BY BILL EGBERT
The board of the Port Authority voted unanimously on Thursday to move the Koenig Sphere to Liberty Park, despite impassioned pleas from members of the public that the iconic sculpture really belongs on the 9/11 memorial plaza below.
The 25-ton, bronze Sphere — which was originally located between the Twin Towers and famously survived the 9/11 attacks — has remained in The Battery half a mile away since Sept. 11, 2002, when it was dedicated as a “temporary” memorial to the victims of the attacks. But now the authority hopes to move the iconic sculpture to the newly opened rooftop park by the end of the year.
Local residents and advocates lined up to address the board before the vote, with most arguing against moving the Sphere to Liberty Park.
Longtime resident Mary Perillo — who is also a founder of 9/11 Environmental Action — made the case that placing such a powerful reminder of the traumatic 9/11 attacks in Liberty Park would spoil the green space for locals by drawing large crowds of tourists and turning a park that was originally billed as an amenity for residents into an extension of the memorial.
“It would totally change the tenor of the park as it is” she said. “You take those 50-, 60-, 80-, 120-sized groups of tourists and put them up there to look at the Sphere — bad idea — it changes the function of the place. It changes the atmosphere of the place. And it extends the memorial to the one place that it isn’t — the one place that still feels like home and not the on ramp to Disneyworld.”
Another local activist, Margaret Donovan of the Twin Towers Alliance, argued that the obvious place to move the Sphere is to the 9/11 memorial plaza, where it stood for decades before the towers collapsed.
“It was crated for the plaza. It survived Hell on Earth on the plaza,” she said. “And I would wager that not one supporter of your plan, if given a choice, would prefer Liberty Park to a place of honor on the plaza.”
Indeed, Port Authority executive director Patrick Foye, who formally proposed the Liberty Park move at the July 21 board meeting, told Downtown Express in a statement about the Sphere earlier this year: “This is an artifact that survived and was affected by the horrors of 9/11, and placing it on the memorial plaza, we think, is entirely appropriate.”
But Foye cited pushback from the 9/11 memorial foundation’s leadership — which he characterized as “unalterably opposed” to hosting the Sphere — to justify opting to install the sculpture in Liberty Park instead. The foundation leadership’s stated reason for barring the Sphere, with the eternal flame installed next to it at The Battery, is that it does not fit with the plaza’s original design.
The original design of the memorial should not be considered sacrosanct, however, according to Richard Hughes of the Twin Towers Alliance, who pointed out that the tone-deaf original design envisioned etching the names of the victims at the bottom of the deep waterfall-pools marking the footprints of the towers, rather than around the top where visitors can read them. Hughes criticized the plaza’s overall design as a sterilized tourist attraction that would only benefit from adding the Sphere.
“The memorial plaza an ill-conceived shopping mall, a playground — everything but what it should be,” he said. “Everything that memorial plaza should be has been stripped away, and the Koenig Sphere would restore some dignity, some gravitas to the site — and it sorely needs it.
Local resident Kathleen Moore pointed out that the famous Survivor Tree, which was rescued from the rubble of Ground Zero and nursed back to health, wasn’t part of the original design and the memorial foundation initially resisted including it, but the 35-foot tall callery pear tree became a beloved and popular addition to the plaza.
“It took many years of fighting against the designers of the [memorial] to get that tree placed there. It has thrived there” said Moore. “The Sphere would thrive there.”
Even a member of the authority’s board admitted that he would rather see the Sphere become part of the memorial plaza than move it to Liberty Park.
“Back several years ago when this first came up, and I had seen the Koenig Sphere down at Batter Park, I did think that it should appropiately be displayed on the memorial plaza, and I still believe that,” said William “Pat” Schuber just before the vote. “However I do recognize the difficulties that would bring in order to make that happen.”
Schuber said he recognized the “emotional tug” of returning the Sphere to the memorial plaza, but somewhat ruefully conceded that Liberty Park is probably the closest it will ever get, given the opposition of the Memorial Foundation.
Likewise, Michael Burke — whose firefighter brother died in the Twin Tower’s collapse, and who has been perhaps the most persistent advocate for moving the Sphere to the memorial plaza — seemed resigned that Liberty Park was the best site that he could hope for.
“It’s not the memorial plaza, but Liberty Park is Ground Zero. I think the Sphere needs to come back, and I support bringing it to Liberty Park. Visitors to this place need the opportunity to see it,” he told the board in a weary voice. “It’s either this or it might end up in Coney Island, or New Jersey.”
Burke said that he received an email the night before from the Fritz and Maria Koenig Foundation in Germany saying the 92-year-old sculptor is “ecstatic” at the idea that the Sphere is returning to Ground Zero.
Liberty Park is certainly much closer to its original location than its current spot near Pier A down in The Battery, but it’s not close enough for some.
“Don’t try to airbrush this history. Please don’t exile the Sphere from the place of honor it earned on 9/11,” said Donovan. “Please let its eternal flame mark the spot where thousands of innocent people breathed their last, and hundreds of heroes gave their lives. They didn’t die across the street.”
Ironically, Joe Daniels, the head of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum whose opposition to incorporating the iconic sculpture into the memorial plaza is cited as one of the main roadblocks to the idea, announced last month that he plans to step down by the end of the year — about the time the Port Authority plans to finish installing the Sphere in Liberty Park.