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President’s Letter, May 2017

President of The Municipal Art Society of New York Elizabeth Goldstein

Elizabeth Goldstein

New York has always been a city where tourists flock and business folks love to travel. But in recent years, the sense of arrival has been lacking – to say the least. Things got a little bit better as JFK got a landscape upgrade and Newark Airport got a reliable monorail link to NJ Transit. Arriving at Grand Central is truly amazing but Penn Station, well, not so much! These days, using Penn is worse than the experience of a small city bus station, albeit with 600,000 passengers a day.

I know because as I was traveling from California many times a year, Newark has always been my airport of preference. Transferring through Penn and I would try to get my suitcase up those steep stairways from those scary, narrow platforms into the hordes of commuters trying to get to their seats FIRST, and find an entrance to the subway that is not at all suited to that suitcase, never mind an escalator or god forbid an actual taxi stand. I am exhausted just writing this down!

Anyway, the spirit of the old Penn Station seems to be shaking its fist at all those who don’t think we have a serious problem. From train derailments to stampedes and tasers, we are hearing terrible but predictable news. The irony of it all is that despite the urgent need to move forward with a consensus vision for Penn Station, we are very far from even a back-to-basics plan. Although Moynihan Station will create a grand entry for Amtrak and help ease some of its needs, the vast majority of the traffic through Penn Station is being served by the Long Island Railroad and NJ Transit. Thus relieving congestion demands a rethinking of the bulk of the station between 7th and 8th Avenues.

The Governor’s most recent announcement to create a Penn Station task force is encouraging. However, we must not lose sight of the idea that each of these incremental changes must ultimately end in achieving a great, efficient, and reliable station for the long haul with the sense of arrival that befits New York City.

One of the critical steps to that end is the completion of Gateway, the multi-billion dollar project to build new tunnels under the Hudson River and much of the rail infrastructure beyond it in New Jersey.

Meanwhile President Donald Trump has defunded the New Starts Program that contained key grants to the Gateway project. It is now a bargaining chip for the Administration’s new infrastructure proposal. And we get it! There is political hay to be made in trading what New York already had for compromises that Trump needs in order to get his plan passed. But the stark, cold reality is that a game is being played at the expense of 600,000 commuters a day. That is not okay. Neither they, nor we, should stand for it.

Elizabeth's signature

Elizabeth Goldstein
President
The Municipal Art Society of New York

MAS Comments to Department of City Planning on Two Bridges Development

Full title: MAS Comments on Two Bridges Large Scale Residential Development, Manhattan Community Board 3, CEQR No. 17DCP148M, Manhattan, NY

Background

The New York City Department of City Planning (DCP), acting on behalf of the City Planning Commission (CPC), has issued a Draft Scope of Work for Preparation of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DSOW) for a proposed development of three new mixed-use buildings within the Two Bridges Large Scale Residential Development (LSRD) in the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan. The project has three applicants-each seeking separate minor modifications to the existing LSRD site plan and zoning calculations. These actions would result in the overall development of over 2.5 million gross square feet (gsf) of residential space, including 2,775 dwelling units (DUs), 200 of which will be senior housing, and up to 694 affordable DUs, 17,028 gsf of community facilities, and 10,888 gsf of retail.

Position

The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) has grave concerns about the proposed development from both a planning and environmental perspective.

From a planning standpoint, we find the magnitude of the proposed development extremely disproportionate with the surrounding area and lacking in foresight. With over 2.5 million gsf of residential space, nearly 3,000 dwelling units, and almost 6,000 new residents in a low-income area, the development provides only 25 percent affordable dwelling units, approximately 11,000 sf of retail space, and 103 parking spaces.

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Monument of the Month: WWI Bronx Victory Memorial

World War One Bronx Victory Memorial, statue of soldier with gun

The World War I Bronx Victory Memorial, 1925, was executed by Jerome Connor, sculptor, and Arthur George Waldreaon, architect.

