Twenty-five years ago, the Municipal Art Society opened a campaign to preserve 20 public sculptures. (I remember it as clearly as if I’d covered it myself.) The idea of the program, Adopt-a-Monument, was to entice benefactors into supporting specific artworks for which the city could no longer afford to care.
There was a needy monument for just about every philanthropic budget.
How the city looks and feels — and why it got that way.
For $275,000, a donor could adopt the Heinrich Heine Fountain, “Die Lorelei,” in Joyce Kilmer Park in the Bronx. Its white marble was turning a sugary consistency. Every surface was blanketed with graffiti. The mermaids at its base had lost their heads and arms to vandals. For $3,500, a donor could adopt “Still Hunt,” a panther in Central Park, which needed cleaning, a new protective wax coat and a new tip for its bronze tail.
Nineteen of the 20 monuments were eventually adopted. The program was so successful that 16 more monuments were added, as were 15 public murals, under a companion drive called Adopt-a-Mural.
But one adoptive prospect had yet to be fully financed until now.
That would be Donald DeLue’s 43-foot-tall bronze “Rocket Thrower,” on the grounds of the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens. It might be described as an icon of heroic, midcentury, monumental Neo-Classicism. It might also be described as a gargantuan fairgrounds tchotchke of homoerotic kitsch.
The rescue delay has not been without cost. The estimated adoption cost in 1987 was $28,750 (adjusted for inflation, nearly $60,000 to day). The cost is now about $115,000.
“We really should have taken care of it right away,” said Vin Cipolla, the president of the Municipal Art Society, a nonprofit organization that advocates better and stronger urban planning, design and preservation.
“The fact that this has not been considered a distinctive piece of work — in the consciousness of art-oriented, philanthropic New York — may be the greatest challenge,” Mr. Cipolla said, being appropriately diplomatic.
Not a distinctive piece of work? To the contrary: John Canaday, the influential art critic of The New York Times, thought “Rocket Thrower” was quite distinctive. On April 25, 1964, he called it a “most lamentable monster” that made “Walt Disney look like Leonardo da Vinci.”
The artist, Mr. Canaday said, had created an “absurdity that might be a satire of the kind of sculpture already discredited at the time of the 1939 fair.” Unfortunately, the critic continued, this joke was destined to become “a permanent disfigurement.”
If the jealous heavens do not level ‘The Rocket Thrower’ with a bolt of lightning, a solution would be for some public-spirited citizen to pay for melting it down and putting it back in place. Whatever the shape of the resultant lump, it would be better than the shape the thing is in now.
Perhaps the Municipal Art Society would have been more successful raising money to melt down “Rocket Thrower” than to conserve it. But finally, an appreciative audience has begun to develop.
“You have to look at this artifact of the fair with the whole idea of man’s entry into space,” said Phyllis Samitz Cohen, the director of the Adopt-a-Monument and Adopt-a-Mural programs. “Rocket Thrower,” set in the semicircular Court of the Astronauts, was unveiled when outer space promised to be the next frontier.
About halfway along the fair’s grand axis, between the Unisphere and the Fountain of the Planets, “Rocket Thrower” was surrounded by international pavilions: Spain, Japan, the United Arab Republic and Polynesia — “A dance done with flaming knives and a chance to buy a pearl-bearing oyster are featured in South Seas huts.”
If you know how to read the plan of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, you can begin to understand how many traces remain of this evocative intersection of technological prowess and cultural naïveté, this summing up of America in the early 1960s.
“The ghosts of it are still there,” Ms. Cohen said.
The monument itself is a marvel of engineering, when you consider how enormous a load is being borne on such a slender, graceful arc. Even if the “bronze muscle man,” as Mr. Canaday called him, is awkwardly modeled, it is remarkable how his asymmetrical form seems to balance so effortlessly. “It put me in awe,” Ms. Cohen said. “There is some magic about this.”
A restoration fund has finally come together. “Rocket Thrower” was awarded a $10,000 grant from the new Partners in Preservation program. About $11,000 has been contributed in small amounts. Marvin and Donna Schwartz have given $15,000. And $79,000 more is to be drawn from a $600,000 bequest to the Adopt-a-Monument program by George Trescher, a leading fund-raiser who died in 2003.
Tucker Ashworth and Paul Gunther, who worked for Mr. Trescher in the 1980s on behalf of the Municipal Art Society, gave form to the program. It was first called “Monumental Woes,” referring to the fact that New York, still reeling from the fiscal crisis of the mid-70s, could scarcely afford to give public artwork the attention it needed. City agencies collaborate with the program.
Mr. Cipolla said the society was renewing its commitment to the adoption program through a committee headed by Ashton Hawkins, the former general counsel for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Resources have become only less available on the public side,” he said.
The rehabilitation of the Lorelei fountain in 1999 inspired a relandscaping of Joyce Kilmer Park when the monument was moved to a position facing the Bronx County Courthouse, across East 161st Street, from the north end of the park. “That’s the most profound restoration because it was the most ravaged monument,” Ms. Cohen said.
The project cost far more than anticipated. It benefited from a $330,000 grant by the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation and more than $1 million from the city. The reward of that investment can be seen regularly, Ms. Cohen said.
“When people get married in the courthouse,” she said, “they’ll come out and have their pictures taken at the monument.”