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Monument Awaits Day in the Sun

Washington: For now, the 27-ton bronze statue in honor of America's presidents sits in a police warehouse. With luck--and the completion of 24 steps--it will end up on the White House lawn. Eventually.

August 25, 1996|SCOTT BOWLES | WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — About the only way you are going to catch a glimpse of the Presidency Bicentennial Monument, an imposing 27-ton granite and bronze statue honoring America's presidents, is if the D.C. cops bust you for drugs.

That's because the 17-foot-high monument is sitting in the warehouse of the Police Department's narcotics unit, lost in a bureaucratic tangle of federal regulations, White House correspondence and congressional hearings.

And it doesn't look as though the statue, which depicts a towering bald eagle taking wing over the American flag and the image of George Washington, will be busting out of police custody soon.

Sure, the bird's hosts have grown fond of it. D.C. Police Sgt. Ralph Wax declares it "really beautiful." But confiscated drugs keep piling up, and the monument is in the way, said Wax, a narcotics officer.

"I just wish we could get it out of here. We could use the space," he said.

Howard Tullman, 50, of Chicago, one of a new breed of investors who put money into the creation of public monuments for the spinoff profits, expected it would be difficult to get the piece approved for display on federal property. "But this has been worse than we ever imagined," he said. "I would have thought the president would be proud to have this at the White House."

But Tullman has been informed that President Clinton has more pressing tasks right now--including keeping his job. And Washington has no shortage of monument requests and proposals, thank you very much.

It looks as though the big bird will stay cooped up--and Australian-born artist Brett-Livingstone Strong has had enough.

"It was very hard to complete," the Culver City, Calif., resident said. "I want it unveiled but don't know what's going to happen to it. I'm pretty much tired of the whole thing. I'm eagled out."

Still, Tullman is undaunted. Eventually, he is convinced, the shrine will grace the lawn of the White House. That's where President George Bush, soon after he was inaugurated, offered to hold an April 30, 1989, unveiling and dedication ceremony.

Things seemed so much more promising to the sculptor in 1987, when he scored a hit with a 7-ton monument commemorating the bicentennial of the Constitution. The piece won praise from President Ronald Reagan and former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and was part of a bicentennial parade through Philadelphia, where the work remains on display at Independence Hall.

Shortly afterward, Strong began to create the more ambitious presidential monument to mark the 200th anniversary of George Washington's first inauguration. A bicentennial commission headed by the chief justice "recognized" the monument in early 1989, and Bush offered to dedicate it on the inauguration anniversary, April 30.

But Strong needed more time, and the date came and went. By the time he finished, the anniversary was just a memory, and Strong had sunk more than $200,000 into the monument for metal and marble. He was forced to sell off most of his rights to the piece.

It was purchased eventually by a group of investors called American Spirit Corp., which hoped to place the monument on the White House grounds.

In an agreement with the federal government, the piece was stored at the D.C. narcotics warehouse, one of the few buildings in town large enough to hold it.

The investment group hoped for a lavish unveiling event featuring pop star Michael Jackson, a friend of Strong's, singing the national anthem backed by a children's choir, according to Tullman.

But American Spirit and the music icon were no match for federal bureaucrats, who created a lasting monument of their own: reams of paperwork for the investors to trudge through.

By 1993, the group was out of money, the Bush administration was out of office and the 27-ton bird was again for sale.

Enter another investor, Tullman, who is with Monumental Arts and Events, a Chicago-based firm that builds memorials for a fee through private donations and corporate sponsorships. Tullman had hoped to make a profit off Strong's piece, which the firm bought for $135,000, by selling miniatures of the statue.

"Once we bought it, we began to proceed trying to give it to the White House," he said. "We thought it was their decision. But we learned there are a number of regulatory agencies that may or may not have something to do with it."

Indeed, it's apparently a lot easier to build a 27-ton shrine than to find it a home on federal property. Officials told Tullman that he would have to clear a 24-step process, which included getting approval from the D.C. State Historical Preservation Officer, the National Capital Planning Commission, the Advisory Council on Historical Preservation and the secretary of the interior.

That, in addition to getting clearance from three congressional commissions, means most monuments take at least seven years before they are unveiled.

"They think it's a matter of us liking the idea and just finding a place to build it," said Earl Kittleman, a spokesman for the National Park Service.

Kittleman said his agency receives dozens of proposals and requests every year for new monuments in Washington, which already has roughly 150 memorials throughout the city.

"We have to tell them it's much more complicated than that. You have to get Congress involved."

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