Rally held to save ‘Virtue’

Photo by Rich Bockmann
By Rich Bockmann

A group of Queens residents and politicians thinks the city could learn a thing or two from a lesson in civics.

The city authorized the removal of a controversial statue from outside Queens Borough Hall during a meeting of the city Public Design Commission Nov. 13, just days after Superstorm Sandy hit.

“It was designed so no one would know about it,” City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) said over the weekend at a rally in Kew Gardens to save the statue.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) agreed that the meeting’s timing did not encourage public participation.

“Had they known about it, they wouldn’t have had a way to get there,” she said.

The sculpture in question, entitled “The Triumph of Civic Virtue,” depicts a sword-wielding, fig-leaf wearing male figure poised victoriously over two mermaid-like Sirens depicting vice and corruption.

The work was designed in 1920 by Frederick MacMonnies and sculpted by a pair of Bronx brothers best known for recreating the 16th president’s likeness for the Lincoln Memorial.

It sat outside City Hall until 1922, when Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, apparently tired of his view of the statue’s derrière, had it shipped to its current location in honor of the newly constructed Queens Borough Hall.

The city is planning to move the statue to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn and Borough President Helen Marshall said its base will be turned into a public sitting area that pays tribute to women’s contributions to the borough and city.

“Green-Wood Cemetery is a National Historic Landmark with one of the largest outdoor collections of 19th- and 20th-century statuary, including the monument to James Wall Finn by Frederick MacMonnies,” a city spokesman said. “The relocation of ‘Civic Virtue’ by Frederick MacMonnies to Green-Wood is part of a public-private initiative to ensure the long-term preservation of the sculpture. ‘Civic Virtue’ will remain fully accessible to the public, and we are working on establishing a vibrant, welcoming public space in Queens while the statue is on loan to Green-Wood.”

Although the statue has been lambasted as sexist almost since its inception, critics as recent as former Borough President Claire Schulman and disgraced U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner have called for its removal. With tongue in cheek, the colorful ex-congressman, whose office was across the street from the statue, even went so far last year as to suggest the work be sold on Craigslist.

“[Weiner] doesn’t have jurisdiction over city property,” said Jon Torodash, founder of the website triumphofcivicvirtue.org. “And then [the Design Commission] gave three days’ notice and decided with no public hearing. It’s an unconscionable thing.”

Community Board 9 Chairwoman Andrea Crawford said the board was never contacted about the move, but had members been asked, they would have resoundingly been against it.

“Everybody knows Community Board 9 wants to keep Queens public art public,” she said.

Over the years the statue and the fountain surrounding it have fallen into disrepair, and Vallone said he would like the city “not only to leave it here, but restore it here. We’ve been asking for a long time to restore it to its former glory.”

One woman, though, did not see what all the fuss over the statue was about.

“This is offensive?” asked Mary Riley, who said she has seen her share of disagreeable sights over the 30 years she has lived in Kew Gardens. “I’ll tell you a few things that are offensive.”

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

More from Around New York