Friday, March 2, 2012

Restoring Civic Virtue

Michael Perlman's feature story in the Queens Ledger/Forest Hills Times on March 1, 2012. Please share & consider commenting on the Queens Ledger website:

Civic Virtue, west of Queens Borough Hall at Queens Blvd & Union Turnpike

Civic Virtue at its original home of City Hall Park, NYC circa 1930

Art is open to interpretation, and an artist's vision is bound for misinterpretation.

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. 

On May 31, 1941, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who famously hated the fountain because its naked backside could be viewed from his office, said “Oh, it’s gone at last. Now I won’t have to look at that virtuous back anymore.” Alongside Queens Borough Hall, Civic Virtue would once again be in a landscaped setting, but not “turn its back” on government.
   On October 7, 1941, City Council President Newbold Morris presented Civic Virtue to Borough President George Harvey, who advocated for its rescue. He said, “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 onlookers who cheered.

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 masterpiec

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, 2012, Queens BP 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 - $30,000 to be allocated in next year’s budget, so Request For Proposals can be prepared for accredited stone conservators, who can provide a detailed scope of work including estimates of materials, labor, and procedures for a phased project of cleaning, conservation, and restoration.” 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, 2012, NYC Parks Department Commissioner Adrian Benepe explained “We have expressed our support to improve and restore the Civic Virtue statue. We suggest working with potential donors to find the funding for any necessary restoration to this monument.”

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. 


  1. I heard there is a rally to save Civic Virtue from being moved to Brooklyn. When and where?

    1. The rally plans are in the works. We will soon post an update on the Rego-Forest Preservation Council Blog. You can also visit the Triumph of Civic Virtue advocacy group website at:

  2. On Saturday, December 8th at 11:30 AM, please make every effort to attend a crucial event to help spare the Civic Virtue statue where it has sat in Queens for the last 71 years. Public art belongs to the citizens who know their communities best, but the city has made its own decision, without consulting the community and their constituents.


    For Immediate Release, December 7, 2012
    Contact: Nicole Gelber



    Council Member joins Community Board 9 to protest relocation of historic “Civic Virtue” sculpture

    Tomorrow, Council Member Peter F. Vallone Jr. will join Community Board 9 Chair Andrea Crawford, District Manager Mary Ann Carey and residents of Queens at a rally protesting the City Design Commission’s recent ruling to permanently relocate the Triumph of Civic Virtue statue to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn from Queens Borough Hall. The cemetery has stated that the statue may be moved in the next week!

    The Design Commission ruled on November 13th to move the statue without input from the public, despite most Queens residents wanting the sculpture to remain in the borough. Community Board 9, which has always supported keeping Civic Virtue in Queens, is also greatly disappointed by the decision and the lack of consultation with residents and community leaders.

    WHAT: Triumph of Civic Virtue Rally
    WHEN: Saturday, December 8th, 11:30 AM
    WHERE: In front of statue, next to Queens Borough Hall (120-55 Queens Boulevard, Kew Gardens)

    * Triumph of Civic Virtue advocacy group:

    * Forest Hills Times/Queens Ledger column by Michael Perlman:

    * Photos by Rego-Forest Preservation Council: