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New York City’s Oldest Public Art Is Pompeii Ancient

A photochrom postcard of Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park  (1897-1924, Detroit Photographic Company) (via Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University)
A photochrom postcard of Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park (1897–1924, Detroit Photographic Company) (via Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University)

New York City has public art that’s older than the city itself. Stones carved before Manhattan was an overgrown island glimpsed in Henry Hudson’s eye are on public view, outside of museums. Although they journeyed thousands of miles across the oceans and centuries across time, these artifacts of antiquity often go overlooked.

Column of Jerash (c. 120 CE)

Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens

Column of Jerash in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Column of Jerash in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Just a short walk from the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, a 30-foot tall marble column first erected in 120 CE stands in the shade of a tree grove. The Column of Jerash arrived in New York City for the 1964 World’s Fair, part of Jordan’s pavilion. According to NYC Parks, the Jordanian pavilion was one of 36 foreign countries participating in the fair, with their space featuring domes adorned with gold mosaics. Despite the focus of the fair being the Space Age — the pavilion was alongside the Court of the Astronauts — the ancient column was Jordan’s celebratory gift to the city. It was originally part of the Temple of Artemis in Jerash, and is also known as the Whispering Column of Jerash as in a temple you could stand in the center of the Corinthian columns and hear your whisper resonate around the walls.

Remains of the World’s Fair are scarce, yet the column encircled by low shrubs mostly goes unnoticed in its quiet part of the park, and the Jordan pavilion tends to be remembered more for its caustic anti-Israel mural.

Column of Jerash in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Column of Jerash in Flushing Meadows Corona Park (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Cleopatra’s Needle (c. 1450 BCE)

East Side of Central Park at 81st Street, Manhattan

Cleopatra's Needle in April of 2013 (photo by Ingfbruno, via Wikimedia)
Cleopatra’s Needle in April of 2013 (photo by Ingfbruno/Wikimedia)

Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park is the city’s best-known antiquity on public view. The Central Park Conservancy cites it as the “oldest outdoor monument in New York City.” Part of a pair, the obelisk was erected in about 1450 BCE when Pharaoh Thutmose III commissioned it for a Heliopolis sun temple. Despite the name, it really has nothing to do with Cleopatra. Alongside the Nile it towered for centuries, until 1869 when it was gifted to New York City. Previously in 1819 its fellow Heliopolis column was given to England, and it stands on the Victorian Embankment of the Thames in London.

The adjacent Metropolitan Museum of Art explored the obelisk’s journey to New York in a 2013–14 exhibition. The 69-foot, 220-ton stone monolith first sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, then up the Hudson, before processing to the park and standing as tall as when it was completed in ancient Egypt.

Cleopatra's Needle in October of 2011 (photo by Magnus, via Flickr)
Cleopatra’s Needle in October of 2011 (photo by Magnus, via Flickr)

Pompeii Columns of Delmonico’s (pre-79 CE)

56 Beaver Street, Lower Manhattan

Pompeii columns at Delmonico's (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Pompeii columns at Delmonico’s (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

On either side of Delmonicos, one of the city’s oldest restaurants, are two Corinthian columns that were supposedly brought over from Pompeii. However, their exact provenance is vague, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission safely gives them a “reputed” ranking.

Either way, they do appear quite old, and have a deep history with Manhattan. They were originally installed at Delmonico’s on Williams Street, which was wrecked in the Great Fire of 1835 (along with much of Lower Manhattan). No one apparently found there to be anything ominous about the columns being linked to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE and the destruction of the Roman city of Pompeii, and also the ravaging of New York City by flames. So when Delmonico’s rebuilt, the columns were salvaged for a place of honor on either side of the entrance.

Pompeii columns at Delmonico's (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Pompeii columns at Delmonico’s (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Roman Urn of Grace Church (c. 37–68 CE)

Broadway at East 10th Street, Manhattan

The Roman urn on the lawn of Grace Church at night in 2008 (photo by Kelly McCarthy, via Flickr)
The Roman urn on the lawn of Grace Church at night in 2008 (photo by Kelly McCarthy, via Flickr)

For over a century on the lawn outside of Grace Church on Broadway and East 10th Street in Manhattan, a terra-cotta urn dating to the era of Emperor Nero has contrasted against the building’s spindly Gothic architecture. A 1916 issue of Crockery and Glass Journal (which, alas, does not publish in the 21st century) stated that it once had a plaque that read: “An amphora, or Pompeiian urn, about 3,000 years old, excavated some years ago, and one of the four now in existence, is set on the grounds north of the church.”

March newsletter from the church stated that it was recently in need of repair due to a piece falling off, and was subsequently dismantled for conservation by Center Art Studio. Their missive explains that it arrived at Grace Church in 1885, excavated in Rome during the construction of the Church of St. Paul within the Walls. The then-rector of the church brought it to New York as part of a pair, although one caught the gaze of a parishioner and it subsequently continued its journey to Newport, Rhode Island.

(screenshot by the author via Instagram)
(screenshot via Instagram)

Roman Columns of Untermyer Gardens (Ancient Rome)

945 N Broadway, Yonkers, New York

Roman columns in Untermyer Gardens (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Roman columns in Untermyer Gardens (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

For a bonus inclusion, just north of New York City in Yonkers are two stunning ancient Roman columns overlooking the Hudson River. Installed at Untermyer Gardens, the estate of Samuel Untermyer from 1899 to his death in 1940, they are positioned at the end of 135 steps flanked by Japanese cedars.

According to the Untermyer Gardens Conservancy, the columns originated at the estate of architect and artist Stanford White. Standing 23 feet tall and carved from Cipollino marble, they’re considered by some to be the tallest ancient columns in the Western Hemisphere created from one piece of stone. Untermyer was inspired by the stairs at Italy’s Renaissance-era Villa D’Este, where steps lead down to Lake Como. Here in Yonkers, they bring visitors to the Hudson, and the columns frame the view.

Roman columns in Untermyer Gardens (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
View down the steps to the Roman columns in Untermyer Gardens (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
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