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Sean Kirst: At Ellicott Square, Mercury's new head is not the same

We live in an angry time, when arguments and divisions often drown out reason. In such a time, you look for those rare and reaffirming moments when people offer unexpected moments of communion.

Consider the tale of Alphonso Butlak IV, and his offer to shape Mercury's head.

If you work in downtown Buffalo, you might be familiar with the sculpture of Mercury, messenger of the Gods, that eternally guards the Washington Street entrance to Ellicott Square.

Indeed, if you did notice that sculpture, it could be due to what it has been missing, for many years.

A head.

That ended this week. Mercury stopped being headless. Whatever happens, it feels safe to say the new addition will be a matter of architectural discussion and debate throughout this summer, and beyond.

That new sculpture differs, in significant ways, from a matching sculpture of Mercury — head fully intact — above the Main Street entrance to the sprawling landmark. The new Mercury, for instance, is without clavicles, and you immediately perceive a difference in expression between the old and new.

Friday, none of the local architectural historians or scholars who took a good look at a closeup of the new sculpture seemed pleased, to put it gently, whether they were speaking publicly or off-the-record.

The new Mercury's head was created by Butlak, 23, a young artist from Angola, whose artistic skills have earned him some recognition in the area where he grew up. He is working this summer for the Village of Farnham, painting fire hydrants. Village clerk Jackie Hoisington can look out the window of her office and see a statue Butlak created of a baseball player, in his yard across the street.

"He's amazing," Hoisington said.

Like many of us who often walk downtown, Butlak said he noticed the missing head while traveling along Washington Street, and wondered about it.

Unlike most of us, he took that curiosity a step farther.

Alphonso Butlak crafted the head of the Mercury statue over the Washington Street entrance of the Ellicott Square Building. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

In 2014, when Butlak was still a teenager, he stopped in at the offices of Ellicott Development, the company that owns the building, and offered to make a new one for free.

According to Butlak and Ellicott marketing assistant Jessica Kane, company founder and chairman Carl Paladino — impressed by Butlak's nerve — gave a personal OK to the idea. Butlak said the project took him more than three years and at least three attempts, but in the end he came up with a finished product.

Some of the Ellicott staff challenged him to make the features resemble Paladino's, Butlak recalls. Instead, he used the matching sculpture of Mercury — the one with its original head — as a model. That sculpture rises alongside Nike, goddess of victory, in guarding a Main Street entrance to Ellicott Square.

The new head went up on Washington Street a few days ago, said Kane, speaking on behalf of Paladino. Initial reactions from local architectural historians and artisans were, well, not happy. While they were sympathetic to Butlak's drive and effort, they felt the finished product did not capture the flavor or heritage of an extraordinary building.

Art historian Frank Kowsky said it would have made more sense for Butlak to work and learn under veteran artists and designers. The goal for Mercury's head should have been capturing "the original's subtle modeling, natural proportions, and life-like glance," Kowsky said.

As it is, he said, the new head "falls short of the original in appearance."

Architectural historian Martin Wachadlo spoke with passion of the larger meaning of Ellicott Square. Erected in 1896 as the world's largest office building of that time, it is now considered the last great design of Charles Atwood, an architect with D.H. Burnham & Co. of Chicago.

That firm's work on the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago was so influential, Wachadlo said, that it helped shape the course of American architecture.

The original sculpture of Mercury, at the Main Street entrance to Ellicott Square. Several architectural historians said a new version should match the feel and design of this sculpture. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The Italian renaissance elements at Ellicott Square – such as sculptures of Mercury, Nike and multiple cherubs - were all part of a brighter and loftier approach, Wachadlo said.

"I just feel the new (sculpture) is not well-done, and out of proportion," said Wachadlo, who suggests using a cast of the head from the existing Mercury sculpture as a starting point.

Patrick Ravines, director of the art conservation program at Buffalo State, also praised Butlak's intentions — but said intentions, unfortunately, do not always hit the mark.

Butlak took those critiques in stride. To him, the entire effort remains a living project. It started four years ago, when he was a student at Villa Maria College. He noticed the missing head, which Kane said fell off and smashed years ago during an exterior painting project.

Alphonso Butlak's new Mercury, Ellicott Square. (Sharon Cantillon/The Buffalo News)

Butlak's absolute belief that he could shape a new one eventually earned him an interview with Paladino, Ellicott's chairman and founder.

"He said to me, 'If it fits, it goes up,' " Butlak said.

"I think Carl just really liked him," Kane said, "and decided to give him a shot."

Butlak said the final weeks of sculpting occurred in the kitchen of his Farnham apartment, where he shaped the features in cement, by hand. Once he finished, he carried the 20-pound head by bus to Ellicott Square, and the new one finally went on Mercury's shoulders.

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In an immediate sense, whether it stays or goes may come back to the Buffalo Preservation Board. According to a staff person in the city's office of strategic planning, the work was done without the usual review mandated for city buildings within a preservation district. The staff member said that a new head on a sculpture at Ellicott Square would "represent a pretty significant change in a building," and thus require Preservation Board approval.

No application for the work was received, said the spokesman, who expects Ellicott Development will eventually be asked to prove that any replacement for Mercury's head is suitable to the entire building.

As for Butlak, told Friday of the criticism from the architectural community, he did not become angry or defensive. Instead, he said he was never really happy with the finished head, and that he was surprised when it was greeted with such enthusiasm at Ellicott Square.

In that response is a potential resolution. He said he would be happy to take another crack at the project, which leads into the reaction of Gabriel Dunn, a Buffalo arts conservator who repairs and conserves damaged works of art.

"The recent replication project of the missing Roman god Mercury's head on the building most likely had good intentions," she wrote in an email. "However, it was a missed opportunity for collaborations with local historians, architectural experts, trained sculptors, tech companies, and art conservators."

Is it possible the owners at Ellicott Square could approve one more shot, this time by teaming Butlak with some veteran artists or conservators?

Of Mercury's head, Kane said simply, "They would have to ask Carl."

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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