How Did an Iconic Waldorf Astoria Statue Wind Up in a Village in Iceland?

In 2017, the Waldorf Astoria closed its mighty doors and hunkered down for a much-needed renovation that would transform the storied-but-outdated, 1,421-room property into a sybaritic, 375-room hotel paired with 375 high-end condominiums. The $1 billion makeover was expected to take two or three years to complete. 

Six years later, the Waldorf is still shuttered and isn’t expected to reopen until the end of 2024, or so they say. But that hasn’t prevented iconic Waldorf treasures from popping up off campus. In 2020, the Lobby Clock, a triumph of Victorian technology, craftsmanship and overkill, went on view at the New-York Historical Society, fresh from a top-to-toe restoration.

And this summer, “Spirit of Achievement,” the soaring winged sculpture that once stood guard above the Waldorf’s Park Avenue entrance, turned up on a brand-new pedestal in Hvolsvöllur, a tiny town of 950 people in Iceland.

How in the world did a Waldorf showpiece wind up in a remote Nordic village? 

“Spirit of Achievement” on her Park Avenue perch.  Chris Sampson photo via Wikimedia

Okay, Hvolsvöllur’s new acquisition is a copy — a very good one. And for now, it’s the only “Spirit”  that’s on display to the public. The original is on view in the Waldorf’s sales area. That means you should be in the market for a Midtown condo priced between $1,850,000 and $88,500,000 if you want to see the 10-foot statue in New York. 

It’s cheaper to fly the 2,500 miles, give or take, from New York to Hvolsvöllur, if you’re so inclined. You’ll also have the pleasure of seeing the statue in the town that claims the work’s creator, Nina Saemundsson, as a daughter, one who happens to be Iceland’s first professional woman sculptor.

The story behind “Spirit’s” Nordic twin began eight years ago when Hvolsvöllur’s new town center was being developed. A town council member suggested asking the Waldorf about acquiring a replica, according to The New York Times. Years passed, but the reply was worth the wait. Not only could Hvolsvöllur make a copy of the statue, the town would receive three-dimensional scans just for the asking. (As it turns out, every landmarked space was scanned when the hotel closed.)

After that, everything fell into place. A foundry was located in Denmark (estimated cost: $60,000 to $65,000). The Icelandic government provided a $30,000 grant.  Dajia US, the hotel’s Chinese owner, picked up the tab for the 3-D scans. And fund raising commenced.

Nestled 300 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Hvolsvöllur was the nearest town to the farm where Nina Saemundsson was born in 1892. The youngest of 15 children, she left home at 19 to attend the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. Tragedy occurred when her fiancé, Gunnar Thorsteinsson, a star Icelandic football player, died of tuberculosis. After convalescing from the disease in Switzerland, Saemundsson embarked upon a peripatetic art career that took her to Spain, North Africa and Italy. At age 26, she landed in America, where she lived for the next three decades, mostly in Los Angeles. She spent her final years in Reykjavik and died in 1965. 

Her specialty was small figures and portrait busts, often of celebrities. Her bust of actress Hedy Lamarr was displayed at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and 1940. She was equally comfortable creating grand-scale pieces, like her towering bronze of “Prometheus Bringing Fire to Earth” (1935), a WPA work on view in MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, and a monument to Leif Erickson (1936) that resides in LA’s Griffith Park.

And “Spirit of Achievement?” The Waldorf held a contest for a statue to adorn the entrance to the new hotel, set open in 1931 (the original Waldorf was razed to clear the way for the Empire State Building). Saemundsson delivered the model for her entry in person the day of the deadline and beat out 400 competitors. A sleek female figure perched on a globe, “Spirit” was imagined as the Art Deco embodiment of  progress, innovation and ambition, the ideals that inspired the architecture of the new hotel.

Look for the statue’s return to the Waldorf’s Park Avenue canopy whenever the hotel reopens. In the meantime, residents and visitors to Hvolsvöllur can enjoy seeing “Spirit’s” sister gaze over the birthplace of her creator.


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