2017-12-13 / Front Page

Civic Virtue:

A Reflection
By Thomas Cogan
This past August 22, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, former QBP Claire Shulman and other city officials held a dedication ceremony outside Borough Hall, near the crossing of Queens Boulevard and Union Turnpike.  The event inaugurated the newly-created Women’s Plaza in Queens and was reported in the Gazette.  But though the plaza was given a name for the first time it was not the first dedication ceremony there.  In fact, the centerpiece of the new plaza had been part of a previous dedication, more than 75 years earlier.

At last summer’s ceremony the centerpiece was a combination of a fountain and its base.  On the earlier occasion, in October 1941, it included a statue; and this entire work of public art was at that time going through a second dedication of its own.  It’s a complicated story, one in which fountain and statue provide a notorious, protracted, true urban legend that actually may now be resolved.

The August event celebrated the new plaza but might also have been a celebration of the statue’s absence, with an implicit declaration of good riddance.  The statue, Civic Virtue Triumphant Over Unrighteousness, by the Brooklyn-born Beaux Arts-style sculptor Frederick William MacMonnies, had surmounted the fountain triumphantly for 90 years, first in City Hall Park in Manhattan and then, for nearly four times as long, in Kew Gardens, on the spot where these days fountain and base, from the Beaux Arts architectural firm, Carrère and Hastings and designed by Thomas Hastings, still stand but no longer support Civic Virtue.

The politicians and other officials gathered last August to praise the base and the (now non-functioning) fountain, at the same time declaring they were happily done with the statue.  In its day it had stood above two nude and quite feminine figures who represented civic vice.   To some it might always have looked ludicrous but to victorious suffragettes in the early 1920s or resurgent feminists in later decades, this muscular fellow with Roman sword and a vacuous expression, lording it over two low, indecent and unrighteous hoydens, was insufferable.  Last summer, Claire Shulman, former Queens borough president, was contemptuous of MacMonnies for his “problem with women” and petulant dismissal of his critics, while State Senator Leroy Comrie likened removal of the statue to the current toppling of Confederate monuments and other perceived insults.  

A little trip through history might help.  MacMonnies was born in 1863 and grew up in Brooklyn Heights.  His youthful artistic inclination led him eventually to Paris and study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.  By the 1890s he had gained fame after his sculptural works found acceptance in Europe and America.   At home they were well-placed in Brooklyn, still an independent city, and New York.  His statue of Nathan Hale made him famous before he was 30, preceded Civic Virtue to the grounds of City Hall and is still there.  Brooklyn was and remains heavily decorated with his works, notably the quadriga atop the Soldiers and Sailors Arch in Grand Army Plaza. 

In March 1914, when he was living in Paris, he received a letter from Henry Smith, a former New York City parks commissioner, inquiring about the progress of Civic Virtue.  It was nearly five years since the sculptor had been awarded the city commission to create the statue and Smith might have wondered about delay.  MacMonnies replied that he was working on several commissions in addition to Civic Virtue.  He said also that he and other sculptors often had artist’s remorse when seeing their works in a public square, wishing “to take them down from their pedestals … and begin all over

again and make changes that might bring improvement.”  It was a way of saying that he was inclined to take his time with what he had to do, for best results.  When the

statue was finished it bore his name and the date, 1920.  Considering the controversy it was to cause, which would last from the time it was installed in City Hall Park almost to the present day, he might have wished to take it down and start over.

Statue, fountain and base were installed on a lawn in City Hall Park and dedicated Thursday, April 20, 1922.  Having heard a lot of criticism previously, Mayor John F. Hylan didn’t want it and soon had to bear a redoubled barrage of outrage from feminists who’d won the vote and didn’t intend to tolerate a putative artwork they contrarily found a brutal insult.  Others sneered at it and called its stolid hero “Rough Guy” and other names.  Such tumult lessened as the statue remained in place and years passed.  By the time Mayor Fiorello La Guardia was late into his second term and MacMonnies had died it was decided to remove the whole thing to the grounds of the new borough hall in Kew Gardens.  On a day in May 1941 the disassembled work was borne by truck on an all-day journey to its new home.  Five months later it was again dedicated.  The highest city official in attendance was City Council President Newbold Morris.  Queens Borough President George U. Harvey welcomed him.

This time the stay was nearly 71 years, until renewed feminist resentment succeeded as previous efforts had not.  Rough Guy fell, so to speak, in the summer of 2012 and was removed to his third borough and placed in a circular space among the pathways of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.  MacMonnies’s work was gone from Kew Gardens, but the Carrère and Hastings fountain and base remained, to be repaired expertly and rededicated in 2017, on the spot where it had stood since 1941.

There is an additional story literally attached to the base.  To the left as one faces it is a brass-lettered statement affixed thereon.  “This fountain,” it says, “was erected by the City of New York with funds bequeathed by Mrs. Angelina Crane.” 

Mrs. Crane, 1824-1894, was a moderately wealthy woman who lived in the Brunswick Hotel on Madison Square and had her will executed in 1891.  After her death and the reading of the will, a newspaper article ran a headline and deck that lamented:  “Only $5 for her daughter.  The rest of Mrs. Crane’s money for a fountain and charities.”  In her will, she stated of her only child:  “Inasmuch as my daughter, Edith Hawthorne Crane . . . has treated me in a most undutiful and unnatural manner, I therefore give and bequeath to her the sum of $5 and no more.”  The remainder of the money, somewhat more than $50,000, went largely to several hospitals, the Fresh Air Fund and the city, the last recipient being asked to build a drinking fountain in memory of the benefactress.

A contested will was the unsurprising result, but Edith Crane Simmons failed to gain a cent above what her mother said was all she deserved.  There may have been other reasons for delay in getting Mrs. Crane’s bequest to the city, and some lost reason why the mandate for a drinking fountain was ultimately disregarded, but finally, in May 1909, the city used the money to close a deal with MacMonnies, allowing him to create a sculpture that would stand on the Hastings fountain and base, to be situated in City Hall Park.  To City Hall Park it went, thence to the grounds of Queensboro Hall, finally to Green-Wood Cemetery.  Here the story ends, for the moment anyway; and here are some final facts.

In addition to Civic Virtue, Green-Wood Cemetery contains some MacMonnies family members, including his mother—but not the sculptor himself.  Frederick William MacMonnies, 1863-1937, is buried in Ferncliff Cemetery, in the Westchester town of Hartsdale.  The maker of sometimes extravagant artworks lies beneath no statuary nor within a tomb, not even under a headstone.

One who does rest in Green-Wood, across the cemetery from the sculpture she unwittingly financed, is Mrs. Angelina Crane.  Perhaps her shade occasionally rises to gaze upon the statue or flits to Queens to see the parts separated from it but now dignified as a tribute to women, including her, the woman who is honored there with an inscription of gratitude.

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