Perhaps it was the sight of all the little stubs that sent the city’s architecture and historic preservationists into a fit of outrage. Over a dozen horse statues by the modernist Sardinian sculptor Costantino Nivola were quietly removed from the recreation area of Stephen Wise Towers, a NYCHA complex on 91st Street between Amsterdam and Columbus. “Deeply saddening,” tweeted Paul Goldberger. “A sad day for the Nivola Museum and for art,” tweeted the Nivola Museum. Originally installed in 1964 as part of a landscape design by Richard Stein, the squat and slightly abstract concrete animals have become beloved neighborhood characters.
When she saw the image, she was “horrified,” says Liz Waytkus, executive director of Docomomo, an organization dedicated to the preservation of modernist design and architecture. She was startled that she hadn’t heard any discussion about the removal of the statues, considering they are installed in public space. Since the controversy has erupted, she said, “I’ve received so many text messages and emails [from preservationists] saying, ‘We’re tired of this.’”
Described as a “Picasso for the People,” Costantino Nivola moved to New York in 1939 and worked on a number of municipal art projects throughout the city. His abstract sculptures and murals were installed in all five boroughs at schools, public-housing complexes, hospitals, and courthouses. He also worked on commissions for the Olivetti Showroom and an apartment building on Fifth Avenue. Over time, he fell into relative obscurity, but was rediscovered last year after the Cooper Union organized an exhibition about his work.
Wise Towers is Nivola’s largest project in New York, and one that he prototyped with his own children, according to his daughter, Claire Nivola. “When my father was working on a prototype horse for the Stephen Wise recreation-area playground, he would have me sit on it and [ask me if] children would like the feel of riding it,” she told Curbed. “I loved the horse, which was slightly plump, and I gave it my youthful stamp of approval.” His grandson, Adrian Nivola, adds: “I’m dismayed not only at the loss of an important work of public art but that one of my grandfather’s most joyous and playful creations could be so casually erased.”
In fact, this work could have benefited from preservation initiatives a long time ago. Some of the horses’ noses have been chipped off for at least 40 years. “I am chagrined that it took this incident to bring renewed focus to the project,” Claire Nivola says. “I hope this will result in long overdue, full restoration of the recreation area.”
NYCHA insists that the Nivola sculptures have only been temporarily removed. “The horses are intact and undamaged and have been relocated to a storage room at Wise Towers,” a NYCHA spokesperson tells Curbed. The agency says it needed to remove the statues in order to complete critical water main repair for a standpipe that runs directly beneath the site. But the sawed-off feet that remain visible in the Nivola Museum’s image of the courtyard make us question just how intact they are. NYCHA promises that the statues will be reinstalled on the campus as part of a planned landscape redesign that should be complete in 2022.
Wise Towers is part of NYCHA’s broader Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT), a RAD partnership with private developers to update and rehabilitate public housing. The scope of the renovation includes upgrades to individual apartments as well as common spaces indoors and outside. The original recreation area at Wise also includes a mural wall, a sculpture wall, and two concrete pyramids that were part of a water feature that hasn’t operated in years. We don’t know what the new recreation area will look like, or where the original art will be located. No renderings of the new site plans have been released, but there has been discussion of adding new playground equipment like swings and slides, according to Tom Corsillo, a spokesperson for the PACT Renaissance Collaborative (PRC), a development team working on the rehabilitation of NYCHA campuses under PACT.
“Incorporating the [Nivola statues] into the new landscape design has long been part of the plan and is something the PRC has discussed with residents,” says Corsillo. “There is an ongoing dialogue with stakeholders to refine those plans.”
The statues came up during a July 2020 town-hall meeting between residents of Wise Towers and the redevelopment team, when several people mentioned liking them. Some even mentioned that the sculptures had been vandalized and asked about the possibility of repairing them. However, there wasn’t any discussion of Nivola as the artist, or the historical significance of the sculptures. There also hasn’t been any open public forum about the statues, which might have brought historians and preservationists into the fold. Looking at meeting minutes from Community Board 7 meeting, where Wise Towers is located, the only time the site has been discussed in a public forum was with regard to after-school programs; there is no mention of Costantino Nivola or the sculptures. Waytkus, who sits on the Land Use Committee of her own community board (CB 9), finds that troubling. “There needs to be a community discussion, with people at Stephen Wise Towers and Community Board 7 weighing in,” she says. “If there was a foundation that commissioned the art, they need to be involved. You don’t come in and do as you please and suggest we’re going to have a new design. It’s ridiculous.”
The statues’ unceremonious removal also highlights an area where preservationists might turn their attention to: Modernist artwork at NYCHA sites. This might prevent significant alterations or demolitions from occurring without the appropriate consultation. Furthermore, Docomomo isn’t involved in any preservation work at public-housing sites in New York City. Could earlier outreach and education efforts have helped avoid such a panic?
“Maybe we need to be documenting what is at these NYCHA properties in the city,” Waytkus says. “What are the pieces we’re not aware of that we should be?”