Volume 75, Number 27 | November 23 - 29, 2005

Villager photos by Talisman Brolin

At the unveiling of the cube on Astor Pl., from left, sculptor Bernard “Tony” Rosenthal; George Campbell, president of The Cooper Union; Honi Klein, director of the Village Alliance; Iris Weinshall, Department of Transportation commissioner; and Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe.

Hey, remember the ‘Alamo’? Well, it’s back, and it spins, too

By Daniel Wallace

After eight months in the shop, the beloved spinning cube of the East Village has finally returned. A 15-foot-tall steel sculpture designed by Tony Rosenthal, the cube, whose official title is the “Alamo,” was originally installed as a temporary work of art in 1967 on the Astor Pl. traffic island between Lafayette St. and Fourth Ave. But nearly 40 years later it was still there, an iconic landmark, treasured by community residents, until those residents awoke on March 8 to find it gone.

“It was a public safety concern,” a Parks Department spokesperson said at the time, because the “Alamo,” which weighs over a ton and is poised on one of its corners upon a base, atop which it spins, had become stuck and the base itself was wobbling.

Parks insisted the cube was removed for partial restoration and would soon be returned. But East Villagers, disgruntled by gentrification in all forms and already unhappy with a new slick glass condo tower that has gone up on Astor Pl., were leery. Conspiracy theories abounded. People spoke of the band shell that had been removed from Tompkins Square Park under the guise of cleaning and had never been returned. And, as late as last week, it was still unknown exactly when the cube would be reinstalled.

Marcus Schaefer, of Versteeg Art Fabricators in Connecticut, where the cube was restored, said over the phone last week that the restoration was finished. He didn’t know what was taking so long.

“Every day I hope they’re going to pick it up,” he said. “It’s taking up a lot of space.”

But fears were quelled early Friday morning, Nov. 18, when the cube’s long-awaited reinstallation began at 5:30 and finished two hours later as the sun rose over the Cooper Union Foundation building. Community residents, city officials and members of the press gathered on the traffic island later that morning for an unveiling ceremony. A gold silk sheet covered the cube, billowing and fluttering in the breeze, as the crowd milled around sipping coffee in the sunlight.

Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe quieted the crowd shortly after 11 o’clock and initiated a countdown.

“Five, four, three, two, one,” everyone shouted. The sheet came up. And there it was. Benepe stood in front of the cube and stretched out his arms.

“Remember the ‘Alamo,’ ” he said.

The eight people who had joined Benepe for the unveiling then surrounded the cube and, each with a hand on it, walked it around in a ceremonial spin. Among those involved were Iris Weinshall, commissioner of the Department of Transportation, which funded the $37,000 project and which has oversight of the traffic island, and Bernard “Tony” Rosenthal, the cube’s creator.

“It’s nice to have it back,” said Rosenthal, who at 91 still works in his South Hampton studio and has, over the years, built an international reputation for his artwork. His geometric public sculptures can be found throughout the country, including a version of the “Alamo” near the University of Michigan and a bronze statue in front of a New York City Public Library branch on 58th St.

George Kroenert, a deputy team leader with the Parks Department Capital Team, said the “Alamo” ’s renovation took longer than expected because, upon examination, it was determined to be in need of a full restoration.

“There was internal damage,” Kroenert said. “Cor-ten steel, of which the cube is composed, needs to dry out when wet, and the internal drainage system had clogged so the steel was rusted.”

Kroenert said a beam was replaced in the sculpture, additional reinforcement was added to its base, drainage slots and weep holes were cut into the cube’s interior, the axle was lubricated with lithium grease and both the interior and exterior were cleaned and painted black.

“The surface was painted with Acrolon bridge paint,” he said. “And over that we’ve added a layer of lacquer to help protect it from graffiti.”

Graffiti on the surface of the cube had been a problem for decades. Honi Klein, director of the Village Alliance, a neighborhood business improvement district, said the alliance had for the past 12 years included the cube in its graffiti-removal program. Twice a week they painted over graffiti that continually popped up on its surface. But residents loved the cube; its graffiti seemed more an expression of endearment than an act of defacement, or maybe the work of out-of-town vandals.

“I’ve never seen a community so attached to a piece of public art, as they are with the cube,” Klein said. “I hope there’s a maintenance plan to keep it clean now that it’s back.”

Benepe did not outline a specific maintenance plan but did implore community residents not to deface the cube.

“It’s not a bulletin board,” he said. “It’s a real work of art; and it’s become the fulcrum between East Village and Greenwich Village. Let’s keep it clean.”

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