Part 1 of an investigative series
It’s been over a year since the Gristedes on 86th street and First Avenue closed. The vacant building hardly looks any different—in its last years, the supermarket was decrepit enough that it already looked like it had gone out of business. But it's missing something something far more important than the produce it once stocked: an eight-foot-tall sculpture of a pear that adorned its exterior for over 30 years. And nobody seems to know where it went.
The pear originated from the building's earlier incarnation as a Grand Union supermarket. In the early ’80s, Grand Union owner Sir James Goldsmith decided to boost the struggling chain’s fortunes with an extensive redesign by the legendary Milton Glaser. Although he was already well-known for New York magazine and his Bob Dylan poster, Glaser had no background in retail design.“Did Glaser know anything about supermarkets?” asked Carter Wiseman in a New York magazine article from 1982. “No, but he is a fancier of fine foods and a seasoned traveler, with a fondness for the bustling markets of Europe, particularly those in Bologna and Barcelona.”
It's hard to remember now, but in 1982 Glaser was nearly as well-known for his interest in food as for his design work. For many years, he co-wrote a New York magazine column with Jerome Snyder called “The Underground Gourmet,” in which the pair would tour New York looking for the best cheap restaurants. And Glaser didn’t see his lack of retail experience as a bad thing: “If you always operate out of expertise, you always get the same answers,” he told Wiseman in 1982. Granted, many of his ideas, like "a 'ripening shelf', which depended on store workers to move produce to different shelves based on its state of ripeness", were better in theory than in practice. But Goldsmith remained supportive of the designer's ideas. “He was a remarkable right wing nut, but on a personal basis a good friend,” said Glaser.
One of Glaser's ideas was a large statue of a pear designed by the sculptor Jordan Steckel that would stand outside the store next to the display windows. “I liked it as a three-dimensional intrusion," Glaser said. "I always love the shaped of pears as physical entities, and I thought it would be interesting to display a pear in three dimensional space as a voluptuous entity."
In spite of Glaser's innovations, the franchise's sales continued to flag, and the 86th Street space was sold to Gristedes. While Gristedes kept the pear, it never quite realized the jewel it had on its hands. “It wasn’t looking so great,” said Steckel's wife Teresa Fasolino, “When Grand Union was there, they would call Jordan to resurface it. Once they were gone, it just deteriorated.”
In late 2015, Gristedes shut down its 86th Street location, and the pear left the perch it had occupied for the past three decades. Attempts were made to donate it to the Cooper-Hewitt, city council members intervened to find public spaces for it, but all were unsuccessful. Eventually, it was auctioned off to a mystery buyer. “Somebody bought it, and Jordan was vey unhappy because he was hoping to buy it,” said Glaser.
Fasolino confirmed this. “This is the same thing that happened with the World Trade Center,” she said. “When Jordan's two goddesses were put to auction they didn’t tell him or let him bid on them.”
Today, the pear is gone, and nobody knows where it went. "It has disappeared," says Glaser. For now, it would seem he's right.
Do YOU know where the Grand Union pear is? If you have information on this iconic sculpture’s whereabouts, call the AVENUE pear tip-line at (212) 894-5407. Your call could make all the difference!