Installed in the Stephen Wise Towers in 1964, Costantino Nivola’s Stone Horses were damaged by vandals, pollution, and a poorly planned move for repairs to their site.
Photo: Jablonski Monument Preservation
There are 18 concrete horses in a secret storage room in the Stephen Wise Towers, a NYCHA complex on the Upper West Side. “We call it the stable,” says Edward Fitzgerald, an architectural restorer at Jablonski Building Conservation, Inc., who has worked there since August. Until last spring, the squat, modernist horse sculptures designed by Italian artist Costantino Nivola in 1964 stood in a plaza between the towers, where generations of children and neighborhood residents played on them. But after a landscaper sawed them all off at the knees, the horses and the remains of their dismembered hooves were brought into the room where Fitzgerald and his team, Danielle Pape and Ryan Zeek, painstakingly restored them. If everything goes according to plan, the horses are expected to be set up again this autumn in a renovated arena.
“It’s quite difficult to put Humpty back together,” says Fitzgerald. Even before the hack was removed, vandalism, pollution and nearly six decades of use had severely damaged the Nivola horses. According to NYCHA, the statues had to be moved because an under-site water main required critical repairs, which were part of a major renovation of Wise Towers as they were converted from public housing to privately managed Section 8 housing. Normally, the removal of significant public artworks comes with enough notice for conservationists to take action, but in the case of the horses, they were gone practically overnight. Judging by the hasty nature of the process, it’s safe to say that the people involved in the move didn’t realize they were dealing with historical artwork. After photos of the stubborn feet began circulating on local blogs, the architectural community and the Costantino Nivola Museum in Italy railed against the destruction of the artist’s few remaining public commissions in New York City. Seeing the bad press, Monadnock, one of the developers involved in the renovations, hired Jablonski Building Conservation, Inc., which specializes in the restoration of historic buildings, to repair the damage.
The statues originally stood in a plaza until they were removed last spring to allow for the construction of an aqueduct that runs beneath the site.
Photo: © Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture Archives. Lea Bertucci, photographer
When Fitzgerald got the call to fix the horses, he asked the contractors to remove any hooves left in the ground and meticulously documented their current condition. After consulting archival photos provided by the Nivola Foundation, he learned that the horses were originally three colors – white, black and gray – and had been cast from a concrete aggregate containing marble terrazzo. Unfortunately, most horses had their noses and tails chipped off fairly early in life, and over time acid rain dissolved the pigments and mottled their surface. Fitzgerald also discovered that at an unknown time, contractors had repaired the plaza area around the horses by pouring about four inches of new concrete on the surface without first dismantling the sculptures, burying the legs, and shortening all of the horses. The feet that the landscapers recovered were in even worse condition than the horses. “Unfortunately, all we ended up getting was big lumps of concrete with a small horse’s hoof in the middle, or completely obliterated hoof fragments with bits of rebar in them,” says Fitzgerald. He knew he had to recreate the hooves – a challenging task as it was impossible to create a mold from the damaged pieces.
Where could he find another form? Fitzgerald searched Nivola’s archives. Although the Italian sculptor had a robust career creating public sculptures mostly for urban settings, earning the nickname ‘Picasso for the people’, his work fell into obscurity after his death in the 1980s. Fitzgerald learned that Nivola’s cast stone horses were once on display at a children’s mental hospital and public school in the Bronx, but they were no longer there. Fortunately, some fiberglass versions of the sculptures remain at a school in Columbus, Indiana, a city famous for its large collection of modernist architecture. The fiberglass versions aren’t exactly the same as the cast-concrete horses, but they’re close enough. Earlier this year, Fitzgerald spent a week in Columbus making a silicone mold from the fiberglass horses that he will use to create a mold of the Wise Tower sculpts.
Now the 18 horses are all cleaned and ready to be repaired. “Typically, when you’re repairing concrete, you can just place and manipulate the material by hand,” says Fitzgerald. “But in this case we have to cast the parts in place because they are three-dimensional objects with distinct proportions. We can’t cut pieces off the side and then try to glue them back on because each horse will have different cuts and breaks along those loss areas.” Fitzgerald and his team will do this by pouring a foam horse out of the silicone mold and then molding the clay add to match the exact proportions of the Wise sculpts. You will use this to create shapes for the missing body parts. The final step is similar to fixing a broken arm: the team attaches metal pins to the sculptures to anchor the new pieces. They then clamp the mold for the replacement part onto the horse and fill it with one of three mixes of aggregates created to match the current hue and texture of the statues. Once the material hardens, they remove the mold and the horse has new hooves and possibly new tails and noses as well.
“You can tell where repairs have been made, but we don’t want them to be noticeable,” says Fitzgerald. “We don’t want them to detract from the overall appearance of the sculpture, so we blend them as best we can to restore that patina of time and pollution.” There’s no way to make the surfaces look as smooth as they were, when the horses were first installed as any added material would simply snap off. For now, the plan is to give at least all horses their hooves back. Fitzgerald and the developers have yet to decide how far to go with restoring the rest of the sculptures. “It’s a bit philosophical,” he says. “The horses are historic but they are also part of this place and their noses were bashed in so long ago. It’s a bit of a mystery whether we put them back together as they were originally, or whether the noseless horse has become the recognizable face by this point.”