Friday, October 7, 2011

That time Christopher Columbus annoyed Robert Moses


Above: Columbus Circle in 1913. Robert Moses wasn't annoyed with this statue of the explorer, as far as I know, but in 1956, he placed the hideous New York Coluseum convention center next to it, marring the area for decades. (Pic by Irving Underhill, courtesy NYPL)

Christopher Columbus is among the most honored figures in New York statuary, appearing abundantly throughout the five boroughs -- standing prominently, nestled in parks and squares, peering from building features.

I've located a seemingly complete list of New York Columbus monuments, strangely enough, on a German website, inclusive even of Chris's appearance of 8th Avenue subway tiles.

While the one perched atop the column at Columbus Circle is the most famous, perhaps the most interesting one sits in Columbus Park, in Astoria, Queens. Depicting a young, robust explorer, the statue was erected here in 1941 in recognition of the area's growing Italian population. But youthful Chris was almost immediately removed to the basement of Queens Borough Hall, for fears it would get melted down in wartime scrap-metal programs. It was returned to dignity by the end of the war and has commanded the crossroads here ever since.

Had Parks Commissioner Robert Moses had his way, however, the striking, romantic monument would never have seen light of day. "We don’t think the statue looks like anything we have read about Columbus, or that as a piece of symbolism it represents anything associated with Columbus," Moses complained.

“Anything Moses doesn’t design himself, he thinks is no good.” replied Queens Borough President George U. Harvey.

Nearby you'll find a dedication plaque from the Italian Chamber of Commerce. Your eyes aren't deceiving you; it lists a dedication date of 1937. Although sculptor Angelo Racioppi had completed the work by then, the community couldn't afford the base until a few years later!

At right: Racioppi works on Astoria's Columbus as part of the WPA program.

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