One of New York City’s most iconic pieces of public art—and heck, one of its most iconic landmarks, period—is celebrating a big milestone this month. The Astor Place Cube (formally, named Alamo) became a permanent part of the NYC streetscape in 1967, when it was gifted to the city by an anonymous donor. It’s been the focal point of Astor Place, and a gathering spot for students, teens, and other assorted misfits, in the years since.
So how did it come to be? A little backstory: Alamo was originally created by artist Tony Rosenthal for a citywide exhibit, put on by the New York City Parks Department, called “Sculpture in Environment.” It was the first time that municipal agencies had come together to bring art by living artists to the urban landscape, with the goal of introducing works of art to a larger audience.
Or as August Heckscher, the Parks Commissioner at the time, put it:
Too many people think of art, and of sculpture especially, as tolerable or even enjoyable when domesticated and caged within a museum. But to let these great pieces loose in the city, to set them under the light of day where they intrude upon our daily walks and errands—that causes a different reaction!
Alamo was one of the pieces installed as part of the initial exhibit; once that ended, community response to the piece was so positive that, once the anonymous gift came through, it was decided that the sculpture would be made a permanent fixture.
In the years since, the Alamo—more often referred to as the Cube—has become a beloved city icon, one of those rare landmarks that inspires as much passion in longtime New Yorkers as it does curiosity on the part of visitors. The Cube holds such a spot in New Yorkers’ hearts that it’s inspired music videos—St. Vincent just used it in her video for “New York” earlier this year—publicity stunts, and even Halloween costumes:
And it was just a year ago today the Cube returned from a years-long exile to its rightful spot at the center of the eponymous East Village plaza. It was removed in 2014 to facilitate a renovation of Astor Place, and finally moved back into place—with the turning mechanism still intact, of course—last year.
So happy birthday, Alamo, and thanks for 50 years of whimsy—and a place for disaffected teens to hang out and feel cool.
The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation shared some images of the Cube from the 1980s, which are fascinating artifacts of that time period, in addition to simply being cool vintage photos.