It a shame how the true meaning of Civic Virtue – the statue that stands near Borough Hall - is frequently misinterpreted and devalued in political discourse.
At a February 2011 press conference, ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner proclaimed this work of public art “sexist.” He called for a public work to be privatized and removed, posted it for sale on Craigslist, and explained that if it cannot be removed, it needs to be concealed with a tarp. Since then, an influx of art defenders and preservationists have emerged.
Situated on the boundary of Forest Hills and Kew Gardens on Queens Boulevard, Civic Virtue has been keeping an eye on passersby since 1941. The classically designed 22-foot, stone-and-marble sculpture has a commanding presence in a serene setting amidst urbanization.
Civic Virtue 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.
Civic Virtue depicts a muscular nude Hercules with a sword in his right hand behind his neck, and stands over (but not on top of) two mermaid-like sirens depicting vice and corruption.
Controversy ensued since Civic Virtue’s origins. In 1922, Civic Virtue watched park-goers and elected officials as it stood centrally in Manhattan’s City Hall Park. Shortly after, because some people felt it disrespected women, it earned the nicknames “Tough Guy” and “Fat Boy.”
In January 1941, Robert Moses announced a contract of $21,720 for the statue's transport, and on May 29, 1941, the 24-ton statue was placed in a wooden container, meticulously packed with sand and attached to a 35-ton crane. At 2 mph, it made its cross-town parade on a 16-wheeled haulage truck with stout timbers to Kew Gardens in a four-hour commute.
Civic Virtue has not been maintained for decades; with an inoperable fountain, a weathered sculpture, and cracked steps. On September 7, 2011, as chairman of Rego-Forest Preservation Council, I nominated Civic Virtue for the State & National Register of Historic Places, so the statue can be commemorated and eligible for funding incentives, to help restore this public masterpiece.
On December 13, 2011, it was determined “National Register-Eligible” by Specialist Daniel McEneny of the New York State Historic Preservation Office. The next step is for the city to endorse the eligibility statement.
On February 6, Borough President Helen Marshall held a budget hearing at Queens Borough Hall. Architect Glenn Urbanas of Richmond Hill, testified at the hearing. He suggested “a modest sum which might be as little as $25,000 to $30,000” to complete a restoration study.
Marshall said she found it very disturbing that the statue degrades women. After Urbanas’ presentation, he explained its allegorical nature. “Marshall seemed to have softened her resistance towards conserving the sculpture,” said Urbanas.
Mary Ann Carey, district manager of Community Board 9, also testified, and since then, Marshall has expressed interest in meeting with the board. “We have a work of art that’s crumbling and corroding due to pigeon droppings and the elements,” Carey said. “If it was in Italy, Civic Virtue would be a revered statue. We want it cleaned and conserved.”
On February 7, the Parks Department expressed its commitment to restoring the statue.
We must not let our cornerstones fall by the wayside by abandoning them for decades. Preserving existing infrastructure should be addressed before new development.
We should embrace and cultivate our art and architecture, which establishes who we are as a community and nation, and inspires more creative works in contrast to some modern lackluster developments. Restoration will also promote walking tours and tourism, since Queens is often underrepresented.
Let’s incorporate public art and preservation into our school curriculum, and take inspiration from historic sites. Considering the extent of politicians ousted from public office in recent years, New York City needs more civic virtue, not less.