Though the Beeches Inn and Restaurant has closed up shop, the fate of its iconic wolf statue is uncertain — yet again, although it appears relatively safe and secure for the time being.
Two hundred-fifty pounds of bronze, the statue is a scaled-down replica of the Capitoline Wolf, a sculptured depiction of Rome, Italy’s founding myth. It was gifted to the city by Italian citizens in the 1950s and has stood sentinel at the Beeches ever since.
Initially a tough sell
Although it is now a familiar sight for generations of (New York) Romans, it was almost rejected by the city at large.
According to archival Sentinel reports, Alfonso Felici of Rome, Italy contacted Copper City officials in February 1956. His Rome was buried under 20 inches of snow, an unusually harsh winter for central Italy, and he asked (half-jokingly, he would later say,) for one snow plow. In exchange, Felici offered a replica of the famous Capitoline Wolf.
Rome’s then-mayor, Joseph G. Herbst, apparently did not see the humor. The Sentinel reported on March 10 that while Mayor Herbst sent “a message of sympathy,” he considered shipping a plow overseas impractical and expensive, and left it at that.
The next month, however, city officials received a second letter. Rome, New York would have its Capitoline Wolf, the letter said, snow plow or not.
“I know your city and have been there many times,” Felici wrote to Mayor Herbst. “It is a nice and beautiful city and I liked it. So you may now inform your Romans that in the near future they can admire the Roman Wolf and with Romulus and Remus, standing in one of your squares.”
Many Romans at the time cringed at the proposed gift — that it depicted a pagan myth and that Romulus and Remus were unclothed were chief complaints.
“Although the work of art is familiarly known throughout the western world,” the Sentinel wrote, “it subject matter has been regarded by many Rome residents as unsuitable for display in a prominent public place.”
Others defended the statue’s artistic merits. “The idea of the appearance of the Wolf Statue being immoral is ridiculous,” wrote one E. D’Amore in a letter to the Sentinel. “In any work of art, one must not be scandalized by the subject matter but should admire the purity of the lines which make the work of art significant.”
Statue itself not only point of contention
Mayor Herbst expressed skepticism in Felici’s motives, telling the Sentinel that it sounded like “a racket — bringing these men over to be wined and dined at our expense.”
Nevertheless, Felici doubled his efforts in Italy. In December 1956, he wrote again to Mayor Herbst saying that his Italian Friends for Eisenhower Club would raise funds to commission a sculptor the statue.
Felici also got in touch with then-U.S. Senator Jacob Javits in early 1957 while the latter visited Italy. He told the senator that his club would need $3,250 — almost $30,000 in 2018 — to finance the statue’s shipment and a three-man escort to New York.
City officials again balked at the cost, and the Common Council voted against footing the bill. Some Romans spoke of collecting donations from local citzens to fund the shipment, and the Sentinel offered to act as a collection agency for the project.
Residents get involved
In August 1957, some residents took the matter into their own hands, organizing the Rome Wolf Committee. Chaired by Frank Taverna, the group promised Felici it would raise the funds to cover the costs of the trip.
Mayor Herbst appointed a group of councilors and members of the public to designate a place for the statue’s permanent display. By April 1958, the group had chosen a plot of city-owned land near the then-new National Guard armory on Black River Boulevard and the council approved — apparently without consulting nearby residents.
A petition demanding a different location for the wolf made its way through the neighborhood, garnering 480 signatures and forcing City Hall to backpedal. The wolf committee had had enough.
In early June 1958, chairman Taverna lambasted the Common Council for its decision to reverse course, telling the Sentinel that the committee “must disengage itsel from further negotiations with the City of Rome, New York, because of the actions of some members of our Common Council.”
Further, Taverna argued, Felici and his club “must have suffered untold embarassment because of the ungracious actions of certain of our city officials.” Taverna alleged the council acted to gain political favor and that allowing a petition “bearing less than 500 signatures” to overturn an act of council set a “dangerous precedent.”
Most notably, Taverna said that Felici had withdrawn his offer to the city entirely. The wolf committee would receive the gift instead.
Following the armory debacle, some Rome businesses offered to host the statue. Revere said it would dispay the wolf at its East Dominick Street plant, and brothers Pat and Orrie Destito made space available at the Beeches.
“There is no need for this matter, a gesture of friendship by the Italian Friends of Eisenhower, to be the object of controversy and discussion,” the Destito Brothers wrote in a letter to Mayor Herbst.
“We ... would be deeply honored to present to the City of Rome the deed for a circle of ground, some 30 feet in diameter, located at the entrance to the Beeches. This location would become the permanent, civically-owned site for the statue, publicly available to all visitors, both Roman and from afar,” the letter read.
At last on the same page, Mayor Herbst and Taverna agreed to the arrangement. A final fundraising dinner for shipping costs was held at the Beeches in August 1958, and a final reveal of the statue was scheduled for November.
A final complication came later in August, when Felici was denied a visa by the U.S. Consulate in Rome, Italy, for having been deported from America twice. Felici admitted that he had snuck into the country after serving with a U.S. Army artillery battalion in World War II, saying, “All I was trying to do was become a citizen of the country I fought for in the war.”
He appealed to President Eisenhower, who he claimed to have met at an army hospital in San Francisco in 1946, writing, “I remember when you saw me as a patient. You told me ‘when you need anything, just drop me a note.’ I need your help now. Allow me to go to Rome, New York to present my wolf statue to the city in the interests of speading peace and international goodwill.”
President Eisenhower did not respond, and though the story was picked up nationally by the Associated Press, there’s no indication he received Felici’s final plea. Despite his efforts over three years, Felici did not accompany the wolf in its flight to Syracuse, where Taverna personally received it.
Rome’s smallest park
On Nov. 3, 1958, the drama came to a conclusion and the statue was revealed. Wrote the Sentinel: “Two balloons, the anchor string cut, had rushed skywards and drew away the cloak that wrapped the controversy.”
Mayor Herbst, Taverna and his committee, and Sentinel editor Fritz S. Updike were present for ceremony and ball that followed.
Though the Beeches is closed, the statue’s small lot is still city-owned, and is technically Rome’s smallest park.
“There was quite a controversy surrounding that at the time,” Mayor Jacqueline M. Izzo joked last week. Though she said she had been in talks with the Destito family about the future of the property, she said the statue’s future had not yet come up.
“We haven’t given that any thought yet,” she said, adding she’s “sure there will be discussions.”
“There’s no reason to move the statue right now, because the property’s not changing hands,” she explained.