Winter 2001

City College Casts Splendid in Midtown


ou can thank that most academic of deities, the goddess of wisdom Athena, for the latest unique ornament to New York City's cultural life made possible by a City University campus. For it was in her honor that the Parthenon-supreme edifice of Greek antiquity and a central icon of Western civilization-was built on the Acropolis between 448 and 432 bce.

Athena's giant statue, housed within the Parthenon, has long since vanished, but three of the temple's stunning decorative elements, created under the supervision of the sculptor Phidias, survived long enough to be spirited away to England early in the 19th century by the Earl of Elgin: the 528-foot-long sculptured frieze; nearly 100 metopes, or large relief panels, above the building's doric columns; and, most famous, the life-size pediment sculptures in triangular shape at each end.

Horse Many sets of casts were made from molds of the so-called Elgin marbles, and one of the first to cross the Atlantic came into the possession of the Free Academy in 1852, just five years after its founding. These several examples of frieze panels, metopes, and parts of the east pediment traveled to Eisner Hall on the St. Nicholas Heights campus of City College in 1907.

Seen here is the head of a horse from the east pediment: it is drawing the chariot of moon godess Selene. When, with Eisner scheduled for demolition in 1995, homelessness loomed, a phalanx of rescuers was formed that included CCNY's director of Museum Studies Harriet Senie, Robin Villa, then of the Development Office, Chief Librarian and Curator of the CCNY art collection Pamela Gillespie, independent conservator Connie Hansen (who had worked on Emory University's noted set of casts), and Michael Sotirhos, a 1950 CCNY grad and the U.S. ambassador to Greece from 1989 to 1993.

Sotirhos, a board member for the Onassis Foundation, had the crucial brainstorm: "Here's my alma mater looking for help to do something important," he recalls. "With the Onassis Foundation's decision to renovate Olympic Tower and open an American affiliate, we saw the perfect opportunity to break new ground." A Foundation grant was made for restoration, which took place over 16 months in Atlanta, and all but two of the pieces were installed in the lobby of Olympic Tower, at Fifth Avenue and 51st Street, on long-term loan. A gala attended by 450 on October 24 officially unveiled the new installation.

Welcoming the marbles to public view, City College Interim President Stanford Roman made the classic City University connection between art, education, and wide access: "For more than a century, these striking casts served to introduce generations of students at City College...How fitting that, through the generosity of the Onassis Foundation, these remarkable casts are available now to everyone."