Glass meets Patti and Bill Dilworth, guardians of Walter De Maria’s Broken Kilometer and New York Earth Room

INCONSPICUOUSLY nestled within the streets of New York’s Soho, Dia Art Foundation commissioned and has been quietly maintaining two mammoth installations by Walter De Maria since the late 1970s. The text on Dia Art Foundation’s website describes The Broken Kilometer, 1979, located at 393 West Broadway in New York City, as “composed of 500 highly polished, round, solid brass rods, each measuring two metres in length and five centimetres (two inches) in diameter.”

“The 500 rods are placed in five parallel rows of 100 rods each. The sculpture weighs 18 3/4 tons and would measure 3,280 feet if all the elements were laid end-to-end. Each rod is placed such that the spaces between the rods increase by 5mm with each consecutive space, from front to back; the first two rods of each row are placed 80mm apart, the last two rods are placed 570 mm apart. Metal halide stadium lights illuminate the work which is 45 feet wide and 125 feet long.”

Walter De Maria, The New York Earth Room, 1977. © The Estate of Walter De Maria. Photo- John CliettWalter De Maria, The Broken Kilometer, 1979 © The Estate of Walter De Maria. Photo: Jon Abbott

The absence of interpretation in Dia’s text is exemplary of De Maria (1935-2013), the American artist best-known for his pioneering contribution to Minimalism and Land Art. Notorious for giving just one interview (in 1972, to Paul Cummings for the Archives of American Art) during his 60-year career, perhaps the enigma surrounding De Maria’s work helped to reinforce the artist’s mantra that, “Every good work should have at least 10 meanings”.

Obsessed with geometry, mathematics, Eastern philosophy and the exploration of material and light, De Maria’s works heavily consider factors of situation, placement and maintenance, their seeming simplicity defying the intricacies of the artist’s craft in his attempt to produce works that were conduits to the sublime.

To celebrate the opening of its new season, Glass interviews Patti Dilworth, guardian to The Broken Kilometer since 1993.

How is The Broken Kilometer maintained?
The brass rods are polished on a two-year cycle. The polishing occurs during the summer months when the Kilometer is closed to the public. It takes two-three weeks to complete the polishing, employing a crew of four. Working from the back of the room to the front, the brass rods are lifted from the floor onto specially designed polishing racks. Approximately 50 rods are cleaned in a day. The clean rods are put to one side whilst the area where the rods sat is mopped and left to dry overnight. The next morning, those rods are put back in place and the crew moves on to the next section. When all of the rods have been cleaned, then the Kilometer is ready for alignment using a very taut string that is pulled tightly along the edge of each row.

The rods form an incline according to how the floor has settled over time. In response to the floor, we raise the rods in order to keep the illusion of perspective. The rods near the back wall are 3 inches off the floor. It gives the work its dematerialised look.

Lighting is a crucial element of The Broken Kilometer. The work was initially designed using Osram bulbs which are full-spectrum and replicate the experience of sunlight.  Though emitting very beautiful light, Osrams burn hot and need to be replaced every 3 years.  The bulbs have been out of production for some time now. We have purchased what we could of supplies, but are continually researching lighting solutions that will offer well-balanced light with greater energy efficiency.

How did your relationship with Dia Art Foundation and Walter De Maria’s Broken Kilometer come about?
I first began working for Dia in 1979 at LaMonte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House project. I held my position there for two years, then took an (unpaid) sabbatical to raise two lovely daughters. This September marks my 23rd year at the Kilometer.

What reactions do you receive to the work?
Reactions to the work are overwhelmingly positive.  This past season, I noted these observations: “You are maintaining a treasure”; “It’s like an old friend”; “It’s always present”.

Jon Gibson also came in (he played music with Walter in the early years).  We took turns clapping and listening to the acoustics. Visitors are generally amazed and delighted by Dia’s long term commitment to De Maria’s work.


Two streets away, up a narrow staircase that leads to a first floor loft lies The New York Earth Room, 250 cubic yards of earth weighing 280,000 lbs, evenly heaped across 3600 sq ft of floor space. Dia commissioned the work in 1977, two years prior to The Broken Kilometer.

The New York Earth Room is the third Earth Room sculpture executed by De Maria, the first being in Munich, Germany in 1968 and second at the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, Germany in 1974. Of the three created, only The New York Earth Room survives.

Upon entering The Earth Room, the work is predictably a visual anomaly, but perhaps unexpectedly, it invades the olfactory and sense of touch, the latter being the result of the humidity produced by tons of organic material. As the visitor proceeds towards the soil, its effect on the aural becomes apparent as the earth acts as a vacuum that dampens the sound of the traffic-laden streets below.

Glass interviews Bill Dilworth, guardian of The NY Earth Room since 1989.

What does the regular maintenance of The Earth Room involve?
In the normal course of the year, The Earth Room is routinely watered and raked, almost once a week. The raking has to be done in different directions so as not to pull the earth up in one direction. Crucial to its longevity is that we close for three months every summer from mid-June to mid-September. This allows time for the earth to dry out enough to make effective repairs to the walls.

Without that time-out, the relentless moisture in the Earth Room would have caused the internal sheetrock walls to completely deteriorate. The fact that we re-open every fall after a summer break allows for the Earth Room to seem new every year, even into this, its 39th year.

Walter De Maria, The Broken Kilometer, 1979. © The Estate of Walter De Maria. Photo- Jon AbbottWalter De Maria, The New York Earth Room, 1977. © The Estate of Walter De Maria. Photo: John Cliett

What are the most surprising things that you have found growing in the soil over your years as caretaker to the piece?
When I started here in 1989, I was told that the mushrooms that were growing here were poisonous. I was surprised by a friend’s heedless consumption of one, which proved that they were not poisonous, but in fact edible and considered choice. Those Shaggy Parasols (or Lepiota rachodes) resembled a poisonous mushroom, the Green-spored Lepiota, so there was good reason to be cautious. I regret that over time the nutrients that were supporting that population were consumed and the Shaggy Parasol no longer pops up.

Though the larger life forms have faded over time, a soil scientist analysed the soil in 2010 and found that there’s a lot of life in the soil still but more on the microorganism level. The Earth Room has a reputation in the soil scientist community and some of them think the microorganisms can survive in this circumstance for a hundred years.

How did you originally get involved with the project?
I started working for Dia in 1979, at LaMonte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House in the New York Mercantile Exchange Building in Tribeca before Tribeca was a neighbourhood. I continued working for them when they moved back to Church Street and then worked for Dia Board member Lois DeMenil and her husband George at George’s commercial condominium on 63rd Street next door to Jasper John’s home & studio. These were good people and places.

Then one day I stopped by the Earth Room to check out some plumbing with a friend of mine, Jim Schaeufele, who remains Director of Operations at Dia. I had noticed the guy at front desk and later asked Jim if that job ever opened up. Two months later it did and I was offered it. It paid half of what I was making and as reckless as it was to consider that with two small children at home, the steadiness of maintaining a permanent site was alluring. I had also just read someone’s response to a question about imagining their perfect job. They said they would like to maintain a small stretch of riverbank.

Something about that resonated with me. And the prospect of earth, art, quiet and time to balance city, commerce, noise and speed appealed to me. Taking this job I felt like I could choose a unique and balanced lifestyle; that I could occupy and preserve a distinct promontory of the art world whilst quietly keeping focus on my own world. The longer I’m here the more I like it. This is my 28th year.

by Rowena Chiu

With thanks to Dia Art Foundation and the Estate of Walter De Maria

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