Thirty years ago, The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) launched the Adopt-A-Monument program in collaboration with the NYC Public Design Commission and the NYC Parks Department, to secure private funding for the rescue of public art in danger of deterioration. To date, MAS’s Adopt programs have raised nearly $4 million dollars to conserve fifty-one works of art in all five boroughs. In honor of the 30th anniversary of the program, we are highlighting one restoration per month in 2017.

As we all prepare to mark Memorial Day this weekend, MAS encourages you to include a visit to one of New York’s many monuments devoted to our city’s fallen soldiers. One monument of particular importance to MAS is the Bronx Victory Memorial in Pelham Bay Park, dedicated to the 947 soldiers from the Bronx  who gave their lives serving in World War I. MAS has the honor and privilege of maintaining this poignant piece of public art through the Adopt-A-Monument program, thanks to the generosity of the Grand Marnier Foundation.

The World War I Bronx Victory Memorial, 1925, executed by Jerome Connor, sculptor, and Arthur George Waldreaon, architect, serves as a deeply moving tribute to those who died in the service of their country in “the war to end all wars.” The noble bronze statue on a granite pedestal at Mosholu Parkway and Marion Avenue in the Bronx is one of 107 World War I monuments in New York City parks that hold a reservoir of public memory, sorrow, and victory. The monument is also one of the original twenty in the Municipal Art Society’s Adopt-A-Monument program. MAS has cared for this poignant artwork, cleaning and waxing it every year since its restoration and rededication on May 26, 1988.

Set within a bed of trees on a 17- foot- high circular inscribed stone base, a wounded soldier lies prostrate with his helmet torn from his head. His comrade, standing guard over him is readied with a bayonet. An eagle appears at the foot of the image as if proclaiming the clarion call of war. Connor’s naturalistic style was decried by the Bronx Artist’s Guild for its weak modeling. However, the public responded enthusiastically to the expressive work of art as a symbol crystallizing American sentiments. Seven years after the Armistice ending World War I was signed, thousands of people assembled on Mosholu Parkway to witness the dramatic unveiling of the two life-size doughboys in a somber ceremony of patriotism and pathos.

By 1987, the statue bore scars of corrosion from its position near a heavily trafficked highway. The delicate layer of the original foundry patination had worn away to a matte opaque black appearance. The figurative elements most exposed to rainwater, such as the rifle and wounded soldier’s head and shoulder, showed the greatest evidence of deterioration. Additionally, the base had been painted over to mask graffiti and needed to be restored.

The conservators Linda Merk-Gould and Cameron Wilson, cleaned the heroic size figures, removing all of the years of corrosion. Then, using a propane torch to heat the bronze in the traditional hot wax technique, they applied a petroleum-based wax mixture to the bronze. Lastly, a layer of cold wax was applied over the surface before the piece was buffed with soft clothes. The granite base was cleaned and returned to its natural state so that the World War I Bronx Victory statue today still expresses the meaning of the act memorialized.

MAS Comments on the Downtown Far Rockaway Redevelopment Project

Full Title: MAS Comments on the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) Nos. 170243 ZMQ, N170244 ZRQ, 170245 HGQ, 170246 HUQ, 170247 HDQ, and 170248 PPQ, and the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the Downtown Far Rockaway Redevelopment Project, CEQR No. 16DME010Q, Queens, NY

Background

The City of New York, in collaboration with the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) and several city agencies, is proposing a series of land use actions, referred to as the Proposed Actions, including zoning map amendments, zoning text amendments, disposition and acquisition of property, and the designation and approval of an Urban Renewal Area (URA) and Plan (URP) as part of an effort to redevelop and revitalize an approximately 22-block area of the Downtown Far Rockaway neighborhood of Queens, Community District 14.

According to the project Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), the Proposed Actions would result in a net increase of 3,027 dwelling units, of which 1,638 would be market-rate and 1,389 would be affordable; 152,935 square feet (sf) of retail space; and 86,947 sf of community facility space. The project also would provide a new publicly accessible open space area.

