How New York’s Beloved Astor Place Cube Was Restored

  • Photo courtesy of the Department of Design and Construction.

    Photo courtesy of the Department of Design and Construction.

After a two-year absence, one of the most beloved works of public sculpture in New York City is back. The Astor Place cube made a triumphant return to its downtown Manhattan home on Tuesday, after a restoration that took everyone by pleasant surprise. As the piece was carried out of the flatbed truck and re-mounted in the public plaza, onlookers cheered. Those gathered likely noticed that the cube looked a bit better than it did before, sporting a fresh coat of black paint. But, more than surface level, the improvements were the product of months of conservation. Artwork repair is always tricky, but how did this 1,800-pound work of geometric genius get brought up to snuff? Well, it had to be entirely dismantled.

New York’s $150 Million Staircase Misses the Point of Public Art

In our present era, when public sculpture in New York is dominated by talk of a $150 million set of stairs that goes nowhere, the Astor Place cube exudes a much-needed simplicity. Eschewing flash or glitz, the cube embodies a more authentic New York ever vanishing from public view. Indeed, the work first appeared in a very different city. In 1967, artist Tony Rosenthal (who died in 2009) created the piece, actually titled Alamo, for what was supposed to be a temporary public viewing. But though much has changed, New York’s love of the cube has not, and a petition mounted by residents at the time resulted in the work’s permanent installation. New Yorkers and visitors alike have been pushing the cube—which is famously spin-able—in circles ever since.

  • Photo courtesy of the Department of Design and Construction.

    Photo courtesy of the Department of Design and Construction.

But years outdoors exposed to the elements and endless twirling by tourists took its toll. As part of a broader $16 million revamp of Astor Place, the Department of Design and Construction (DDC) removed the work in November of 2014 and sent it to be restored in New Jersey. “A challenge that we had with the cube was having to haul the thing out of Manhattan,” said Chris Onyechi, the DDC engineer in charge. Moving a 15-foot-cubed Cor-Ten steel piece out of the city isn’t easy. But after braving New York traffic, the work arrived at the conservator, Aegis Restauro, LLC, covered in grime, graffiti, and even food stains. As repairs on the cube commenced, Onyechi said that people kept going to Astor Place looking for it. “After we took out the cube, when we were doing work, we had tourists come stand there. And they have a picture of the cube and they would say ‘there’s no cube here!’” They were confused,” he said, laughing.

Unsurprisingly, the conservator found scratches in the metal and paint, which was also flaking. In indented areas, water had accumulated and caused damage. Perhaps the most troubling consequence of all the wear and tear was that “at a point, it became difficult for the cube to rotate,” noted Onyechi. To restore the piece and clear the rust, the exterior coating of the work was taken off and the interior metal surface was leveled, with scratches filled in by hand. Some pieces of the interior that couldn’t be salvaged were replaced, and the internal structure was shored up. The conservator used lasers to remove interior corrosion and rusting. To cap it all off, the whole work got a fresh coat of paint—as did the accompanying bronze information plaques. The work also got a new base, which should make it much easier to spin around. The $180,000 repair and reconstruction marks the second time the cube was taken for repairs, the first occurring in 2004.

  • Photos courtesy of the Department of Design and Construction.

    Photos courtesy of the Department of Design and Construction.

Two years is a long time (the piece was supposed to be returned in under 12 months), but part of the delay stemmed from the general work being done to the street itself, which went from roadway to public plaza. As part of that transformation, “we had to do some sewer work, some water main work, we had to do all the utility work,” said Onyechi. “It took us some time to do that.” Though impatient, New Yorkers are uniformly happy that the cube is back. Onyechi, who was present when the cube returned home, was a little surprised by all the fanfare. “I didn’t know it was that popular,” he said. But indeed it is. Throughout its life, the cube has inspired Halloween costumes, been covered in knitting by an artist, transformed into a Rubik’s Cube, and been a gathering point for film crews. It says quite a bit about the horrible, topsy-turvy year we’ve had that the Astor Place cube’s solid presence is so appreciated. So go give it a spin.

—Isaac Kaplan