Swords Return to Public Statues as City Crime Drops

By James Fanelli on June 23, 2014 6:45am 

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 The statue of General Gouverneur Kemble Warren has been missing its sword since the 1960s. The Parks Department has plans to make a replica and refasten it to Warren's hand.
General Gouverneur Kemble Warren
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PARK SLOPE — A keen-eyed observer studying the statue of General Gouverneur Kemble Warren at Grand Army Plaza may notice something is off about the Civil War hero’s pose.

Dressed in full military regalia and grasping field binoculars in his left hand, an 8-foot-tall Warren leans ever so slightly toward his right hand, which lies waist high, cupping empty space.

“It's funny that people might not notice, but then you check and say, ‘What was he holding in his hand?’” said Jonathan Kuhn, the director of Arts and Antiquities at the city Parks Department.

What’s missing from the bronze statue is Warren’s dress sword.

The general gripped the sword in his right hand when the statue was dedicated in 1896. But, like other weapons on public sculptures around the city, it disappeared.

Kuhn said city officials first noticed in the 1960s that Warren’s sword had vanished. They never replaced it — partly because in those high-crime days, they feared the substitute would be stolen as well.

But the Parks Department is no longer on edge about its statues — the agency has plans to make a replica sword for the sculpture and hopes to replace the missing bronze sword in the statue of Gen. Josiah Porter in Van Cortlandt Park.

City officials first noticed in 1971 that Porter’s weapon had also disappeared, Kuhn said.

Re-arming the two sculptures is part of the agency’s full-throttle preservation push, which began a quarter-century ago. It comes now because New York City crime has dropped dramatically, allaying fears that vandals or enterprising thieves will make off with the pieces of art, Kuhn said.

“Through improved policing and improved park management, crime in the city over the past two decades is generally down, park usage is up and theft has diminished,” he told DNAinfo New York last week.

In the past 14 years, the Parks Department has restored weapons to three public sculptures.

Officials returned a sword in 2000 to the statue of Gen. Franz Sigel sitting on a horse in Riverside Park. The sword fell from Sigel’s left hip in 1941 and a police officer retrieved it, Kuhn said. It was placed into storage out of fear of theft.

 The Parks Department has plans to make a replica sword to put back in the hand of the sculpture of Gen. Josiah Porter in Van Cortlandt Park. The statue, erected in 1902, originally had a sword, but the weapon disappeared around 1971.
The Parks Department has plans to make a replica sword to put back in the hand of the sculpture of Gen. Josiah Porter in Van Cortlandt Park. The statue, erected in 1902, originally had a sword, but the weapon disappeared around 1971.
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About a dozen years ago, the Parks Department replaced a sword that had gone missing from the statue of Adm. David Glasgow Farragut in Madison Park. And in 2005, the agency replaced a missing sword on the statue of Gen. Edward Fowler in Fort Greene.

The Parks Department is also developing a plan to return a sculpture of the Highbridge Doughboy to University Heights. The sculpture has been in storage since the mid-1970s, when vandals badly damaged it and stole its bayonet. 

The city’s Design Commission approved the Parks Department’s proposal for the Warren and Porter sculptures last week.

Now, Kuhn is trying to raise money to make the replicas of the swords. He estimates that creating casts of the weapons will each cost between $3,000 and $5,000.

He and his team of conservators have already decided on a design for both. The Museum of the City of New York has Porter’s actual dress sword, allowing them to make a rubber mold of it.

As the first Harvard College graduate to enlist in the Union Army during the Civil War, Porter commanded the 22nd Regiment of the National Guard, which conducted field exercises in Van Cortlandt Park.

The mold of Porter’s sword will double as Warren’s, since research showed the two generals carried similar weapons.

Kuhn noted that no weapons have been stolen from Parks Department sculptures in 40 years. His team plans to refasten the swords using welding and screws.

“I think we've improved our level of care. I also think the city is a safer place,” he said.

Kuhn has worked for the Parks Department for 27 years, helping to oversee the restoration of more than 800 monuments.

The Herculean effort has paid off, he said, leaving 95 percent of the agency's monuments and sculptures in good shape.

“We’re now at the point where we can focus on these kinds of details,” Kuhn said of the swords. “We're trying to make them whole again.”

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