Riis Bust

A new portrait bust of Jacob Riis will be unveiled on April 17.
Students of the Aquinas Honor Society of the Immaculate Conception of Jamaica Estates, NY stand with artist David Ostro at the pedestal in Riis Park.

Carl Ballenas

The students of the Aquinas Honor Society (AHS) of the Immaculate Conception School of Jamaica Estates, NY have made it their goal to honor Riis by replacing this long lost portrait bust to Riis Park. The AHS is composed of students who have garnered high academic achievements and have won numerous awards and grants. Organized in 2004 they were the first recipients of The Peacewords Heroes Grant Award of $10,000. Since selecting Jacob Riis as their hero they have created a number of projects inspired by his life, including two publications.

Jacob Riis died on May 26, 1914 and even before his funeral and burial a movement to honor him was underway. Former President, Theodore Roosevelt worked with the Commissioner of Charities to change the name of the seaside Telawana Park changed to Jacob A. Riis Park as a memorial to a significant social reformer. By July 1914 the park became known as the Jacob A. Riis Park. In 1940, a bronze bust of Riis was installed at Bay 9 of Riis Park on a granite base with his name deeply engraved into it. Sadly, the bust was stolen from its pedestal on June 13, 1964.

It was during the trip to Ribe, Denmark the birthplace of Riis and his wife Elisabeth, that some of the students were present at the unveiling of another bust in the heart of Ribe. It was at that ceremony that the spark was lit and the students began to think that the empty pedestal in NYC should have a new bust.

The members of the Honor Society discussed the project , and made a proposal and received approval from the Department of Interior, National Park Service and letters from the Danish Ambassador and the Crown Prince and Princess of Denmark about their work with regard to Jacob Riis and this project. The people of Ribe offered to help pay for much of the cost of the replacement bust, however they were unable to raise the necessary funds. The Aquinas students voted to seek out an American artist who might create the bust here in America at a lower cost. After meeting a number of artists we received quotes of $30,000 to $50,000 for the bust. It was commented by one student that for that price we should also get the rest of Jacob’s body on top of a noble steed!

Eventually the students were placed in contact with a young artist David Ostro, who has his studio in Brooklyn. Ostro asked for a tour of Richmond Hill and Maple Grove Cemetery where the Riis plot is located. Upon learning of the Riis bust project, Ostro was very moved by the whole experience and offered to make the bust of Jacob Riis for $10,000! He is doing this for Riis, the Aquinas Honor Society students and the community. The bottom line is that after the cost of the materials, making the clay bust and then the mold and pouring the bronze at a foundry there is very little left over the sculptor.

Ostro is an up and coming young artist. Just this past year he created and installed a highly acclaimed life-size bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln for the new Museum and Library in Illinois. See the Ostro website for images of this remarkable sculpture.

The bronze bust of Jacob A. Riis by David Ostro will be returned to its empty pedestal after an absence of almost 50 years. The unveiling of the portrait bust will occur at 2PM on Saturday, April 17. Members of the Aquinas Honors Society, a group of students from a school in Ribe, Denmark, Riis’s birthplace, the Danish Consul, National Park officials, and David Ostro will be present for this historic event. Join us for this event and follow us on TWITTER.


Last updated: March 10, 2017

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