What We Know About Their Removal

A group of abstract, squat concrete horse statues

Costantino Nivola created over a dozen horse statues for the Stephen Wise Towers Recreation Area, as part of a site design by Richard Stein.
Photo: © The archives of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture. Lea Bertucci, photographer

Perhaps it was the sight of all the little bits and pieces that caused an outburst of outrage at the city’s architecture and historic curators. More than a dozen horse statues by modernist Sicilian sculptor Costantino Nivola have been quietly removed from the Stephen Wise Towers Recreation Area, a NYCHA complex located on 91st Street between Amsterdam and Columbus. “Deeply sad,” tweeted Paul Goldberger. “A sad day for the Nivola museum and for art,” tweeted Nivola Museum. Originally installed in 1964 as part of a landscape design by Richard Stein, the stocky, slightly abstract concrete animals have become beloved characters of the neighborhood.

When she saw the picture she was “horrified,” said Liz waytkus, Executive Director of Docomomo, an organization dedicated to the preservation of Modernist design and architecture. She was surprised not to have heard any discussion about the removal of the statues, given that they are installed in the public space. Since the controversy erupted, she said: “I have received so many texts and emails [from preservationists] saying, ‘We have had enough.’ “

Described as a “Picasso for the people” Costantino Nivola moved to New York City in 1939 and worked on a number of municipal art projects throughout the city. His abstract sculptures and murals have been installed in the five districts of schools, social housing complexes, hospitals and courthouses. He also worked on commissions for the Olivetti showroom and an apartment building on Fifth Avenue. Over time it fell into relative obscurity, but was rediscovered last year after the Cooper Union organized an exhibition on his work.

NYCHA insists that Nivola’s sculptures have only been removed temporarily. “The horses are intact and undamaged and have been moved to a storage room at Wise Towers,” a NYCHA spokesperson told Curbed. The agency said it needed to remove the statues in order to complete the critical repair of the water pipe for a riser that runs directly under the site. But the sawn feet which remain visible in the image of the courtyard of the Nivola Museum make us wonder about their intact state. NYCHA promises that the statues will be relocated to campus as part of a planned landscape overhaul that is expected to be completed in 2022.

The statues stood here from 1964 until NYCHA removed them in early March for critical repairs to the water pipe below. Over the years, the statues have been damaged and vandalized.
Photo: © The archives of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture. Lea Bertucci, photographer

Wise Towers is part of NYCHA’s larger Permanent Affordability Commitment (PACT), a RAD partnership with private promoters update and rehabilitate social housing. The scope of the renovation includes the modernization of the individual apartments as well as the common areas inside and outside. Wise’s original recreation area also features a mural wall, a sculpture wall, and two concrete pyramids that were part of a water feature that has not worked for years. We don’t know what the new recreation area will look like, or where the original art will be located. No renderings of the new sitemaps have been released, but there have been discussions about adding new play equipment like swings and slides, according to Tom Corsillo, a spokesperson for the PACT Renaissance Collaborative (PRC ), a development team working on the rehabilitation of Campus NYCHA under PACT.

“Incorporate the [Nivola statues] in the new landscape design has long been part of the plan and is something the PRC has discussed with residents and the community council, ”says Corsillo. “There is an ongoing dialogue with stakeholders to refine these plans.”

Nivola also created a wall of sculptures and a pyramidal water feature, which has not worked for years, for the recreation area. The space will be updated as part of larger and necessary critical repairs to individual apartments and common areas on the NYCHA campus.
Photo: © The archives of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture. Lea Bertucci, photographer

The statues appeared at a public meeting in July 2020 between the residents of Wise Towers and the redevelopment team, when several people mentioned liking them. Some even mentioned that the sculptures had been vandalized and questioned the possibility of repairing them. However, there was no discussion of Nivola as an artist, nor the historical significance of the sculptures. There was also no open public forum on the statues, which could have brought historians and curators into the fold. Looking at the minutes of the meeting of Community Council 7, where Wise Towers is located, the only time the site was discussed in a public forum was about after-school programs; there is no mention of Costantino Nivola or the sculptures. Waytkus, who sits on his own community council’s land use planning committee (CB 9), finds this disturbing. “There has to be a community discussion, with the folks at Stephen Wise Towers and Community Board 7 weighing in,” she says. “If there was a foundation that commissioned the art, it must be involved. You don’t go in and do what you want and suggest we’re going to have a new design. It’s ridiculous.”

The unceremonious removal of the statues also highlights an area conservationists might turn their attention to: Modernist artwork at NYCHA sites. This could prevent major modifications or demolitions without proper consultation. Additionally, Docomomo is not involved in any preservation work at New York City social housing sites. Could previous awareness and education efforts have helped to avoid such a panic?

“Maybe we need to document what’s at these NYCHA properties in town,” Waytkus says. “What are the things that we are not aware of that we should be?”

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