Downtown Far Rockaway has been in need of revitalization for generations. Over forty years ago, the Department of City Planning (DCP) reported the problem of disinvestment leading to decline in business conditions and vacancies. The area has been long plagued by underperforming retail corridors, deteriorated buildings, and underutilized lots. At the same time, residents of Far Rockaway have faced a chronic lack of community services, amenities, affordable housing options, and quality open space.

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MAS Comments on RKO Keith’s Flushing Theater Restoration

RKO Keith’s Flushing Theater’s ornamental interior was designated in 1984 due to its architectural and historical importance as one of the city’s last remaining movie palaces in good repair. RKO Keith’s was designed by New York City-trained architect Thomas Lamb, one of the most prominent and productive theater architects of his time. His theaters, most often built for Loews, were varied in style and reflected the newest trends in theater architecture. Lamb has the distinction of designing both the first and the last movie palaces in New York City, as well as over three hundred more around the city and world.

RKO Keith’s Flushing Theater, completed in 1928, was one of the few that Lamb designed in the atmospheric style, featuring blue domed ceilings, electric starlight, and projection machines that moved clouds across the sky. The theater walls, built as a stage set, featured an asymmetrical Churrigueresque Spanish townscape. Ornate movie palaces like Lamb’s became the premier entertainment center of neighborhoods across the United States, due as much to the captivation and delight of their architecture as to the excitement of seeing a movie. RKO Keith’s was open for over fifty years and could seat 3,000 guests each night.

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Honorees Announced: 2017 MASterworks Awards

The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) announced the winners of the 2017 MASterworks Awards, an annual competition recognizing projects completed in the preceding year that made a significant contribution to New York’s built environment. The awards will be presented on the evening of March 15 at El Museo del Barrio.

“From rolling hillsides to decommissioned shipyards, the projects honored this year have created new venues for New Yorkers to work, play, and interact with the city,” said Elizabeth Goldstein, President of MAS. “We applaud the 2017 MASterworks winners for enhancing New York one design at a time.”

The 2017 honorees placed in seven categories:

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MAS Supports GVSHP Proposal to Calendar 827-831 Broadway and 47 East 12th Street

The Honorable Meenakshi Srinivasan, Chair
New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
One Center Street, 9th Floor North
New York, NY 10007

Re: 827-832 Broadway/47 East 12th Street

Dear Chair Srinivasan,

The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) writes in strong support of the proposal put forward by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation to calendar 827-831 Broadway and 47 East 12th Street. Designed by Griffith Thomas, architect of several notable buildings in the Noho, Soho Cast-Iron, and Ladies Mile Historic Districts, who was famous for popularizing European styles and the use of cast iron for building facades. These buildings were commissioned and owned by the Lorillard family, New York City landowners since the Revolutionary War, and founders of the pioneering Lorillard Tobacco Company.

Shortly after construction in 1866, Wilson Sewing Machine was headquartered at 827-829 Broadway during a time of significant growth and international recognition in the company’s history. In addition, cabinetmaker Alexander Roux held shop here for ten years, employing over 120 craftsmen. Six of his pieces are currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the latter half of the 20th Century, 831 Broadway was the home and studio of four prominent Abstract Expressionist artists of the New York School: Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Larry Poons, and Paul Jenkins. It was here that Elaine de Kooning painted her portrait of President John F. Kennedy, which is displayed in the National Portrait Gallery. Additionally, one of New York’s most renowned antique dealers, Howard Kaplan’s Antiques, was located here for over thirty years and was visited by influential New Yorkers including Jackie Onassis, John Lennon, Roone Aldridge, and Woody Allen. The buildings themselves are cohesive in their construction and in their façade design. They are early examples of the architectural style that became synonymous with Broadway and Lower Manhattan in the late 1800s. 827 Broadway’s compelling, nearly intact wooden storefront dates to its 1936 alteration and includes a curved glass projecting entry, raised paneling, and original brass lighting fixtures.

