New York statues: The amazing stories behind three statues in NYC

Seriously, though. Who the hell are these people? Discover the controversies and artistic vandalism behind these New York statues.

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You probably pass them every day, but have you ever wondered what a given New York statue is all about? For instance, why is there a statue of Lenin on the roof of a condo on the Lower East Side? And why does one statue’s knee in Washington Square Park in the West Village look like it’s caved in on itself? Read on for answers to these and more burning questions as we reveal the secret New York histories behind three figurative sculptures.

RECOMMENDED: Public art in New York guide

  • Photograph: Mike Carsten/Archigrafika

    New York statues

    Civic Virtue, Frederick MacMonnies, 1922

    Some public art can polarize opinions, but this 22-ton monster has been almost universally reviled since its debut. MacMonnies intended to represent virtue triumphing over the sirens of vice and corruption; what everyone else saw was a big, naked jerk standing on top of two naked ladies and looking super proud of himself. The statue was criticized as soon as it was unveiled in front of City Hall in 1922. (“It ain’t art to have a guy stepping on a girl’s neck that way,” a passerby was quoted as saying.) Mayor La Guardia hated the piece so much that he had it relocated to Kew Gardens in 1941. But Queens never really liked it either, and in 2011, then-Congressman Anthony Weiner floated the idea that the city sell the piece on Craigslist. This past December, Virtue found its final resting place with members of MacMonnies’s family in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. Carved in the Bronx, it has now visited four out of the five boroughs. (Staten Island, you want to call next dibs?) 500 25th St at Fifth Ave, Sunset Park, Brooklyn (718-768-7300, green-wood.com)

  • Photograph: NYC Parks and Recreation

    New York statues

    Giuseppe Garibaldi, Giovanni Turini, 1888

    You couldn’t ask for a more appropriate sculptor to immortalize this legendary champion of Italian unification: Before emigrating to America, Turini served in the fourth regiment of Garibaldi’s army. Backed by funds from the city’s Italian-American community, Turini set out to design an ornate piece featuring the general perched atop a boulder, flanked by two soldiers below him. Alas, money for the project ran out with the unveiling date fast approaching and only Garibaldi himself cast. An artist’s worst nightmare ensued. Without consulting Turini (who was visiting Europe at the time), foundry workers yanked the bronze figure’s legs into an inhuman configuration—the right knee looks particularly painful—in order to make it stand on a flat plinth. Turini was, understandably, pissed off, but the statue went up nonetheless. In a 1904 letter to the editor, a New York Times reader bitched mightily: “That figure is enough to make the park sparrows quake with fear and to make the babies in their carriages cross-eyed in their endeavors to avoid seeing it.” Washington Square Park, enter at W 4th St and University Pl (nyc.gov/parks)

  • Photograph: Camille Fernandez

    New York statues

    V.I. Lenin, Yuri Gerasimov, installed 1994 (Red Square)

    No, that isn’t a giant hailing a cab 13 stories over your head. It’s Soviet revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin, waving from the roof of an LES apartment block called—what else?—Red Square. The Soviet government commissioned the 18-foot-tall statue for display in Russia in the late 1980s, but the state collapsed before it could be unveiled. The piece later turned up in the backyard of a dacha on the outskirts of Moscow; it eventually wound up in the hands of the buildings’ poltically-minded co-owners, who thought Lenin would feel right at home on the Lower East Side. As if that weren’t all unlikely enough, behind and above the statue is a clock with the numbers displayed out of order; it was modeled after a timepiece on display at MoMA. 250 E Houston St between Aves A and B

Photograph: Mike Carsten/Archigrafika

New York statues

Civic Virtue, Frederick MacMonnies, 1922

Some public art can polarize opinions, but this 22-ton monster has been almost universally reviled since its debut. MacMonnies intended to represent virtue triumphing over the sirens of vice and corruption; what everyone else saw was a big, naked jerk standing on top of two naked ladies and looking super proud of himself. The statue was criticized as soon as it was unveiled in front of City Hall in 1922. (“It ain’t art to have a guy stepping on a girl’s neck that way,” a passerby was quoted as saying.) Mayor La Guardia hated the piece so much that he had it relocated to Kew Gardens in 1941. But Queens never really liked it either, and in 2011, then-Congressman Anthony Weiner floated the idea that the city sell the piece on Craigslist. This past December, Virtue found its final resting place with members of MacMonnies’s family in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. Carved in the Bronx, it has now visited four out of the five boroughs. (Staten Island, you want to call next dibs?) 500 25th St at Fifth Ave, Sunset Park, Brooklyn (718-768-7300, green-wood.com)


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Paul McMonnies
Paul McMonnies

Good old Uncle Fred - he always seemed like a bit of a troublemaker to me :)