History of the Athlete Sculpture in front of the Warner Palaestra

Warner Palaestra (sculpture)    

See also Warner Palaestra (sculpture) in the Smithsonian Armerican Art Museum’s Art Inventories Catalog.

The following information was originally compiled using documents located in the SJU Archives (0622:9), October, 2007.

In a letter sent from president Michael Blecker, OSB, to five sculptors, dated Sept. 15, 1972:

  “Through the generosity of friends of Saint John’s University we are presently seeking an artist who is willing to do a piece of sculpture, a single figure or a group, which will be located near the entrance of the new physical education building here at Saint John’s University….”

“The new building will be called a “palaestra” which is the Greek word originally meaning a physical contest or wrestling and later an oratorical contest. We believe the name “palaestra” will help relate the physical discipling [sic] of the body with discipline of mind, which is the purpose of an institution of higher education.

“We are therefore seeking a sculptural figure or group which will introduce those who see it to Saint John’s and help express the relationship of the “palaestra” to the University. Themes which might be appropriate for sculptural treatment might be: the discipling [sic] of mind and body; the role or place of contest and struggle in life; the expression of physical grace; the excitement of winning/losing or succeeding/failing….”

A memo to Fr. Michael Blecker from (then former) Abbot Baldwin Dworschak dated Oct. 8, 1972 listed the names of five artists who were invited to submit proposals, the three among them asked to submit models (Paul T. Granlund, Joseph O’Connell, and Gerald Bonnette)  and of the four people who agreed to act as judges of the merits of the work submitted. Marcel Breuer was not among the five solicited for proposals.

Those who submitted proposals were ultimately sent letters from Michael Blecker dated Feb. 23, 1973, stating, in part:

  “After considerable discussion of the qualities of each piece of sculpture submitted to the committee for its judgment, the committee concluded that a non-representational design would be more fitting and recommended that I explore an architectural piece of sculpture more closely integrated with the design of the building….”

The May 3, 1973 issue of The Record, p.1, pictured the “three rejected statue entries for the entryway to the Warner Palaestra.”

In a letter from Michael Blecker to Marcel Breuer, dated March 28, 1973, he states:

  “Saint John’s is commissioning you to design the plaza area in front of the new physical education center and an architectural sculpture…”

Fr. Michael also references “our last telephone conversation,” so the change to designating Breuer as the sculptor may have come about via phone calls rather than letters.

In another letter, from Breuer to Blecker, dated April 6, 1973, the architect states:

  “…may I take the liberty of offering the design for the sculpture as a donation to St. John’s University: The University—specifically Mr. McNeely—would have to provide only for a) the execution of the sculpture; b) the arrangement of the grounds around the sculpture; c) the drafting costs in this office (which will not amount to very much in this case.)”

So, ultimately, the design was donated, the other expenses (approx. $27,000.00) were apparently paid by Mr. Donald McNeely (after whom the Palaestra addition, the McNeely Spectrum, was later named), and Cold Spring Granite executed Breuer’s design. The dedication of the Palaestra and its sculpture took place on September 15, 1973, a photo from which is on the cover of the Fall 1973 issue of the Saint John’s alumni magazine.  (Interior photos follow on p. 22, i.e. p. 13 of that pdf.)

The September 28, 1973 issue had a photo of “The Palacious Warner Palaestra” on page 1, and a rather disparaging column about it by Pat Harrington. That issue also has a cartoon on page 2 in which the outline of the sculpture is incorporated as a maze for the Johnny Rat to find his way from the Old Gym to the new Palaestra.

Despite (or perhaps because of?) the September 28 cover illustration, the following (October 12) issue includes a short piece by the editors, “Palaestra Pleases People” (p. 4), in which they more or less apologize to the community for the previous issue’s negativity.

This October 12 “Special Homecoming Issue” of The Record also featured a black and white photo of the sculpture as its front cover. In those days, parody and sarcasm seen to be very prevalent throughout the paper (for example, the next issue is entitled “Mortae”; CSB’s paper at the time was “Vitae”), and the photo features a strategically located fig leaf superimposed on the statue.