It was a mystery for a New York minute. On Tuesday the Astor Place Cube
went missing—and neither the police nor local community leaders nor its creator, the famed sculptor Tony Rosenthal, knew where it was.
The iconic 15-foot-tall, spinnable steel sculpture has stood, poised on one
tip, in the traffic island between Cooper Square and Lafayette Street since
1967. “The Alamo,” as it is formally called, was the city’s first permanent
contemporary outdoor sculpture, and it became a meeting place for street
kids and the better-heeled alike.
So when it vanished, suspicion of conspiracy percolated. Was it removed by
Gwathmey Siegel & Associates, designers of the new “undulating” glass
high-rise of “architectural loft residences” that now towers over the
intersection? Or had the city excised it as part of a recent Department of
Transportation plan to remap the sometimes grungy Astor Place into a
pedestrian mall? Or was it absconded with by pranksters, like the ones who
once transformed the Village landmark into giant Rubik’s cube?
Nope, turns out the Parks Department had carted off the Cube for emergency
repairs. According to Jerry Delakas, the old Greek guy who runs the newsstand
across the street, a crew of parks workers arrived around 6 a.m. with a
crane and hoisted the 2,500-pound artwork onto a truck.
The sculptor was heartened when he learned what had become of his piece.
“I’m very happy that they’re taking care of it, because it’s been there a
long, long time,” says Rosenthal, who is now 90 and lives in Southampton.
When he first installed the sculpture as part of a public art exhibition, it
was supposed to remain only for six months. But protests by Cooper Union
students convinced city officials to keep it there.
Late last year, one of the bolts that supports the base went missing, and
the giant Cube had been teetering dangerously on its axis when people tried
to make it spin. Then in December, the whole rig got stuck and wouldn’t
After much prodding from Community Board 3 District Manager Susan Stetzer,
who had spent a couple of weeks pestering various city agencies, the Parks
Department stepped in to fix the sculpture using emergency funds from the
Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the traffic
Stetzer says she’s pleased it’s being refurbished, but a bit miffed that
Parks didn’t notify the community first. “I’m wasting tremendous amounts of
time responding to all these people calling me,” she complained, noting that
neither she nor Community Board 2 nor the local City Council office knew
this was coming.
“It was an emergency contract,” responds Parks spokesperson Warner Johnston. “Due to the fact that it’s such a heavy, tactile sculpture that people are
expected to push, and the base was so haphazard—that’s why we felt we had to
move so quickly.”
This isn’t the first time the sculpture has needed a mechanical tweak. “It used to have a bearing inside so it would
spin very fast,” Rosenthal recalls, “but we had to take it out because we
were afraid someone would get hurt.”
Parks officials say the latest round of care will be completed in a few weeks, and the Cube will be returned. “The city has not forgotten the Alamo,” said
Commissioner Adrian Benepe, in a prepared statement. “It will be returned to Astor Place better than ever.”
Much to the relief, no doubt, of the numerous goths, skate punks, and
students who have made the Cube their regular hangout. On Tuesday night, a
group of NYU freshmen turned up on Astor Place as part of a weekly scavenger
hunt. “We were on a quest for the Cube, and now it’s missing,” complained
19-year-old Justin Bonilla of Long Island, pawing the icy sidewalk where the
sculpture once stood.
“Did it fall on someone or something?” Bonilla asked, speculating on how such a large object could have disappeared. ” ‘Cause personally it would make my day if it fell on someone,” he added, before taking off with his buddies
to search out the next “cool” New York thing on their list: drag queens.