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Crumbling hopes for Harvard Square sculpture

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

Cynthia Hadzi, the wife of the late sculptor Dimitri Hadzi, in front of his sculpture “Omphalos.”

The weathered plaque at the base of “Omphalos,” a towering statue in Harvard Square, is hard to spot behind the metal barriers. A dirty pair of shorts and a discarded plastic bag sit at its concrete base. A rusty bicycle has been chained to an adjacent pole and apparently abandoned.

Three decades ago, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority installed the 20-foot-tall granite sculpture by artist and Harvard professor Dimitri Hadzi in one of the most high-profile spots in Cambridge, the pedestrian peninsula in Harvard Square shared by Out of Town News.

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But now Hadzi has passed away, his statue is crumbling, and the cash-strapped MBTA says it has to knock it down, frustrating his widow and upsetting artists who wonder whether demolition is the only option. A last-minute alternative emerged last week to save the work, but it would be relocated to Newport News, Va., where a public art foundation is considering a plan to restore it and install it permanently there.

MBTA officials say it will cost as much as $500,000 to repair damage to the sculpture, which weighs about 20 tons, and to stabilize other sections to make it safe for people to walk near and sit by. The agency can’t afford even to move “Omphalos,” said MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo. And it’s too unstable to remain as is, he said. Just two years ago, an overhanging slab broke and crumbled to the sidewalk, leading to the installation of fencing to protect passersby.

But the MBTA’s plan to demolish the work — made without a public announcement or even a posted notice near the sculpture — has upset Cynthia Hadzi and a group of her late husband’s former students.

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They say the agency has a responsibility to care for a work it owns and installed as part of a program promoted in the 1980s to beautify subway lines.

“Before we take a wrecking ball to a beautiful piece of stone sculpture that was made for the city and the people, maybe we should explore a few options,” said Romolo Del Deo, a sculptor who worked as one of Hadzi’s assistants as he created “Omphalos.”

One option to save the sculpture would mean taking it as far away as Virginia.

“I would be thrilled to back away if a group in Boston would save it,” said Bobby Freeman, the chairman of the Newport News Public Art Foundation, who visited Cambridge earlier this month to see the piece. “Our ultimate goal, whether it’s Boston or Newport News, is to save it. It’s an important piece of public art. . . . It would make a great addition to our public art collection, and we’d be honored to have it.”

The challenge, Freeman said, is the cost of disassembling it, transporting it, and restoring it. This week he said there was an 80 percent chance the foundation would find a way to move “Omphalos” south. He said the MBTA has been doing its best to try to help find a new home for the sculpture.

“The last thing they want to do is bulldoze it,” Freeman said. “I don’t see any bad guys here. It’s an extraordinarily complex piece to deal with. If it was a 20-foot bronze World War II figure, it would have been easy to lift it and put it somewhere. But this thing is made up of 50 component pieces of granite that have been pinned and put together.”

Cynthia Hadzi says she would prefer “Omphalos” remain in Harvard Square and hasn’t decided how she feels about it ending up in Virginia. But at this point, the only certainty seems to be that “Omphalos” will not be in Harvard Square much longer.

Bruce Shatswell, a retired fund-raiser who paused to glance at the sculpture as he walked past it on a recent morning, said he thought the MBTA should come up with an alternative.

“Whether the T likes it or not, they’ve got a responsibility,” he said.

But Paul Matisse, whose MBTA-commissioned sound sculpture, the Kendall Band, is now maintained by a group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, understands the agency’s challenges.

“I could never fault the T because the T is a bunch of guys running a railroad,” said Matisse. “They are not meant to decide whether a work of art should be saved or dispensed with.”

“It’s sort of an insolvable little situation,” he added. “If there were enough people to be enthusiastic about that sculpture, there would be some way to get something going. If not, life moves on.”

‘Arts on the Line’

The story of “Omphalos” began in 1978 when the MBTA and Cambridge Arts Council partnered to create “Arts on the Line,” a program meant to “humanize subway stations” and become part of the Red Line’s Northwest Corridor Extension with the Harvard, Porter, Davis, and Alewife stations.

In his mid-50s at the time, Hadzi was a notable artist with work that could be found in public spaces around the world and the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts and New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art. But he felt underappreciated in Boston and loved the idea of having a piece installed in such a high-traffic area.

“It was a great commission for him,” said Harry Cooper, a former Hadzi student who is now curator and head of modern art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

“This work was the epitome of everything,” said Cynthia Hadzi, “He loved Harvard and thought of this spot as being at the center of education in the state and of the country.” The word “omphalos” means “navel” in Greek.

“Omphalos” shares stylistic elements of brutalism and even the abstract works of one of Hadzi’s heroes, Pablo Picasso. It has four vertical sections rising more than 20 feet in the air, each made of separate granite pieces that range from red to shades of gray. Each section is topped by a kind of arm, or “shield,” as Hadzi described it, which hangs over a concrete base that serves as seating.

A Globe article, published upon the piece’s installation, ran with the headline: “Cambridge Sculpture Pleases and Puzzles.”

“It’s one of the most important spots in the world — Harvard Square — and I didn’t want to just knock something out,” Dimitri Hadzi said at the time, detailing how the stone had come from as close as Maine and New Hampshire, and as far away as India.

A 1983 agreement between the MBTA and Hadzi details many aspects of the project, from the sculpture’s projected height and weight to the agency’s promise to include a plaque with the artist’s name. But the contract does little to specify how “Omphalos” should be maintained.

