When I saw it, I was at the DPI yard on Shawmut Avenue, working on a story about the tent where the city has done repairs to heavy equipment trucks for the last decade.

I’m talking about the grand, 14-foot statue of Poseidon, surrounded by various other sea creatures of the deep.

Justin Chicca, deputy commissioner of the Department of Public Infrastructure, had taken me back to see the tent, which is to the rear of the DPI’s sprawling headquarters out on that industrial road to the New Bedford airport. But when he opened the door to the city yard — with its rows of heavy trucks, snowplows and the industrial-style wings of the DPI building — I was unprepared for the sight of Anna Hyatt Huntington’s magnificent 2,000-pound sculpture of the ancient Greek god of the sea, standing up right there against one of the utilitarian building’s plain brick walls. The juxtaposition was breathtaking — it was almost as if the triumphant-appearing creation, its handsome bronze features worn and weathered over the years, was nevertheless determined to continue testifying to its splendor in this most inauspicious of places. 

I let out an audible gasp.

Even though I had known that the Hyatt statue — indisputably one of the most important pieces of art ever to belong to the city — had been hauled up to the DPI yard six years ago, it was no less of a shock to unexpectedly come upon it as I did — pushed up against the DPI structure for safety, protected on one side by a Jersey barrier to guard against its spectacularly molded metal being damaged by any of the heavy equipment moving in and out of the public works maintenance facility.

Anna Hyatt Huntington’s statue of Poseidon and sea creatures was moved to New Bedford’s city yard for safe keeping six years ago. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

I was shocked. But I shouldn’t have been.

The sad truth is that many in the city of New Bedford have never loved the Huntington sculpture, whose formal name is the Whalemen and Fishermen’s Memorial.

Yes, there was a pomp-filled celebration by the Whaling Museum folks when the Old Dartmouth Historical Society (which operates the museum) and the city first accepted the sculpture as a gift from Huntington in November of 1962. 

Huntington, one of the most prominent woman sculptors of the early 20th century, was particularly known for her carvings of animals. Her work depicting figures on horseback includes acclaimed sculptures of everyone from Joan of Arc to Andrew Jackson to El Cid. Her pieces in New York City are displayed everywhere from Columbia University to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to Central Park.

The value of The Whalemen and Fishermen’s Memorial was put at $50,000 in 1962, or just short of a half-million dollars in today’s currency. 

And yet in the New Bedford of the early 1960s, there were some pointed objections to the statue from the New Bedford fishing industry.

Howie Nickerson, the secretary-treasurer of The Fishermen’s Union at the time, told The Standard-Times that he had thought that the sculpture, when it was unveiled, was going to depict fishermen pulling fish from the ocean. And yes, it’s certainly true, this whalemen and fishermen’s memorial is not an example of realism in art.

“It’s a fine statue but it’s not appropriate for New Bedford,” Nickerson sniffed.

He seems to have had a narrow view of what New Bedford is. Maybe it was different in 1962, but I doubt it as the Whaling Museum had been established long before that.    

Anna Hyatt Huntington sculpting. Credit: Library of Congress and Herman Hiller, World Telegram & Sun

Nickerson was not alone. 

Even while the Whaling Museum benefactors were celebrating the Huntington achievement, Octavio Modesto, whom the Oct. 24, 1962, Standard-Times identified as the general manager of the New Bedford Seafood Producers Association, complained that the Huntington statue — which among its sea life includes everything from a cod to a sturgeon to octopus, turtles and various shellfish — did not include a scallop.

I’m not sure that old Mr. Modesto, who surely would know a scallop when he saw one, was right about that one.

When I took a photo of the sculpture at the city yard earlier this week, DPI Commissioner Jamie Ponte told me that it looks to him like there is a scallop there. 

I made a closer examination, and sure enough, there was more than one of the symmetrically ridged shells that we usually associate with scallops at the base relief. There were also several of the whitish, smooth shells we associate with clams or quahogs. But it is, after all, difficult for a layperson to tell some scallop shells from some clam shells.

