The huge, 40–foot tall gas sphere that dominated the skyline by the railroad station in East Hampton for the past 85 years is in the process of being taken down, panel by panel. Where these panels are taken could prove very important, however, because though each of the 12 panels alone has little value, together the gas ball is worth more than a hundred million dollars. According to art expert Dr. Harrison Holly of the Manhattan Art Institute, the art world has long known that under its many coats of paint, created in 1951, there resides the largest and most spectacular Jackson Pollock drip painting ever made. It would be very important that the pieces now remain in one place for later reassembly.
“Pollock lived in the Springs,” Dr. Holly said. “He made the drip painting standing on the top of this sphere when he was at the top of his form. Most experts who saw it before it was painted over consider it his masterwork. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what vandals did just after Pollock’s untimely death. And then it was painted over numerous times after that. Unfortunately, experts could not agree on what technique to use to successfully remove the anti-corrosive paints that have repeatedly covered the painting during all these years.”
Dr. Holly said that he had stepped forward to make his comments about the gas ball because he had read in the East Hampton Star it had been torn down.
“This is a staggering loss to the art world,” he concluded.
Senior officials at National Grid, the owner of the gas ball, when contacted at their headquarters in Melville, said they were unaware that orders had been given to have the gas ball taken down. “If there is a valuable Jackson Pollock under there,” one official said, “you can bet we surely are going to take advantage of it. We may bring in a new sphere and remove this old one so we can work on it. We may put it up for auction. At this point, we don’t know.”
Another official said that as far as he knew, the only orders for the gas ball were to repaint it again in 2015. They repaint it every 15 years to keep it in good order.
Local residents who live near the gas ball, however, expressed surprise that National Grid was unaware it was being removed. They reported seeing the green National Grid trucks at the site for several days as a huge crane did its work.
The sphere was originally built in East Hampton by the Chicago Iron & Bridge Company in 1928. Made of 3/4-inch steel panels riveted together, the ball, called a sphere, was built at a time when there was a big demand for natural gas, but before the pipelines were laid to bring the gas to this community. Big trucks with compressed natural gas would arrive and fill these spheres with gas under pressure, and they could be emptied into smaller delivery trucks after that. Chicago Bridge & Iron built such spheres all around the country at the time. They owned a trademark on this particular design, and called them “Hortonspheres,” in honor of one of the company’s founders, Horace Ebenezer Horton.
This “Hortonsphere” had been ordered built by an erratic Sag Harbor millionaire named Fester Blount. His East Coast Coal and Combustible Gas Corporation did its business just in Noyac, North Sea and Sag Harbor, but in 1951 Blount decided on a major expansion. He would have gas brought in by train to the East Hampton station and from here distribute it up and down the East Coast from Maine to North Carolina. To store the gas here, he would build a series of 22 big storage balls on property he owned in East Hampton. Blount hired Chicago Bridge & Iron to do the job.
Unfortunately, on December 14, 1951, after only one of the gas balls was built, Blount was seriously injured when he slipped on the ice while carrying a tank of propane from his car to his garage, which then exploded in his hands. On his deathbed at his home in Sag Harbor, he was visited by, among others, Jackson Pollock, who Blount had met at Jungle Pete’s Bar on Fort Pond Boulevard in East Hampton. From the day of their meeting until their parting at Blount’s deathbed, Blount and Pollock were inseparable. Among other things, Blount was, along with
Peggy Guggenheim, Pollock’s major benefactor.
“Make my sphere your greatest work,” Blount reportedly gasped to Pollock as his last words. Before the summer was out, Pollock had made sketches, designed a concept and then had climbed up to the top of the sphere to splash this most brilliant and exuberant drip painting down every side. It was a dramatic and unequivocal statement of Abstract Expressionism, visible for miles. Photographs of the sphere appeared on the covers of virtually every art magazine published at that time, with accompanying rave reviews. On the other hand, most of the East Hampton townspeople hated it.
Four and a half years later, in August, with his wife in Paris, Pollock was driving two young ladies to a party at the home of Alphonse Ossorio in Wainscott. Ossorio was another abstract expressionist of sorts, and he had just returned from the Philippines and wanted to re-acquaint himself with all his friends. By four in the afternoon, when the party was to begin, Pollock was already drinking heavily and the girls had suggested they not go. Pollock insisted, however, and he began weaving his Oldsmobile convertible down Springs-Fireplace Road. As the girls continued to insist that Pollock was too drunk to go to the party, the painter became abusive, turned the Oldsmobile around, stepped on the gas and increased his speed to more than 60 miles an hour before reaching a bend in the road near Abraham’s Path. The car lifted up, turned over and crashed into a tree by the side of the road. Pollock and one of the girls were killed. The other girl lived to tell the tale.
As for the sphere by the railroad station, it was entirely painted over in an aqua color during the night, just one week after Pollock’s death. No one was ever arrested for this desecration, and it was said that the East Hampton police, who along with the rest of the townspeople did not seem to appreciate Pollock nor his work, his girlfriends or his drinking prowess, didn’t try very hard.
The Long Island Lighting Company bought the sphere in 1960 when they consolidated all the small lighting and power companies on Long Island. And so it was almost ten years after its construction that the sphere was first filled with gas. Horton had built it well. There were no leaks.
From that day until this, LILCO and its successor, National Grid, have repainted the sphere every 15 years, always the same aqua color. Around 1975, the Federal Aviation Authority passed laws requiring that all tall objects be painted in certain bright colors so they would not be dangers to pilots in passing aircraft. The aqua color was acceptable to the FAA.
In 2009, a group of local artists formed an organization called the “One World Project,” hoping to be able to paint the sphere as a replica of the Earth. They got the okay from National Grid to repaint the sphere so long as the colors were acceptable to the FAA, and that spring appeared before the East Hampton Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review to get approval from the Village.
The basic aqua color of the sphere would be left as it was for the various oceans. Land masses would be painted an FAA-approved beige. Puffs of white clouds would be added.
Although the representatives of the One World Project brought in a petition of more than 165 signatures—many of them local East Hampton residents who had to every day look out at the sphere—the Board was not satisfied that this was not some sort of “political statement” that ought to be better made in a demonstration or meeting, and they voted the project down unanimously.
The One World Project is still around. But no members of the organization we were able to contact indicated they had any idea that underneath all of this was an original Jackson Pollock masterpiece.
“I had no idea,” one One World Project member said, requesting anonymity.