MAS urgently calls for immediate action by the Landmarks Preservation Commission to hold a hearing as these buildings are currently in danger of demolition. As some of the few remaining buildings from the 1860’s located in undesignated portion of neighborhood, MAS urges the Commission’s swift action.

Tara's signature

Tara Kelly
Vice President, Policy & Programs
The Municipal Art Society of New York

MAS Responds to Questions about BQX & Jane’s Walk

MAS has received questions about our position on the Brooklyn Queens Connector (BQX) project and the Jane’s Walk being organized by Friends of the BQX. We are sharing the letter below with our correspondents, as well as any MAS members who may be following the topic.

Elizabeth Yeampierre
Executive Director, UPROSE
166A 22nd Street
Brooklyn, New York 11232

Dear Elizabeth,

Thank you for our conversation today.

As we discussed, MAS has in no way endorsed the BQX project and we share many of your concerns that the proposal is badly flawed. We are concerned about the BQX’s alignment, finances and the potential for displacement of residential and manufacturing communities.

In a letter to the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the Department of Transportation last summer, we outlined a series of critical questions about the project.

So far, we have not received a response from the City about those concerns. Staff from MAS – myself included – will attend Friday’s walk, in part because we are still seeking answers to these questions. We expect to issue a formal position on the BQX project soon.

Meanwhile, MAS continues to think that further discussion amongst community and citywide voices is needed. Intended as a festival of “walking conversations” we hope that Jane’s Walk can provide a platform to invite – not discourage – that dialogue.

We welcome UPROSE and others critical of the project raising your concerns at the walk tomorrow. Indeed, MAS believes that Jane’s Walks are enriched when they serve as a forum for debate. We also encourage you to host a Jane’s Walk of your own to express your critiques of the BQX project. Dueling Jane’s Walks have been a common – and celebrated – phenomenon in Jane’s Walk NYC over the years.

Finally, we welcome your feedback that perhaps Jane’s Walk should be a more selective event. We are happy to discuss that suggestion with our international partners in planning next year’s festival.

It is our sincere hope that MAS and UPROSE will continue to discuss the BQX and our shared concerns.

Yours truly,

Elizabeth's signature

Elizabeth Goldstein
President
The Municipal Art Society of New York

200+ Free NYC Walking Tours for Jane’s Walk Weekend

Advertisement for Jane's Walk 2017

 

Municipal Art Society Hosts Annual Tribute to Urban Activist Jane Jacobs

On May 5-7, thousands of New Yorkers will explore their city in honor of urban activist Jane Jacobs.  Jane’s Walk NYC, hosted by the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS), is an annual weekend-long celebration featuring 200+ free “walking conversations” throughout the five boroughs, led by urban enthusiasts and local experts who care deeply about their neighborhoods.

In 2017, Jane’s Walks can introduce you to a 1906 movie studio that made Brooklyn the brief capital of silent film, a seedy Manhattan hotel where Woody Guthrie wrote This Land Is Your Land, a vast glacial forest hiding in Queens, a Bronx street modeled on the Champs-Élysées, a Himalayan architectural enclave in Staten Island, and more.

All of the MAS-sponsored walks combine the simple act of exploring neighborhoods with personal observations, local history, and civic engagement. A typical walk is 90 minutes and is free and open to the public.

The full list of tours is available online at https://www.mas.org/janeswalknyc, including:

Members of the press, please contact Meaghan Baron at mbaron@mas.org.

Neighborhood Activists in Queens and the Bronx Will Train as Land Use Advocates

The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) will partner with Queens Community Board 4 and the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation (SoBRO) to host four capacity-building workshops for residents of Corona/Elmhurst and Mott Haven to better understand and influence City land use planning. Community-based partners were selected from a pool of more than 40 applications.

The workshops are presented as part of MAS’s Livable Neighborhoods Program, with support from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts. The 2017 sessions will include special emphasis on creating vibrant, inspiring public spaces as the City rolls out its first-ever comprehensive cultural plan, CreateNYC.

