There are 18 concrete horses in an undisclosed storage room at the Stephen Wise Towers, a NYCHA complex on the Upper West Side. “We call it the stable,” says Edward Fitzgerald, an architectural conservator at Jablonski Building Conservation, Inc., who has been working there since August. Until last spring, the squat, modernist horse sculptures, designed by Italian artist Costantino Nivola in 1964, were installed in a plaza between the towers, where generations of neighborhood kids and residents have played on them. But after a landscape contractor sawed them all off at the knees, the horses and the remnants of their dismembered hooves were moved to the room where Fitzgerald and his team, Danielle Pape and Ryan Zeek, have been painstakingly restoring them. If all goes to plan, the horses are expected to be reinstalled in a refurbished plaza this fall.
“It’s pretty challenging to put Humpty back together again,” Fitzgerald says. Even before the hack removal, vandalism, pollution, and nearly six decades of use had severely damaged the Nivola horses. According to NYCHA, the statues had to be moved because a water main running beneath the site needed critical repairs, part of a wholesale renovation of Wise Towers as they are converted from public housing to privately managed Section 8 apartments. Usually the removal of significant public artwork happens with enough advance notice for preservationists to rally against it, but in the case of the horses, they were gone practically overnight. Judging by the hasty way it was done, it’s safe to say that the people involved with moving them didn’t know that they were dealing with historic artwork. After photos of the stubby feet began to circulate on local blogs, the architecture community and the Costantino Nivola Museum in Italy railed against the destruction of the artist’s few remaining public commissions in New York City. Once Monadnock, one of the developers working on the renovations, saw the bad press, it hired Jablonski Building Conservation, Inc., which specializes in restoring historic structures, to fix the damage.
When Fitzgerald got the call to repair the horses, he asked the contractors to remove all of the feet that remained embedded in the ground and meticulously documented their current condition. After consulting archival photographs provided by the Nivola Foundation, he learned that the horses were originally in three colors — white, black, and gray — and had been cast from a concrete aggregate that included marble chips. Sadly, the noses on most of the horses were smashed off fairly early on in their life, and over time, acid rain dissolved the pigments and mottled their surface. Fitzgerald also discovered that, at an unknown date, contractors had repaired the plaza area around the horses by pouring about four inches of new concrete on the surface without demounting the sculptures first, entombing the legs and shortening all of the horses. The feet that the landscape contractors recovered were in even worse shape than the horses. “Unfortunately what we ended up with were just big blobs of concrete paving with a little horse hoof stuck in the middle or completely obliterated hoof fragments with pieces of rebar in them,” Fitzgerald says. He knew that he’d have to re-create the hooves — a task that would be challenging since it was impossible to make a mold out of the damaged parts.
Where could he find another form? Fitzgerald searched through Nivola’s archive. Although the Italian sculptor had enjoyed a robust career creating public sculptures mostly for municipal settings, earning the nickname “Picasso for the People,” his work fell into obscurity after he died in the 1980s. Fitzgerald learned that Nivola’s cast-stone horses were once installed at a children’s psychiatric hospital and a public school in the Bronx, but they were no longer there. Fortunately, a few fiberglass versions of the sculptures still remained at a school in Columbus, Indiana, a city celebrated for its large assemblage of modernist architecture. The fiberglass versions are not exactly the same as the cast-concrete horses, but are close enough. Earlier this year, Fitzgerald spent a week in Columbus making a silicone mold from the fiberglass horses, which he’ll use to create a mold of the Wise Tower sculptures.
Now the 18 horses are all cleaned and ready to be fixed. “Normally when you repair concrete, you can just place and tool the material by hand,” Fitzgerald says. “But in this case, since it’s three-dimensional objects with distinctive proportions, we need to cast the pieces in place. We can’t make pieces off to the side and then try to stick them back on because each horse has different cuts and breaks along these areas of loss.” Fitzgerald and his team will do this by casting a foam horse from the silicone mold, then adding clay to the form so it matches the proportions of the Wise sculptures exactly. They’ll use this to create molds for the missing body parts. The final step is not unlike when fixing a broken arm: The team will attach metal pins into the sculptures to anchor the new pieces. Then they’ll clamp the mold for the replacement part onto the horse and fill it with one of the three aggregate mixtures created to match the current hue and texture of the statues. Once the material cures, they’ll remove the mold and the horse will have new hooves and, potentially, new tails and noses too.
“You’ll be able to tell where repairs were made, but we don’t want them to stand out,” Fitzgerald says. “We don’t want them to distract from the overall appearance of the sculpture, so we’ll blend it as best as possible to re-create that patina of time and pollution.” There’s no way to restore the surfaces to look entirely smooth, as they were when the horses were first installed, since any added material would just break off. For now, the plan is to at least give all the horses their hooves back. Fitzgerald and the developers still have to decide how far they want to go with restoring the rest of the sculptures. “It’s a little bit philosophical,” he says. “The horses are historic, but they’re also part of that plaza and their noses were smashed so long ago. There’s a little conundrum over whether or not we put them back together as they were originally, or, if by this point, the ‘noseless’ horse has become the recognizable face.”