Outside Washington Irving High School, East 17th and Irving Place, Manhattan
This bust of the American author Washington Irving can be found in Manhattan on the northwest corner of the seven-story Washington Irving High School, which was, incidentally, completed as a school for girls in 1913. Ol’ Wash wasn’t there, though, in the beginning.
Irving was initially installed in Bryant Park, the bustling Midtown retreat which has had two major face lifts in its day. The first, in the mid-1930s, coincided with the construction of the Sixth Avenue elevated railroad. Near as I can figure, one reason Irving’s bust was moved was because the park, which had fallen into disrepair anyway, was being used to store construction equipment and debris. Irving was carted down Fifth Avenue and put in place at the high school with, also near as I can figure, little fanfare on Oct, 29, 1935.
Actually, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Irving was never supposed to be in Bryant Park in the first place. The piece, sculpted by Friedrich Beer, was intended for Central Park, according to “Guide to Manhattan’s Outdoor Sculpture.” Which brings us to another reason the bust was moved: It wasn’t good enough, according to some people.
Beer’s life-weary vision of Irving as an older man, with a full face and an inquiring (bemused?) tilt of the head, had more than its share of critics. One problem was that Beer was following in the footsteps of giants, in a sense. There had been a roundly praised classical bust of Irving sitting in Prospect Park for more than 50 years.
But Beer’s piece probably would have had trouble no matter where it was placed. According to the “Guide,” written by Margot Gayle and Michele Cohen, Daniel Huntington, a celebrated painter and, more importantly, the president of the National Academy of Design, gave voice to a chorus of criticism by saying that the piece “failed to convey Irving’s ‘dignity or refinement of expression.’ “
Looking at the bust today, it’s hard to imagine where such criticism is rooted. I mean, it looks like Irving, after all. It has the quality I like in historical statues: a realism that gives you the impression of being in the famous person’s presence. But whether or not you buy what Huntington was selling, Beer must have known he had trouble. The closest thing to an endorsement for his Irving bust came from the architect Edward Kendall, who meekly pointed out that “the features and characteristics, while faulty, are in the main well reproduced.” In other words, it doesn’t look like him, but it’s nicely done.
And those faulty features weren’t the end of it. In “New York Civic Sculpture: A Pictorial Guide,” Frederick Fried and Edmund V. Gillon Jr. write that the bust was frequently “criticized for having its arms too sharply cropped.” …Which evokes (to me, anyway) TV’s Col. Henry Blake, who once lamented, “To cut off a man’s legs, and steal his drawers.”
So, anyway, the bust was, like I said, hustled off to the high school where, according to Gayle and Cohen, “the house on the opposite corner belonged to Irving’s nephew.” Which, considering your point of view and Irving’s relationship with his nephew, might not have been a good thing.