MAS will cover workshop expenses and support the neighborhood advocates in developing workshop agendas. Along with program partner Leonardo Vazquez, Executive Director of the National Consortium for Creative Placemaking, MAS will also provide workshop content and help facilitate the sessions.

The Saturday workshops (scheduled for April 29 and May 20 in Queens and June 3 and 10 in the Bronx) will be free and open to the public. Anyone interested in learning more about creative placemaking and cultural planning is encouraged to attend. More information about each session will be posted here.

“With the help of more than 25 partner organizations, MAS’s Livable Neighborhoods Program has trained thousands of local stakeholders to advocate for their own communities,” said Elizabeth Goldstein, President of MAS. “The launch of CreateNYC gives New Yorkers an opportunity to invest in our public spaces as venues for creative expression, community engagement, and economic development. We are delighted to put creative placemaking at the center of our 2017 training program.”

About the Livable Neighborhoods Program

Founded on the principle that community involvement is essential to successful city planning, The Municipal Art Society’s Livable Neighborhoods Program (LNP) trains New Yorkers to better understand and influence land-use decisions affecting their neighborhoods.

Through community visioning, educational workshops, leadership development, and online resources, LNP helps participants become better prepared to work with developers, elected and appointed officials, and New York City agencies to advocate for the types of land use regulations and community benefits they want and need.

For more information, please visit https://www.mas.org/ourwork/livable-neighborhoodsprogram/ or contact Joanna Crispe, Director of Community Engagement and Education at jcrispe@mas.org or (212) 935-3960 x1226.

About Queens Community Board 4

Community Board #4Q encompasses the communities of Corona (south of Roosevelt Avenue), Corona Heights, and Elmhurst. The boundaries of CB #4Q are Roosevelt Avenue to the North, Flushing Meadow Corona Park to the East, Horace Harding Expressway to the South, and New York Connecting Railroad (CSX) to the West. The communities of Corona, Corona Heights, and Elmhurst are experiencing dramatic growth and change. CB #4Q is hard at work to ensure that any growth benefits local residents and workers and improves the quality of life in our community. CB #4Q is home to many vibrant shopping areas such as the Queens Center Mall, Queens Place, Corona Plaza, and 82nd Street. Elmhurst Hospital is located within CB #4Q. We also take pride and a special interest in Flushing Meadow Corona Park, our neighbor and Queens largest park.

About SoBRO

The South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation’s mission is to enhance the quality of life in the South Bronx by strengthening businesses and creating and implementing innovative economic, housing, educational, and career development programs for youth and adults. SoBRO was established in 1972 to reverse the flight of businesses and jobs from the South Bronx. Recognizing that rebuilding a community had to be a multifaceted effort – which required replacing vacant lots with businesses and housing, addressing poverty by creating jobs and training people for those jobs, and insuring a brighter future for the community’s young people – over the years SoBRO has expanded to meet the needs of the Bronx.

President’s Letter, April 2017

Who are we, New York City?

President of The Municipal Art Society of New York Elizabeth Goldstein

Elizabeth Goldstein

I had the pleasure of seeing Citizen Jane, the new documentary about Jane Jacobs. The film focuses on the epic battle between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses over alternative visions of the city. I was moved, as I have been many times before, by the intuitive brilliance of Jacobs’ insights into what makes a city, New York in particular, great.

I grew up in a “tower in a park” in the Bronx, in this case, a Mitchell-Lama tower. In some ways, the film made me sympathetic to Robert Moses’ early idealized-and in retrospect naïve-vision that better housing would solve society’s ills. But, my adult life pulled me to the historic, messier, more neighborhood-y parts of the city. In my heart, it is the vibrant, colorful city that draws me most strongly.

Indeed, most New Yorkers have great pride in our variety and character. Homogenous we are not. However, as the city’s economic engine continues to tick along at a good rate, we are faced with a number of challenges to that diversity and spirit we love. New York must not give up on the idea that our future is one of multiplicity and dynamism, messy though that may be.

