Abandoned presidential statues have a bright future in Williamsburg
by Amanda S. Creasey, Outdoors Writer
When people think of Williamsburg, Va., outlet shopping and Colonial history are likely what come to mind. What might not be at the forefront of most people’s thoughts is Presidents Park, a long-closed sculpture park featuring larger-than-life busts of 42 U.S.presidents. When the park closed roughly a decade ago, Howard Hankins was hired to remove and dispose of the nearly four dozen 18- to 20-foot-tall presidential busts.
Engineering a way to transport the massive sculptures, each weighing over 10 tons, was no simple feat. Ultimately, Hankins achieved the task by “putting a hole in the top of the head of each one so he could lift them up and load them on trailers,” says Mark M. Jakobowski, president of Pathmark Consulting and Design, and director of development and planning for a project that is in the planning phase to provide a home for the sculptures.
Hankins then decided to preserve the presidential busts, transporting them to his ancestral farmland in Williamsburg. According to Jakobowski, ownership of the land dates back to the 17th century and was a land grant from a British king. Ironically, 42 U.S. President busts now reside on the remaining 300-acre parcel.
Although Presidents Park is closed, the busts are accessible to visitors in their location on Hankins’ property a few select times a year. Those who wish to see them, as they currently sit in a state of semi-decay just across a mulch pile from heavy equipment, must purchase tickets in advance for a set date and time.
I arrived at the site with my two dogs and a friend on a cloudy Saturday afternoon. We pulled onto the property and down a long, dusty gravel drive, past an old family home, dating back to the 1700s, where a woman directing traffic pointed to a parking area bounded by cranes, bulldozers and dump trucks.
We stepped out into the dusty lot and walked across the drive, passing a food and beverage tent on our way to check in. I purchased a hot apple cider and sipped it beneath the stoic stone stare of the bust of Abraham Lincoln, a rather grotesque hole in the back of its head.
While the Kintsugi nature of the busts inspires the imagination and strikes a certain mood of awe and wonder, future plans for the busts include at least a partial restoration. “Some people think part of the beauty is that they are falling apart. We aren’t going to restore them to brand new, but they are going to have restoration. They are going to be treated in a way that will preserve them as long as possible,” Jakobowski explains.
SEEING IS BELIEVING
Visitors to the current site can see not only the busts themselves, but also some of the old signage originally displayed at Presidents Park, including information about each of the president’s terms and personal lives, as well as information about their respective sculptors.
My dogs, my friend and I wandered amongst the busts in their current state of disrepair and decay, musing on the Ozymandian nature of mankind. We admired the painstaking effort at detail, once at risk of total destruction. Every president’s tie, for example, is unique, right down to the little elephants marching across George W. Bush’s.
The strands of each bust’s hair, textured. Wire-rimmed spectacles perfectly perched on noses. Eye light realistic in every eye.
These sculptures, though currently in ruins, have a bright future planned for them. According to Jakobowski, the sculptures will be relocated to “one of the nice overlooks on the current property.” The plans will address the desire to minimize land disturbance. “The sculptures will sit on synthetic turf, and paver paths will be installed over a permeable surface to manage stormwater on the site,” he says.
During our own visit, we are grateful we wore appropriate footwear because, despite dry conditions, the busts have been slowly sinking into the earth under their own weight, groundwater puddling at their bases and muddying the path, in spite of efforts to fill in the depression with mulch. The plans aim for zero runoff and no need for irrigation. Jakobowski explained this low-maintenance setup will help protect and preserve the sculptures. Synthetic turf doesn’t require mowing or watering, avoiding green stains from grass, damage from lawn equipment, and possible discoloration from watering.
Future plans are to create an open-air museum to display the sculptures. “We will provide items and stories relevant to the [American] Revolution. The story of the farm will be posted along with information about the creator of the sculptures in Houston, Texas, and maybe the restoration process,” Jakobowski says. “It will be a true museum that culminates in your walking through the presidential sculptures.”
Jakobowski envisions that visitors to the future museum will be able to access historical information audibly, perhaps using Wi-Fi. “If you take your cellphone and walk up to George Washington, you’ll hear an actor communicating what Washington thinks about some of his accomplishments,” he says.
The vision for the presidential busts is almost as grand as the bust themselves. There’s no doubt in Jakobowski’s mind that they deserve their place in history. “You’re in the triangle of history here and you’re on historical land,” he says. “We would like to see the sculptures be part of the whole historical circuit of Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jamestown, to be a regional, if not a national attraction.”
At the close of our time with the sculptures, my friend and I pile into my car with my dogs. I watch sadly as the dilapidated gray busts diminish in my rearview mirror, but I’m also smiling, knowing that their future is promising.