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What’s the story behind the metal sculpture at Second and Market streets?

Ben Steelman

A sculpture titled “Flight” at the corner of Second and Market Streets in front of the First Bank Building.

Officially titled “Flight,” the modernist sculpture has been an integral part of the First Bank building since it was formally unveiled on Aug. 24, 1959.

Back when the building was home to Cooperative Savings and Loan (later Cooperative Bank), the dual sweeping parabolic arcs of stainless steel served as a corporate emblem.

The 6 1/2-foot stainless steel abstract is the work of Roy Gussow, a sculptor who died on Feb. 11, 2011, at the age of 92. A Brooklyn native, Gussow was well known for his large-scale metal sculptures outside public buildings in more than a dozen American cities. Possibly his best-known work is “Three Forms,” an eight-foot metal sculpture which stood for many years outside the Family Court building in Lower Manhattan.

Gussow had been a faculty member for the School of Design at N.C. State University in Raleigh when he was approached by Wilmington architect Charles H. Boney, an alumnus of the school, about the commission.

Boney was designing a new downtown headquarters for Cooperative in the International style popularized by architect Mies van der Rohe. (Architectural historian Tony Wrenn describes the black granite-structure, with its bronze curtain walls, as “Miesian.”)

Cooperative’s president, Frederick Willetts Sr., had reportedly wanted a bas relief of a spread eagle to decorate the side of the building, a relic from the S&L’s former home on Front Street. Boney, hoping for something more in line with the design, turned to Gussow. who promised to submit a design for $4,000.

His composition turned into an abstract suggestion of an eagle in flight.

Boney recalled taking  Gussow’s 12-inch model of the work to Willetts’ house one Saturday morning for his approval. Willetts’ first response was, “Charlie, that’s no eagle,” he recalled. Nevertheless, he approved the sculpture. (The model is now in the collection of the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill.)

Mounted on a 12-foot black granite base, the sculpture was unveiled to great fanfare as part of the building’s dedication ceremony.

After half a century without restoration or treatment, its polished surface still looks much as it did in 1959 — a result, Boney said, of the high quality of steel Gussow used in the work, and of its high zinc content.

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