So I have been especially disturbed by the New York City Economic Development Corporation’s proposal to incentivize the relocation of the garment industry to Sunset Park in Brooklyn. The City is making it abundantly clear that manufacturing is not a part of that variety or character in Manhattan. They are proposing to remove a zoning text overlay that was intended to protect the Garment District. However, almost one million square feet of garment manufacturing remains there, surrounded by associated businesses from pattern-makers, wholesale showrooms, and notions purveyors, to name but a few.

The upshot is that if you are a skilled garment worker commuting from Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, or New Jersey, someone wants you to make your place of business a great deal farther away. Meanwhile, the City will legalize non-conforming office uses-rewarding those who have not complied with the law, who have warehoused their properties waiting for just this moment, who have undermined the health and stability of the garment industry in Manhattan. This is not okay.

It feels as though the City wants to find a more idealized future for the fashion industry than it, itself, wants. It is just the characteristics of the fast moving variety of the businesses in Garment District that gives it a unique place in the broader, city-wide fashion industry. MAS stands with all of the voices that have been raised to protest the removal of the zoning text overlay. There has to be a better, fairer way to resolve the future of the Garment District than an ill-conceived and suspiciously timed removal of the one protection that is left.

Let us learn from the lesson of Robert Moses: vibrant, dynamic communities cannot be engineered into existence.

Elizabeth's signature

Elizabeth Goldstein
President
The Municipal Art Society of New York

Monument of the Month: Robert Burns Monument

Thirty years ago, The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) launched the Adopt-A-Monument program in collaboration with the NYC Public Design Commission and the NYC Parks Department, to secure private funding for the rescue of public art in danger of deterioration. To date, MAS’s Adopt programs have raised nearly $4 million dollars to conserve fifty-one works of art in all five boroughs. In honor of the 30th anniversary of the program, we are highlighting one restoration per month in 2017.

On the crisp morning of October 15, 1993, the monuments to two great Scottish bards were rededicated in Central Park. The charming event within the nave of elms on Literary Walk, enhanced with the music of bagpipers, had a magic that will be remembered by all who were there – and that includes not just the hundreds of invited guests, but all the bicyclists and joggers who happened to be passing by. Together they shared in the recreation of 19th century tradition and Scottish history and marveled at what grand monuments evoke.

In honor of Poetry Month, we revisit the restoration of one of those masterpieces of public art: the Robert Burns Monument.

In 1989, the Saint Andrew’s Society, aware of the deteriorating condition of the Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott Monuments, approached the Municipal Art Society to rescue these masterful artworks under the Adopt-A-Monument program. The resolve of two great Caledonians, J. Sinclair Armstrong and Chauncey G. Olinger, led to a campaign to restore the famed Scottish writers who grace Central Park.

Chauncey G. Olinger and J. Sinclair Armstrong of the Saint Andrew's Society at the Robert Burns Monument.

Chauncey G. Olinger (left) and J. Sinclair Armstrong (right) of the Saint Andrew’s Society at the Robert Burns Monument.

Before MAS’s restoration in 1993, streaks marred the statue’s once polished surface disfiguring the face, arms, and hand. Its fine details appeared flat and opaque. The quill originally held in Burns’ right hand was missing, muting the significance of the gesture, and the statue tilted backwards on an uneven Aberdeen granite base.

During the summer of 1993, the Robert Burns Monument was conserved by Daedalus, Inc., under the management of the Adopt-A- Monument program. The sculpture was rigged with nylon straps and lifted from its base by crane and placed on wooden blocks near the base during treatment. The bronze was cleaned with fine grade crushed walnut shells and washed with water and a mild liquid detergent using medium nylon bristles and sponges. His missing quill was modeled from photographs, recast, and reattached with a threaded bronze rod. Holes in the scroll and plow were filled. The sculpture was chemically repatinated to its historic statuary brown color, rinsed and dried, and then brush-coated with warm Incrlac, an acrylic resin lacquer and corrosion inhibiter. Finally the bronze was coated with Butcher’s wax and buffed to a soft luster with brushes and soft cloths, and a new pedestal was set.

