A plan to restore the “Alamo” sculpture at Astor Place in the East Village is aiming for a summer completion date, the New York City Department of Transportation revealed on May 9th. Popularly known as the “Astor Place Cube” and originally completed in 1967 by the late abstract sculptor Tony Rosenthal, the 1,800 pound Cor-Ten steel cube’s most-admired quality was the fact that it could be spun by the public.
Yet, for reasons that seem mysterious to most residents, this spinning ceased in 2022 due to deterioration of the spin mechanism. The Cube’s most recent restoration was 2005. It is therefore unsurprising that Cultural Affairs Commissioner Laurie Cumbo responded to the restoration announcement by proclaiming: “Generations of New Yorkers have taken The Cube for a spin, and we’re thrilled that DOT and Tony Rosenthal’s estate have reached an agreement to refurbish the iconic sculpture so it can keep spinning for generations to come.”
Our Town Downtown talked to the contractors responsible for restoring the Cube, Versteeg Art Fabricators, in an effort to determine why exactly the sculpture has remained still—and what the broader task of restoration will look like.
Co-CEO Emily Versteeg inherited the outfit (alongside her brother Sievren) from her father Peter Versteeg, who did the restoration of the Cube in 2005. Indeed, his contribution is commemorated by a plaque below the sculpture. “We’re very excited to once again work on the Cube,” Emily Versteeg told Our Town.
The man spearheading the physical engineering work of the restoration is Marcus Schaefer, a Versteeg veteran. Schaefer broke down the restoration process step-by-step for Our Town: doing a full assessment on the corrosion of the interior metal by opening the “access panel,” sandblasting the paint off the outside of the structure, and replacing patchy or rusted-through Cor-Ten steel.
As for restoring a spinning element to the Cube? “One of the issues was that the metal disc that the sculpture sits on had worn out,” Schaefer elaborated, referring to a Teflon disc installed in 2005 that had enhanced rotation. “For some reason, over the past decade or so, the metal disc has worn away to almost nothing. It was kind of folding up around the bottom and the Cube was wobbling,” Schaefer said. In other words, it presented a safety hazard–nobody wants the “Alamo Cube” to fall on a member of the public.
There’s one more safety element Schaefer wants to get exactly right, and that’s the speed at which the Cube spins (it is 1,800 pounds, after all). “You don’t want to spin it too fast, because then the whole thing would start lurching side to side. You don’t want it fast enough that somebody gets injured because the corner of the cube hits them.” The key to preventing this unpleasant outcome is to ensure that the bearings spinning the cube aren’t low-friction ones.
Versteeg is hoping that the restoration will be all sorted out, proper spin-speed and all, by July 18th. There’s an installation display on the horizon, and a late summer of cube-spinning is the perfect bit of publicity for the city’s DOT and creative art fabricators alike.