Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Adolph A. Weinman's Colossal "Civic Fame"

photo by Stig Nygaard
In 1898 the five boroughs—Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx—were consolidated into the City of New York.   The move necessitated a number of strategic and drastic changes such as unified police and fire departments.  It would also required a new municipal headquarters building to house the many civic departments required to run the massive city.

In a remarkably early example of architectural preservation and awareness, Mayor Franklin Edson rebuffed suggestions to enlarge the exquisite 1812 Federal Style City Hall.  The mayor said that its “style of architecture was such that without marring its present symmetry, it couldn’t be enlarged to the required extent.”

“The required extent” was, indeed, immense.  All the municipal agencies of the newly-consolidated city needed to be housed in one location.   The esteemed architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White was given the commission to design the new structure.  It would be at once beautiful and colossal.

Construction began in 1907 on the 40-story building.  Designed during the City Beautiful movement that proposed that monumental buildings prompted civic pride and civilized behavior, it would be soaring Beaux Arts monument to New York City.

The architects drew on classical models to incite pride—the central arch, built to accommodate motorcar traffic, was copied from the Arch of Constantine and an arcade of Guastavino-tiled vaults harkened to the Palazzo Farnese.  High above Centre Street, atop it all, a Roman columned temple would complete the structure.   And perched upon it would be a golden statue—Civic Fame.

Construction on the Municipal Building continued for seven years.  While it rose, German-born sculptor Adolph A. Weinman worked on the bas-reliefs for the façade including “Guidance,” “Executive Power,” Civic Duty,” “Civic Pride,” “Progress,” and “Prudence.”

He also began work on the enormous statue for the pinnacle.   For his model he turned, perhaps expectedly, to Audrey Munson.   The young woman who had grown up in Mexico, New York, was the darling of architectural sculptors.  She would pose for Karl Bitter’s Pulitzer Fountain, Augustus Lukeman’s “Memory” as part of the memorial to Titanic victims Isadore and Ida Straus, Attilio Piccirilli’s Maine Memorial at the entrance to Central Park and literally scores of other monuments and statues. 

In keeping with the classical theme of the building, Weinman dressed Civic Fame in the garb of a Roman goddess.  Her stance is strikingly similar to the more robust figure of Liberty in New York Harbor to which Civic Fame would turn her back.

To reflect her role as representative of New York City she has a shield with the City Seal slung over one arm.  She holds a branch of laurel symbolic of victory in one hand and a “mural crown” in the other.  The crown consists of five slightly separated crenelations representing the five newly-consolidated boroughs.  Decorating the crown are dolphins to symbolize the city’s close relationship with the ocean.

Not that anyone could ever see them.

The rising Municipal Building dwarfed the civic buildings around it -- photo Library of Congress
Despite the statue's hollow core covered with gilded copper sheets, the nearly 30-foot tall statue would be a challenge to install 582 feet above the sidewalk.  On February 8, 1913, The New York Tribune reported that the figure was currently in 500 pieces, being assembled by Aschworer & Sons.  The newspaper noted that the size of the statue and the height of the building “makes the setting of the statue a ticklish matter.”

Workers would wait until there was virtually no wind before attempting the installation.  A wooden platform was erected around the steel rod that would hold the statue and the ball on which she stands in place.  Christian Broschart, of Broschart & Braun, the firm that cast the sculpture, explained “It will have to be placed in position in sections.  One section will reach up to the knees and the rest of the body will be divided up into three or four sections.”

Finally, on May 8, 1913, the statue was firmly in place atop the Municipal Building.   Civic Fame had added $5,000 to the cost of the building and her gilding another $1000.  As the wooden scaffolding was removed and her golden form revealed for the first time, The New York Tribune (while getting the name of the statue wrong) made a tongue-in-cheek announcement.

“Miss Civic Pride took off her kimono yesterday.  Six steeplejack tailors assisted her in casting off her garment of wood and displaying her clinging gown of gold to the Manhattanese.”  The writer made reference to the soaring height.  “She carries a globular object of golden hue.  From the street level it is impossible to make out just what the spheroid may be, but it looks suspiciously like a bomb.  It is to be hoped, however, that she is not of that pestiferous, nihilistic persuasion, as the trip to the summit would be a nuisance to Sheriff Harburger and his trained exterminators.”

Boys in knee pants and men in straw boaters busy themselves far below the gilded statue -- photo from author's collection

As it turned out, the effects of wind and weather just off the harbor were extreme.  Just 25 years after she was unveiled, repair work was done on the statue in 1928.  Passersby stopped and craned their necks as steeplejack E. J. Stanley stabilized Civic Fame’s cracked left arm with a rope tether.  A few days later he placed a bronze ring 8” in diameter on the arm, in preparation for its being soldered and fastened with steel rods to the shoulders.  The repair work cost the City about $650.

While he was at it, Stanley perhaps should have stabilized the right arm as well.

On Saturday afternoon, February 23, 1935, the 150-pound right arm broke loose and fell eight stories to the skylight above the kitchen of the employee restaurant.  Because the skylight was constructed of wired-glass it held, but the kitchen was showered with glass shards.

Police roped off all surrounding streets and closed the subway stations below the Municipal Building.  The New York Times reported that “It is believed that if the whole statue falls its weight of several tons would crash through the street and into the B.M.T. and I.R.T. subways.”

All pedestrian and motor traffic around the Municipal Building was diverted awaiting investigation of the condition of the statue.  Frederick C. Kuehnle, Chief Inspector of the Manhattan Department of Buildings ordered a careful examination to determine whether it could be repaired in place, or would have to be dismantled and removed.

After four decades of pollution, acid rain, wind and sleet, Civic Fame received 2,800 square feet of new gold leaf in December 1974.  The make-over cost the City $42,000.

Then in 1991, as the façade of the Municipal Building was undergoing restoration, Les Metalliers Champenois was given the job of restoring Civic Fame.  The French design firm had previously undertaken the restoration of the Statue of Liberty torch.   The golden statue was dismantled and hoisted down to be cleaned and refurbished. 

While the workers were cleaning the enormous statue they found “L. Conroy” carved into the metal—a memento of the 1936 reparations.  114 days after she had left home, Civic Fame returned to the pinnacle of the Municipal Building in October 1991.  Necks on the ground craned again as she dangled from a helicopter to be reinstalled.

Civic Fame stands high above the heads of busy New Yorkers, the second largest statue in Manhattan and largely overlooked.


  1. In all the years I worked at 225 Broadway and at 375 Pearl, I never glanced up at "Civic Pride" Thanks for the "head's up".

  2. I also have never seen this statue prior to this post. Fantastic information. It sits gloriously atop one of the most beautiful civic structures ever built for any city anywhere. Mckim Mead and White at their very best.

  3. 4th largest statue in NYC after Statue of Liberty, Belerphon Taming Pegasus at Columbia Law School and the Obelisk ( Clepoatra's Needle ) in Central Park ( which is still a statue).