The MAS is responsible for maintaining all of the works of art conserved under the Adopt program, In the case of the Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott Monuments, we are grateful to the Central Park Conservancy monuments crew for cleaning these works annually. Enter mid-park near East 66th Street to access the Literary Walk and enjoy the statues in person.

The Robert Burns Monument before and after the restoration

The Monument before (left) and after (right) the restoration.

And learn more about the statues in this excerpt from a 1992 keepsake publication, “Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott Monument Project,” written by MAS and produced with The Saint Andrew’s Society to raise funds for the conservation:

The monument to Robert Burns (1759-1796) was commissioned mostly by New York residents of Scottish descent on the 121st anniversary of the Peasant Bard’s birth. A companion piece to the Walter Scott Memorial, already on the south end of the Central Park Mall, Scott was cast in Edinburgh by the same sculptor, Sir John Steell, and placed opposite Scott on Literary Walk in 1880 uniting two great Scottish literary figures.

Born in Alloway, son of working gardener, Burns was encouraged to read whatever books were available, Shakespeare, the bible, biography. At an early age, he was proficient in writing, arithmetic and theology. But as an unsuccessful farmer, Burns led a hard life. His poems and essays never generated sufficient income to support his family and numerous illegitimate children. For a brief season, with the publication of the Kilmarnock Poems (1786) he was lionized by Edinburgh society, but this definitely independent man rebuffed the patronizing and chafed at class distinctions. Burns championed the causes of American independence, upheld African-American freedom, and had contempt for the “unco guid” “rigidly righteous “of any kind.

Close of Robert Burn's face before and after the restoration of the Robert Burns Monument

Mr. Burn’s face before (left) and after (right) the restoration.

Despite hardship, Burns wrote hundreds of poems. He is credited with reconstructing the Scottish folk song and ballad, rescuing these genres from obscurity. He also composed some of the most lyrical poems in the English language: “The Cotter’s Saturday Night,” “Twa Dogs, A Tale,” and “To a Mouse On turning her up in her Nest, with the Plough, November, 1785.”

Much of Burns’ writing is in lowland Scots dialect, making it inaccessible to most of the English-speaking world. Nonetheless, his work is widely translated and his talent recognized around the world in celebrations at Burns Suppers. The poet’s appeal lies in his understanding of the common man. Phrases from his poems have become part of everyday English speech: “the best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men aft agley”; “auld lang syne”; to see oursels as others see us!”

When the statue of Robert Burns was dedicated on October 3, 1880, in Central Park, crowds gathered to hear Grafulla’s Band perform Scottish airs. By three o’clock, an audience of five thousand had assembled in front of the monument which was veiled in an American flag. The New Yok Caledonian Clubs attended in Highland dress. On the grandstand invited guests convened, among them Alexander Hamilton, Jr.

Poem area of the Robert Burns Monument before and after the restoration

Poem area of the Robert Burns Monument before (left) and after (right) the restoration.

George William Curtis – author, editor and supporter of woman’s suffrage and civil service reform, and chancellor of the State University of New York – was the guest orator. Curtis equated Burns’s poetry with Raphael’s paintings and Mozart’s music; and the compassion that Burns had for the peasant farmer was likened to Abraham Lincoln’s empathy for “plain people.”

“When Burns died there was not a Scotsman who was not proud of being a Scotsman. A Scotch plowman singing of his fellow peasants and their lives had given them in their own eyes a dignity they had never know. “A man’s a man for a’that.” New York times, 3 Oc. 188

The colossal bronze figure of Burns rests on a tree stump. The poet is depicted with his head turned upward to the skies at the spot where he bid farewell to his love, Mary Campbell, on an early October morning. A cape is thrown about him and a plowshare underfoot suggests his humble origins. The tablet that lies at his feet is engraved with the first verses of the song, “To Mary in Heaven.”