In any event, thankfully the statue does include a cod in a prominent place, one of Poseidon’s brawny arms. So New Bedford’s products are not missing, although to be fair, Huntington was sculpting sea creatures in general, not just ones that live in the North Atlantic.

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The Poseidon in Huntington’s sculpture, by the way, is as rugged-looking as any New Bedford fisherman and he’s literally wrestling that cod into submission with every bit of energy in his muscular torso. Hyatt Huntington was particularly impressive in her ability to capture the musculature of human beings and animals.

Whether Modesto was right or wrong about the scallops, his claim about the Whalemen and Fishermen’s Memorial has come down to us through the decades as a damaging editorial about the work. I myself, in my earlier years in New Bedford, had written about the Huntington memorial not including a fisherman. (When I was newer to the city I think I was longing for our version of the Gloucester fisherman.) But that criticism seems to have now been addressed by the installation on the waterfront in 2016 of the fishing family sculpture. 

That work, by local artist Erik Durant, is located in the same place of honor on Tonnessen Park as where the Huntington statue had stood for decades. The Huntington piece had been moved to the waterfront after it had previously stood for another few decades in the courtyard of the Whaling Museum before the Jacobs Gallery was built. So dissatisfaction with the great Hungtington statue, in fact, is how it ended up in the city’s public works yard in the first place.

The city, however, needn’t be dissatisfied with the memorial. Even if it does not depict a New Bedford fisherman who went down to the sea in a ship, it does kind of nod to fishermen as modern-day Poseidons. Which in a way is not completely far from the mark.

The Hyatt Huntington tribute to the ocean and fishermen is a great work of art, and even when it was removed from Tonnessen Park, wiser folks in the community knew that it remained an invaluable piece of history and culture that should be returned to a place of prominence in New Bedford. Anything that is a homage to the ocean makes sense in this city whose identity is so closely tied to the sea.

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The city says it has plans for the sculpture, even though it hasn’t seemed to be a priority these last six years. After all, it’s been sitting amidst the snow plows all that time.

Mayor Jon Mitchell’s spokesman, Mike Lawrence said this: “The City owns the statue and is in the process of securing services for its restoration. Mayor Mitchell is committed to returning the statue to public space.”

Lawrence, however, did not answer my questions asking for details about the city’s process, whether a Request for Proposals had been sent out, or what the result was of a consultant’s study on the sculpture’s condition.

Amanda McMullen over at The Whaling Museum was somewhat helpful, but the museum seems to have limited interest in the Huntington statue. The museum and CEO president denied that the museum does not want the statue even as she said it was never part of the museum collection and that anyway it was a gift to the citizens.

I asked McMullen whether the city and/or museum had hired a consultant soon after the sculpture was moved to the DPI yard to assess what it would take to restore it and reinstall it in a public place. And she confirmed that the museum had helped the city in identifying a conservator to assess the statue’s condition.

The sculpture is said to have been damaged when the city converted it to a fountain at one point. Jamie Ponte pointed out to me the places in several of the fishes’ mouths where you can still see the spigots.

Mayor Mitchell told me the holdup in part arose over a debate over who owns the statue. In 1962, The Standard reported it had been conveyed from the museum to the city but that the records were missing. So it seems like there’s been a debate here over who actually owns the sculpture, the city or the museum.

As always, it comes down to money.

It’s incomprehensible to me that the well-endowed Whaling Museum does not want to have a big role here. Especially when I think that they have gotten in line for Community Preservation Funds (taxpayers’ money) to fund repairs to their historic buildings the last few years.

Mitchell, however, says he’s aware of the value of the Huntington statue and is committed to preserving it and finding a place for it where tourists will see it in the downtown.

“We’ll get it done,” he said.

The restoration work has been reported to cost at least $75,000. Which is not nothing, but it also seems a wise investment in a piece of art that is probably worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and which, placed in the right place and advertised effectively, would have value for the city’s tourist industry.

Even in 1962, an unnamed waterfront official was quoted saying the tourists would like it. 

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.