Crane."
The classically designed, 22-foot stone-and-marble sculpture was designed in 1920 by renowned sculptor Frederick William MacMonnies, and sculpted by the Piccirilli Brothers. Frederick MacMonnies was the last major American Beaux Art sculptor, and was the first American to win a Gold Medal at the Paris Salon.
He also designed other famous works across America and Europe, including “Nathan Hale” in City Hall Park, “Truth and Beauty” outside the 42nd Street Library, and three statuary groupings on the “Soldiers and Sailors Arch” in Grand Army Plaza.
In 1922, Civic Virtue stood in City Hall Park. When some people misinterpreted the statue as disrespecting women, it earned the nicknames “tough guy” and “fat boy.” On May 29, 1941, the 24-ton statue was transported to Kew Gardens, after Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia grew to despise the statue’s backside, which he could see from his City Hall window.
On October 7, 1941, Queens Borough President George Harvey stated, “For 12 years, Queens has really had civic virtue, but has never been able to prove it. We can, now!” There were 50 invited guests, including Adolph Weimann and A.F. Brinkerhoff of the National Sculptors Society, as well as 200 cheering onlookers at a ceremony welcoming the sculpture.
Civic Virtue has many supporters favoring on-site restoration, who question the authority of Marshall and DCAS, since it is the Parks Department’s obligation to maintain public monuments. In December 2011, it was deemed eligible for the State & National Register of Historic Places by Specialist Daniel McEneny, but the city never took a position on a status that would likely contribute funds for restoration.
Architect Glenn Urbanas of Richmond Hill testified at a number of Marshall’s annual budget hearings on behalf of the statue.
“This demonstrates the ignorance of our Borough President, who is a philistine when it comes to the value of our cultural heritage,” said Urbanas. “It bespeaks the poverty of our city’s public education, which deprives students of an art and music curriculum’s benefits.”
Referencing the restoration of the Bronx’s Lorelai Fountain, he said, “Civic Virtue is our unique solitary Beaux Art public monument, and Marshall sheds crocodile tears when she says Civic Virtue cannot be restored at its current location.
“If Marshall wishes to create a memorial to women, let her do so in some other location,” he added.
Andrea Crawford, a Kew Gardens resident and CB 9 Chair explained,
“Our position is that no matter what your personal feelings are, the unilateral decision by the borough president to take a piece of public art given to the people of Queens and then give it to a private institution without any community consultation, demonstrates a total disregard for her constituents lobbying for its preservation for ten years,” said andrea Crawford, a Kew Gardens resident and chair of community Board 9.
Councilman Peter Vallone, Jr. is an elected official who understands the issue.
“This public statue and fountain should be restored where it is, but it is absolutely the intention of the city to move Civic Virtue to Brooklyn, permanently on loan,” he said. “I can’t imagine a statue in Central Park being allowed to decay and then transferred with private funds.
“This is a complete misunderstanding of Greek mythology and historic art,” Vallone added. “If you oppose this statue as an attack on women, then you have to oppose every depiction of Perseus holding the head of Medusa. If Civic Virtue was against women, I would never support it, as a father of two daughters.”
“It's an iconic part of the neighborhood, and a cherished childhood memory,” said Gary Rozman of Rego Park. “Good art will always arouse strong feeling, but that's no reason to censor. Public art will never please everyone, but as citizens of a shared state, it's our job to allow for the fact that not all amenities were designed exclusively for our personal pleasures.”
"What else of historic value is even left to take from Queens at this point?" asked Michael Reiner, a resident of Rego Park and an outspoken supporter of historic preservation. "Over the past 17 years, I've watched so many historic buildings being destroyed. Now they've finally gotten around to Civic Virtue.
“But why?” he asked. “The statue and fountain is old, classical, and majestic. I like its scale, grandeur, and sense of place it lends. Why not just restore it where it is?”