‘Crumbling’ Harlem Renaissance-era frieze at Kingsborough Houses to be restored

“Exodus and Dance” by Richmond Barthé depicts African-American figures engaged in collective dance.
Photo by Michele H. Bogart

A crumbling Harlem Renaissance-era sculpture at Crown Heights’ Kingsborough Houses is getting a much-needed facelift following decades of neglect.

“The artwork is falling apart,” said Larry Weekes, Fulton Art Fair treasurer and neighbor of the Kingsborough Houses. “I would walk through there and I would see it and say this piece needs some tender loving care.” 

Richmond Barthé — a gay, Black sculpturist prominent in the city’s art revival era — built the frieze, titled “Exodus and Dance,” on commission for an amphitheater that was never built at the Harlem River Houses, a mostly-Black housing complex at the time.

Instead, the artwork traveled across the East River to the Kingsborough Houses, which had a mostly-white population, in 1941.

Barthé’s largest work of art can be seen at Kingsborough Houses adorned with cracks and large holes from years of neglect.Photo by Michele H. Bogart

The sculpted-stone mural can now be seen at the New York City Housing Authority complex, although it exists in a state of disrepair — suffering from cracks due to rainwater and a bad patchwork job, according to one of the project’s advocates.

“The work of cast stone was literally cracked and crumbling and you could put a finger through sections of it,” said Michele Bogart, an author and art history professor. “The immediate approaches to it are crumbling too… there was patching that had been done but very badly.” 

The restoration is a result of the combined effort of a number of people and organizations — which is said to have begun in 2018, when Bogart drew attention to the artwork’s dilapidated state on Twitter, and when the Weeksville Heritage Center and Fulton Art Fair began reaching out to their councilmember. 

“So I was just simply trying to draw awareness to the work, so I started tagging [First Lady] Chirlane McCray and [Councilmember] Alicka Ampry-Samuels,” Bogart said. “And it was on that basis that some people saw it.”

Their pleas eventually reached the right people, and moves were made to preserve Barthé’s largest work of art — in a project costing a whopping $1.8 million. 

“NYCHA continues to move forward with the in-house work on the Barthé frieze,” said a NYCHA spokeswoman. “In 2018, the Public Design Commission, NYCHA, and Speaker Corey Johnson’s staff met to discuss the conservation of this work, and The Speaker allocated $1.8 million for the work to be done.”

The frieze spans 80-feet long and consists of 16 panels.Photo by Michele H. Bogart

To restore the piece, conservators will remove the 16 panels comprising the 80-foot long sculpture from the site for restoration and build a new supporting wall to better insulate the frieze from the weather. 

Weekes said he looks forward to the frieze serving as a focal point in the community and plans for it to be once again used as a gathering place for the residents of Kingsborough Houses. 

“They used to have activities in front of the frieze, like movie night,” he said. “So at some point I think we can get back to having those kind of community event. A place where the community can gather and also celebrate the artist, and artists in general.”

The project, slated to begin in August, is projected to take two years but Weekes said that doesn’t mean the space will be void of art as he intends to beautify the area with paintings and other artwork in the meantime. 

“What I am planning on doing is once they start the construction, and they put up some sort of barrier,” he said, “to have it decorated with artwork, either banners or painting on plywood, just to have something that adds to the community.” 

Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who advocated for the council funding, said he looks forward to seeing Barthé’s masterpiece restored to its former glory. 

“This 80-foot-long sculpture has been part of the community for the past eight decades and I am proud that we were able to allocate funds to conserve this historic artwork,” the head of the council said in a statement to Brooklyn Paper. “I can’t wait to see Richmond Barthé’s frieze when it is restored to its original splendor.”

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