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Little-loved statue may be exiled to a Brooklyn cemetery


NEW YORK >> Even before “Civic Virtue” was unveiled in 1922, there were protests against it. The immense statue, installed in City Hall Park, featured a naked, hulking man representing virtue, standing atop nude female figures, representing vice.

Women’s groups protested the symbolism. Later, art critics lamented the inelegance of the work. Time healed no wounds. Politicians, most prominently Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, griped about being mooned each day on the way to work.

For years, there were efforts to exile the sculpture: the Bronx, Brooklyn and Randalls Island were all considered. But the piece was finally carted off to Kew Gardens, Queens, where it has decayed outside Borough Hall for the past 70 years, enduring, every few decades, another bout of criticism that it was ugly and sexist.

Now this little-loved statue seems on the verge of yet another exile — this time to Brooklyn. Appropriately enough, its next and perhaps final resting place there, according to city leaders, may be in a graveyard.

The depiction of the women and the man, “as though they are vice and he is virtue,” is a problem, Helen M. Marshall, the Queens borough president, said. “That statue is 90 years old and that kind of thinking is far-off and crazy.”

Last week, the statue, which was designed in Paris by Frederick MacMonnies and sculptured of white Georgia marble in the Bronx, still stood in its fountain on Queens Boulevard, behind a chain-link fence, while the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, which oversees it, considered what to do with it. One option might be Green-Wood Cemetery, in Brooklyn, a national landmark that has offered to accept it, according to a spokeswoman for the department.

That the statue may end up amid graves is not a concession to those who, over the years, have wanted it proverbially dead. After watching a televised news conference last year in which Anthony D. Weiner, then a congressman, suggested the work, which weighs 22 tons, should be sold on Craigslist, Richard J. Moylan, the president of Green-Wood, became incensed.

“That just infuriated me,” said Moylan, who is a former treasurer of the National Sculpture Society. “Whether you like it or not, it’s art. You don’t destroy art.” He offered the cemetery as a home for the husky sculpture, also known by fond monikers like Rough Boy, Fat Boy and Cave Man.

Several of MacMonnies’ relatives are buried at Green-Wood, Moylan added, and there is a frieze of pink granite by the artist himself memorializing one of his friends. The statue would be placed near the cemetery’s front gates, he said.

The saga of the statue has been featured in newspapers, blogs and news broadcasts in recent days, after an article in The Daily News indicated that it might be moved.

“Civic Virtue” set off a fracas that was giddily documented by newspapers before it was installed in Manhattan. Women, newly granted the right to vote by the 19th Amendment, railed against the prospect of an 11-foot man who appears about to squash two women as a symbol of good government. At heated public hearings held by the mayor, John F. Hylan, artists pleaded on behalf of the Beaux-Arts behemoth, while advocates for women’s rights derided it.

“We do not believe that the human race regards man as a symbol of virtue and woman as a symbol of vice,” said Ida Osborne, a fighter for women’s suffrage, who spoke at one hearing. (Francis D. Gallatin, the parks commissioner at the time, countered that women should be flattered that men found them so tempting.)

Nevertheless, the statue arrived at the steps of City Hall that spring, to Hylan’s distaste. “I don’t like the looks of this fellow,” he said at the time.

Though it remained wildly unpopular — except with street urchins, who dived off the strapping figure into the pool in summer — political leaders in Brooklyn and the Bronx periodically offered a home for the nude ensemble. The Coney Island Boardwalk was suggested, and later Randalls Island, where, an article in The New York Times declared in 1940, the chunky fellow would be “far from the jibes and the jests of downtown city folk.”

Queens won, carting the statue off to its current spot in 1941, much to the relief of La Guardia. “Oh, it’s gone at last,” he said at the empty spot where it had stood. “Now I won’t have to look at that virtuous back any more.”

Some contemporary politicians protest the idea of the statue’s being moved to the cemetery and want it to stay in Queens. “It’s an artistic portrayal of virtue triumphing over vice,” said Councilman Peter F. Vallone Jr., a Democrat from Astoria, Queens. “We need more of that in city government.” Vallone said he wanted the statue, crusted in grime, to be restored and left where it is.

“If I thought this was an attack on women, I wouldn’t allow it,” he added. “But it obviously isn’t.”

Terry O’Neill, the president of the National Organization for Women, disagreed. “Really? A person with a vagina symbolizes bad stuff and a person with a penis symbolizes good stuff, and we don’t think there is a sexist problem with this?” she said.

Behind the chain-link fence, the monument is in a sorry state, covered in pigeon droppings; its fountain is cracked and long defunct. Marshall, the borough president, said it had not been restored because of the cost — an estimated $2 million — not the subject matter.

Last week, two pigeons stood atop the statue’s head; few people in the vicinity seemed to take much notice of it. But Sandie Singh, 45, who lives in Jamaica, Queens, and was leaving the courthouse nearby, said she thought “Civic Virtue” should be moved, but not to Green-Wood Cemetery.

The statue and its message — its writhing female figures embodying what happens to the corrupt — should be moved even closer, where public officials can see it, Singh said. Right inside their offices.

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