Kew Gardens Loses a Landmark

Civic Virtue in front of City Hall in Manhattan c. 1926. Notice the children using the fountain as a pool.

The Civic Virtue fountain under construction in 1941. The new Queens Borough Hall is in the background.

Civic Virtue in Kew Gardens (2005).

The Civic Virtue Statue being removed from Kew Gardens last Saturday evening (December 15, 2012).


At 5.31 p.m. on Saturday, December 15, a flatbed truck carrying the 22-ton marble statue of Civic Virtue, ignominiously encased in a metal cage, started its journey from Kew Gardens to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where family members of its sculptor, Frederick MacMonnies, are interred. The family reportedly is paying for moving and restoration expenses.

Civic Virtue leaves behind an empty space at its former location on Queens Boulevard next to Borough Hall, where it has stood since October, 1941. Originally erected in 1922 in City Hall Park in Manhattan, it was exiled to Queens at the urging of Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia who considered the statue offensive. It depicts a mostly nude figure of a man supposedly representing virtue, standing over two prone female figures supposedly representing vice. George U. Harvey, the then borough president of Queens, welcomed the statue to Queens, proclaiming according to a New York Times story of October 8, 1941, "I have been kicked around for years just as that statue has. I felt that he and I had so much in common that if he were over here, near my office, I could come out here sometimes and we could tell each other our troubles."

Mr. Harvey died in 1946 and the current Queens borough president, Helen M. Marshall, has no such sentiments about the statue which has been crumbling into disrepair for years. Anthony David Weiner, while still a local congressman, advocated vehemently for its removal, ironically because of its depiction of a nude man towering over naked women... as well as the potential cost of repairs.

But Civic Virtue also had its advocates, among them city councilman Peter F. Vallone,Jr., Democrat of Astoria, who earlier this month organized a rally on the statue's behalf after the City Design Commission ruled on November 13 at a little publicized hearing and in the close aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, that the statue could be moved to Green-Wood.

The statue was accused of being sexist because it is said to show a man trampling two women and because it supposedly portrays women as evil and corrupt. In fact, it does neither, said Joseph De May, a local historian as well as a local resident who favored keeping the statue here.

"The female figures are entwined around the male figure's feet, not under them," Mr. De May added. "Furthermore, they are not human females but mythological-like liminal beings--half human, half serpent. Their use is symbolic. They are no more a disparagement of women than are Lady MacBeth, Cathy Ames, Nurse Ratchet, or the Wicked Witch of the West.

"In any event, Civic Virtue is very much a part of the history of New York," Mr. De May went on to say. "It was created by Frederick MacMonnies--one of the greatest sculptors of his time--whose statue of Nathan Hale in City Hall Park is considered one of the greatest sculptures in the Western Hemisphere. It has not only been a lightning rod for criticism--Mayors 'Red Mike' Hylan and Fiorello LaGuardia both hurled bolts at it--it has also found its way into our popular culture. The 1925 Rodgers and Hart song Manhattan (known as I'll Take Manhattan) has as its last verse:

But Civic Virtue cannot destroy
The dreams of a girl and boy --
We'll turn Manhattan
Into an isle of joy!"

Arguments to keep Civic Virtue in Kew Gardens ended Saturday night as the flatbed pulled away. Some of the few onlookers watching it leave, clapped. Whether they were saying good-bye, or cheered to see it go, nobody said.

Earlier Articles:
  •   Counting Chickens on Beverly Road
  •   In Memory of 9/11
  •   Pictures at an Exhibition
  •   "Surviving" - A Haunting Documentary Examines Growing Up and Growing Old in Kew Gardens
  •   Through the Looking Glass:  Kew Gardens as Seen by a New Generation of Photographers
  •   Spirits come alive in "Spirits Alive" at Maple Grove Cemetery
  •   Killer storm hits Kew Gardens
  •   Jazz at Maple Grove Cemetery
  •   The Blizzard of 2009
  •   Filming in Kew Gardens
  •   The 95th Annual Meeting of the Kew Gardens Civic Association, Inc.
  •   Let It Snow - Scenes from Forest Park
  •   A Community Discovers Its Village Roots
  •   Spirits Alive! (2007) at Maple Grove Cemetery
  •   Day of Remembrance at Maple Grove Honors the Dead with a Celebration of Life
  •   Summer in the City
  •   Concerns Over P.S.99, Post Office, And Impact Of Potential Landmarking Draw Large Crowd To Town Hall Meeting
  •   Kew Gardens Community Day (2007)
  •   A Parking Lot Becomes a Flea Market
  •   A Touch of Soho on Austin Street
  •   Kew Gardens Merchants - The Bliss Café
  •   Kew Gardens Lights Up for the Holidays
  •   Queens Borough Hall Garage in Kew Gardens
  •   The House on 116th Street
  •   New Development in Kew Gardens
  •   Autumn Scenes in Kew Gardens
  •   Lantern Festival at Maple Grove Cemetery (2006)
  •   They Lift Up their Voices Every Friday