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Crumbling hopes for Harvard Square sculpture

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The weathered plaque at the base of “Omphalos,” the towering statue in Harvard Square, is hard to spot behind the metal barriers. A dirty pair of shorts and a discarded plastic bag sit at its base. A rusty bicycle has been chained to an adjacent pole and apparently abandoned.

Three decades ago, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority installed the 20-foot-tall granite sculpture by artist and Harvard professor Dimitri Hadzi in one of the most high-profile spots in Cambridge, the pedestrian peninsula in Harvard Square shared by Out of Town News.

But now Hadzi has passed away, his statue is crumbling, and the cash-strapped MBTA says it has to knock it down, frustrating his widow and upsetting artists who wonder whether demolition is the only option. A last-minute alternative has emerged to save the work, but it would be relocated to Newport News, Va., where a public art foundation is considering a plan to restore it and install it permanently there.

MBTA officials say it will cost as much as $500,000 to repair damage to the sculpture, which weighs about 20 tons, and to stabilize other sections to make it safe for people to walk near and sit by. The agency can’t afford even to move “Omphalos,” said MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo. And it’s too unstable to remain as is, he said. Just two years ago, an overhanging slab broke and crumbled to the sidewalk, leading to the installation of fencing to protect passersby.

But the MBTA’s plan to demolish the work has upset Cynthia Hadzi and a group of her late husband’s former students. They say the agency has a responsibility to care for a work it owns and installed as part of a program promoted in the 1980s to beautify subway lines.

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