Nick LaBella felt such a deep kinship with other Italian Americans that he celebrated their accomplishments in his historical fiction. The Man in the Shed is one of the stories he loved to tell.
A little known Italian American sculptor, Leo Lentelli, born in Bologna, Italy, was awarded one of the rare opportunities from the U.S. Treasury Department in the Works Project Administration during the depression of the early 1930's. Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose WPA government sponsored program saved many artist from starving to death, had the foresight to hire tremendously talented architects, painters and sculptors to design and ornament buildings, monuments and murals all over the US. Leo was sent on assignment to Oyster Bay, one of the fortunate townships that benefited many of the WPA projects on the east coast, which some speculate was due to the fact that it was the summer home of the president's second cousin TR.
As the story goes, Leo created four sculptures for the Oyster Bay Post Office as well as the ornamental base of the flag pole. It was here, in the dead of winter, receiving about $4.50 per day, that Leo built a little shed round the base of the granite flag pole so that he could have some protection from the sharp chill of a northeastern coastal hamlet. In one version of the story, Leo had a little stove in the shed to keep him warm and to "heat his soup of potatoes, garlic and a carrot."
Nick writes, "Recently I made my weekly trek to the post office to deliver some mail, but this time I paused by the flag pole to examine the magnificent work of four large seahorses that protrude from each corner and are surrounded by shells and gaping fishes (sic) so splendidly and painstakingly completed over sixty years ago. With respectful hands I traced the letters, carved so proudly, U.S. Treasury Department Art Project, LEO LENTELLI, Artist, Citizen of America."
What brought this story to mind was my own visit to the exhibition, Discovering Columbus at Columbus Circle in NYC. A Japanese artist, Tatzu Nichi has built an apartment around the 13 foot statue of Columbus, also created by an Italian American, Gaetano Russo. The statue sits atop a 75 foot column that has ships with animal heads carved around it and other fantastic ornamentation. To get to the apartment, an actual modern appointed living room, you must climb 6 stories of stairs through a matrix of chrome scaffolding. The statue seems oddly alive, and up close the ravaged surface of the granite is quite beautiful. After the exhibit closes, the apartment will remain to to make the statue more accessable for the workers doing the restoration, and act somewhat like the shed did for Leo: as protection from the oncoming New York City winter.
Leo went on to make a number of important works in NY and San Francisco and quite a name for himself. Leo Lentelli: A Sculptor of the City Beautiful - San Francisco Public ...
Here is the link to the art show. http://www.publicartfund.org/view/exhibitions/5495_discovering_columbus
And here is that flag pole.