In fact, the document states that “the basic structure of the granite requires little maintenance.”

Costa Manos

Sculptor Dimitri Hadzi (1921-2006) in his East Cambridge studio in 2003, adding patina to bronze.

Problem spots

It’s no surprise that “Omphalos” needs work now, according to Hadzi’s former assistant Michael Morris. In the 1990s, Hadzi and Morris, now with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, met with MBTA officials about the overhanging section that eventually broke.

Morris said the agency wasn’t willing to offer significant financial support to make repairs, so Hadzi took the task on himself. In 1995, he hired a company to inject epoxy into the stone for added support. In 2004, two years before Hadzi’s death at 85, Morris returned to inject more epoxy.

These repairs were not enough.

In 2011, one of the four 1,000-pound “shields,” as the sculptor called them, broke off and fell onto the sidewalk. While nobody was injured — the breakage took place late at night — it led the MBTA to spend $55,904 to commission a study of “Omphalos” by a Waltham engineering firm, Simpson, Gumpertz & Heger. The firm looked at both the damage to the shield and the sculpture as a whole, determining that weak spots had been created by the expansion of epoxy over the years and the natural freezing and thawing cycles. The report filed in May lists a variety of potential problem spots on “Omphalos,” from hairline fractures to a deteriorating concrete base. The firm estimated it would cost $269,600 to $319,506 to do the recommended repairs. The MBTA increased that figure to $500,000 for additional costs that include construction inspection, police details, and project administration.

Cynthia Hadzi, overwhelmed when she learned about the repair estimate in June, at first gave up. She talked with a friend, flutist Paula Robison, about holding a kind of celebration of the piece before it came down. Then she talked to Del Deo. He didn’t want to commemorate “Omphalos.” He wanted to save it.

He pressed her to buy more time. So she used her right to delay the demolition for 90 days, during which she would try to raise money or figure out an alternative. That waiver expires on Sept. 10, and Hadzi said she hasn’t been able to work out a solution. The MBTA has not determined a demolition date.

Hadzi said that she feels, in part, that she has failed her late husband and has decided not to be in Harvard Square to watch the demolition or removal, whenever it takes place. She also feels the MBTA and the City of Cambridge’s Arts Council could have done more to save the sculpture. So many people are away during the summer, she says, making it hard to raise money.

“I reached this point because it felt just too sad,” Hadzi said. “I know how much this work means to so many people who saw it every day.”

Jason Weeks, executive director of the Cambridge Arts Council, said that he understands Hadzi’s frustration. But he said Cambridge can’t spend money on “Omphalos” because it is owned by the MBTA.

He said the Arts Council has tried to help by photographing and protecting the damaged section of the statue, connecting Hadzi with MBTA officials, and providing research on the sculpture’s history. Weeks said he is encouraged to hear of the Newport News group’s interest.

Globe file 1985

“Omphalos,” a sculpture of mixed granites 20 feet high, was installed in 1985.

Finding a solution

Hadzi said she believes that were her husband still alive, he would figure out a solution, whether repairing the piece or moving it into storage. The MBTA estimated the moving costs at $150,000, a figure it says it also can’t afford.

The artist was resourceful, which is how he managed to create “Omphalos” in the first place. The MBTA provided just under $37,000 for the construction, she said, but Dimitri Hadzi solicited a donation worth several times that total for the stone.

She and Tom Kruskal, a jeweler from Sudbury who studied under Hadzi, questioned the
MBTA’s repair estimate. “It can be done for less,” Kruskal said, standing with Cynthia Hadzi next to “Omphalos” as a show of support. “The question is whether it can be done for what the T would pay.”

That’s not likely, according to Pesaturo, the MBTA spokesman.

“The MBTA is a public transit system, and its primary responsibility is to provide safe, reliable, and affordable transportation services,” he said. “With a billion dollar maintenance backlog, the MBTA has to spend every dollar trying to keep the aging vehicles and equipment up and running. The MBTA does not have $200,000, $300,000, or $500,000 available for art maintenance.”

Shatswell, the retired fund-raiser passing by, suggested exploring whether anyone else in the Boston area would want to take on the statue. There’s a long history of public artworks in Boston being moved from their original spots to other spaces, from the 19th-century statue of former Governor Edward Everett moved twice over the years to its current spot on Columbia Road to the Polish Partisans sculpture moved from Boston Common to the South Boston waterfront in 2006.

“As a public art piece, it should be restored,” Shatswell said. “I tell you, I think there’s public art and there’s public art. If this was commissioned and it’s a known artist, then there needs to be a commitment to keep the art there.”

Cynthia Hadzi is more forgiving. She says she understands the MBTA can’t afford to spend money on repairs for public art works. She just believes the agency should have given her more time to come up with an alternative.

It was Del Deo who alerted the Newport News foundation of the statue’s fate. Freeman looked up the statue online and quickly planned a trip along with an experienced stone sculptor with whom his group works.

“It’s rare that pieces of public art get relocated like this,” he said. “More likely they get knocked down.”

That’s all Hadzi is trying to avoid.

“I’d do anything if I could think of raising the money,” she said. “I know the MBTA doesn’t have any. But then I listen to [Del Deo]. It’s an indication of where we are in this country. I just feel it’s such a betrayal of a certain part of humanity that we don’t stand up for the arts.”

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.
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