Recently, I attended a selection panel for artwork that will be created as part of the city’s Percent for Art Program for the public school addition we designed for the School Construction Authority. We saw, as examples, the diverse ways artists have responded to the school building setting. It made me think of the remarkably different approach to civic art and architecture that I encountered on another project we’ve recently begun: the Bronx County Courthouse.
Designed by architects Max Hausle and Joseph Freedlander, and built from 1931 to 1934, the Bronx County Courthouse is an imposing show of governmental power, so massive and isolated on its granite plinth. One of its truly special features is the ennobling artwork that adorns its facade and terrace.
Past the heroic sculpture groups flanking each entrance, one is struck by the high relief frieze encircling the second floor. It is the work of Charles Keck (1875-1951), a New York sculptor whose other commissions can be seen at Columbia University, the Brooklyn Museum, Cadman Plaza, and even Times Square (the Father Duffy Monument). Comprising forty-four limestone panels, Keck’s frieze for the Bronx County Courthouse, or the Bronx County Building, as it was originally called (it houses several other governmental offices in additions the courts), depicts three civic themes.
The first theme is the ‘Triumph of Good Government’ showing a series of agricultural and industrial activities whose products are, ultimately, delivered to the Government (one imagines that Keck’s intention was voluntary delivery; how the times have changed). Notably, one panel of industry shows an architect with an elevation of the host building. A secondary topic is war: four panels show the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and the World War. The final and most prominent theme is, appropriately, the law. Each corner of the building features two panels and a dramatic figure facing diagonally outward representing the power, wisdom, protection, and moral force of the law.
The building is a bit, shall we say, severe. Keck’s artwork, despite the grandiose style and chiseled nudes, humanizes it, reminding us that all our various toils strengthen the social bond. I expect that the artwork ultimately gracing the walls of our new public school addition will not be so didactic, but I hope that it is similarly inspiring.
-by Adam Kaleb Poole