Fame can be fleeting for any of us, but in the case of Louis J. Heintz, a formerly celebrated New York street commissioner, the insult of the growing darkness was augmented by an injury. In the decades after a monument was dedicated to Heintz in a Bronx park in 1909, the graceful allegorical bronze figure of fame that adorned the monument suffered several violations that are only now being remedied.
The lithe female statue originally stood on the steps of the monument and reached up to write high words on a granite plinth on which a sculpture by Heintz stood. By 1935, the palm frond Fame wore was loose, and the city government removed it, stating that "it made easy prey for vandals".
In 1971, Fame was attacked by her bronze pen. And later, when she was running her own business in Joyce Kilmer Park, she suffered enough further damage that it was removed for her safety. But in 1980, when the statue was in a municipal warehouse at Rice Memorial Stadium in the Bronx, thieves broke in and forcibly cut off her head, arms and feet.
Now Heintz & # 39; fame is finally being restored. However, the project has proven unusually difficult as no one knows what the decapitated figure's face looked like. Since the figure stood on the base of the monument, all known photos show fame only from behind. And it turns out the Public Design Commission, the municipal authority for art on urban land, has a different take on fame than John Saunders, the artist tasked with sculpting clay with his hands to make the new head to shape.
Mr. Saunders initially designed a slim, elegant face based on that of an angel that he had previously created for a private client. But the Commission found it too timely. The sculptor adjusted the facial features in response to two responses, and unfortunately now Fame & # 39; s head is "in this transitional phase where I don't really like it," said Saunders, the park department's monument protection manager since 2007. "It's currently missing any spirit, "he said," a sense of spirit that can make people feel inspired and uplifted. "
Heintz, a German-American born of wealth, started out in his uncle's Bronx brewery, had the common sense of marrying the daughter of a millionaire brewer, and was elected the first road improvements commissioner for New 23rd and 24th districts in 1890 York City, part of the Bronx that was annexed to the city in 1874. Before Heintz died of pneumonia in 1893, he helped build the Grand Concourse, the great boulevard built on a ridge that runs through the district from north to south.
The man who was tapped for making the statue for Heintz & # 39; monument was the French sculptor Pierre Feitu, member of the salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris, who later sculpted for a French monument to the in New York-raised sculptor Augustus Saint- created. Gaudens.
At the opening of the Great Hall in 1909, dignitaries gave their speeches on the steps of the Heintz monument. For the current restoration, the restorers made a plaster cast of these steps and the floor of the plinth, which they placed in a workshop of the Park Department under the Brooklyn War Memorial in Cadman Plaza Park. Then they moved Fame's several hundred pound torso around with a small crane to determine the correct orientation of the statue.
"It had no arms or feet, it was just that floating piece, so attaching it to the cast of the monument was the biggest challenge," Saunders said. "If she is leaning back, it will look terrible, like she's a little drunk when she writes these words."
Feitu formed Fame as a strong woman with a height of about two meters, which allowed Mr. Saunders to set the right yardstick with his own arms. As a reference for creating a suitably feminine shape, he made the arm of an intern, Odette Blaisdell. The arms and feet, which he modeled in clay, were then cast in bronze at the Bedi-Makky Art Foundry in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Jonathan Kuhn, the park division's director of art and antiques, said when he started his job in 1995 there were about a dozen damaged sculptures in the warehouse. The Citywide Monuments Conservation Program, founded in 1997 as a public-private partnership, has all but Fame repaired and re-exhibited. A bronze lioness went home to Prospect Park Zoo with her cubs. A World War I doughboy, whose helmet had been broken and his bayonet stolen, was returned to Macombs Dam Park. And a discus thrower who had been forcibly attacked had major surgery and was returned to Randalls Island Park.
The discus thrower "was missing his disc and his private parts," said Mr. Kuhn. "We found a plaster cast of his penis in our warehouse, and we were able to re-cast it very faithfully along with his arm and disc."
It has proven to be a particular challenge to give Fame a face.
"We try to channel the aesthetics of the time so that the finished version comes as close as possible to the work of the original artist," and evokes an aesthetic of the early 20th century, said Kuhn. "There is no perfection here because we don't know what it looked like."
Photos of other sculptures by Feitu have been compiled for reference, but Mr. Saunders found them of limited help. The allegorical figures had a "completely different style," he said, while a portrait bust of a middle-aged woman "was not necessarily very meaningful because portraiture is a completely different animal from allegorical figures".
His preferred approach was to "try and cope with something beautiful in the spirit of Feitu," he said. But members of the Design Commission's Conservation Advisory Group – two art historians and a restorer – wanted changes to the face he was modeling.
The group "noticed the beauty and skill of John Saunders' work, but felt the face looked very contemporary," wrote Keri Butler, the commission's acting executive director, in an email. Members suggested he refer to Feitu's other work “and similar works of art of the time and style,” she added, “and members recommended making the restored face plumper, with a straight nose and thinner lips, which denotes the typical allegorical sculptures of the early 20th century. "
Mr Saunders obeyed, but said implementing such specific instructions as working as a sketch artist was for the police.
"Do you know what these drawings look like, they might look like the person, but they have this sketchability that they don't really look like a full portrait?" he said. "I think the head has adopted this quality."
Ms. Butler said the design commission's review was "a team effort" resulting from "dialogue with the park department and other stakeholders and not mandated." And Mr Kuhn from the Park Department said his agency agreed with the Commission's proposals.
But Mr. Saunders sounded limited by the specificity of the guide.
"There is a review process and there are people who are above me in the chain and can decide what to do in the end," he said, adding, "Because of the way this works, I'm nice I had to divorce myself a little from my aesthetic and just say, "All right, I'm just a tool. You say what you want and then I'll do it."
However, the restoration is still in progress. When the coronavirus hit last spring, Mr Saunders started working from home. To do this, he drove to Connecticut with Fame's unfinished clay head in the passenger seat next to Connecticut, secured with a seat belt.
One day a few weeks ago he chauffeured the reworked head back to the workshop in Brooklyn to reunite it with the reassembled bronze body from Fame. For the first time, the bronze casts of the statue's arms and feet, shiny as a new penny, were attached to the weathered green torso. And although it was still a patchwork figure of different parts, a clear grace of movement was already evident.
Mr. Saunders climbed a ladder and the metal rod protruding from Fame & # 39; s neck made a squeaky noise as he turned the clay head onto the bronze neck. He stepped back and watched the meeting indifferently.
Was the new head lacking the spirit as Mr. Saunders believed?
"I think he refines certain details," said Mr. Kuhn. "I see a slight adjustment in the nose."
The next steps, once the head is finished, is to make a rubber mold out of it and make a plaster cast from that mold. In the foundry in Greenpoint, the casting is pressed into sand, which creates a negative impression that preserves the molten bronze. The finished product will be a bronze version of the head that Mr. Saunders modeled in clay.
The bronze head and limbs of the figure will then be welded on, and Mr. Saunders will give the entire figure a uniform patina similar to that of the Heintz statue.
"He's a perfectionist," said Mr. Kuhn of Mr. Saunders. "It's a good thing to get it right and please him and others who comment."
At some point this year, the allegorical figure is expected to be reunited with Heintz in the Bronx after more than 40 years of separation. Originally only a single dowel was attached to the base, so it is planned to provide additional security by reattaching it at three points. With a little luck, Heintz will keep his fame intact this time.
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