Graphic statue on Old Westbury estate upsets neighbors, village leaders

The statue shows a half-naked woman with an The statue shows a half-naked woman with an exposed fetus. Photo Credit: News 12

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Neighbors of New York real estate mogul Aby Rosen are alarmed about a 33-foot-tall bronze sculpture of a nude pregnant woman and her fetus that he placed on his historic Old Westbury estate.

The dispute has reached the point that village Mayor Fred Carillo is pushing for height limits on outside artwork.

The statue, "The Virgin Mother," by British artist Damien Hirst, displays the insides of nearly half of the woman's body, with her skull, tissue and part of the fetus exposed, much of it painted red.

It had earlier been displayed in the courtyard at Lever House in midtown Manhattan and is one of several versions Hirst has created -- including one holding a sword and exceeding 60 feet in height -- that have been displayed around the world.

"It's out of character with the neighborhood," Carillo said of the statue. "We have to appease the residents, they have to preserve their bucolic views. The question is, does it belong in Old Westbury? Does it belong on a residential property?"

Rosen's sculpture sits on a conservation easement on the A. Conger Goodyear House, a 5.5-acre estate built in 1938 and listed in 2003 on the National Register of Historic Places.

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The village has strict rules regulating easements and prohibiting additions such as plantings or structures.

Rosen, co-founder of RFR Holding LLC, a Manhattan-based real estate investment, development and management company, is listed as a managing member for the limited liability corporation that owns the estate, according to land records.

The noted contemporary art collector is embroiled in a lawsuit over his plan to remove a fragile Picasso stage curtain, known as "Le Tricorne," from The Four Seasons Restaurant in the RFR-owned Seagram Building in Manhattan. He is being sued by the New York Landmarks Conservancy, a nonprofit that owns the 1919 curtain and says moving it would destroy the artwork.

Rosen, through his land-use attorney Peter MacKinnon, would not comment on the dispute nor allow a reporter on the estate. MacKinnon said they would "work with the village in order for the installation to be in compliance."

Neighbors who complained to the village about the statue would not identify themselves or comment on the dispute.

Conservation easements are common in the village, and are designed to preserve the natural topography and protect slopes to ensure proper drainage.

RFR Holding purchased the Conger estate in 2011 for $3.4 million. Rosen bought the statue in 2005, according to arts media reports. It is unclear when it was installed in Old Westbury.

Village officials said the statue was placed on the grounds without the proper building department permit and architectural review board approval, and should be moved elsewhere on the property, out of sight of neighbors.

The dispute prompted village officials to consider limiting "accessory structures" -- including statues -- to 25 feet in height. They are to hold a public hearing on the issue at a May 19 village board meeting. The existing code only covers accessory buildings, such as cabanas or sheds, in a 25-foot height restriction.

Carillo said the statue may have to be moved to a lower elevation, but that decision rests with the planning board. The statue could also be "pocketed into a hill," he said.

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Neighboring East Hills does not regulate the heights of statues, considering them art, officials said. Sands Point has no provision over statues or sculptures in its code, but Mayor Ed Adler said a height restriction limiting fences and boundary walls to 6 feet, 6 inches might apply. The Town of North Hempstead limits statues to no more than 15 feet in height in rear yards in areas not governed by separate village restrictions.

The Old Westbury dispute illustrates "the tension that arises when you have small municipalities that are charged with land-use decisions," said Alexandra Wolfe, director of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities. "The smaller the community, the more you're interacting with neighbors."

If the planning board approves a permit, Rosen must then get approvals from the architectural review board. That part of the village code requires structures to "not be visually offensive or inappropriate by reason of poor quality of exterior design."

The statue could be turned "in such a way that the graphic portion faces Rosen's house and not the residents," Carillo said.

Until then, the statue will remain under a cover that was added this week.

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