Answer Man learns the fate of Virginia’s colossal commanders in chief

John Kelly
Columnist May 14, 2011

Back in 2000, The Washington Post covered the misadventures of a Williamsburg motel owner and his park full of presidential busts. Last I heard, a couple of years ago, he was trying to sell the park. I’d like to know what has happened to it since then.

— Julie Mangin, Silver Spring

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Your May 8 column about the eagle/presidency monument mentioned Larry Creeger’s future presidential park plans, and his desire to have the park include busts of the presidents. This caused me to wonder: Why doesn’t he try to buy the large presidential busts from the now-defunct Presidents Park in Williamsburg, Va.? It closed in September 2010, and they were trying to sell the presidential busts. Seems like this would be a win/win solution!

— Jennifer Gittins-Harfst, Annandale

Funny you should mention it . . .

Presidents Park closed its gates Sept. 30, 2010. It wasn’t that they had overestimated the public’s appetite for gargantuan presidential heads, said owner Everette H. “Haley” Newman III. It was that the economy had made it difficult to keep up the financing on the 10-acre, $10 million park.

Answer Man regrets never having seen the park and its 43 heads, each about 18 feet tall and weighing around 12,000 pounds. They were created by David Adickes, a Houston artist who was inspired after driving past Mount Rushmore on a trip back from Canada.

“I was overwhelmed by the majesty of it,” he told Answer Man. “Driving to Texas, the idea occurred to me to do a park with all the presidents, big enough to get in front of and look in the eyes, rather than from a quarter-mile away.”

But why quite so big?

“I just like big,” David said. “I’m a Texan. Big is impressive. The Statue of Liberty, for example, as a piece of sculpture, is not that great, but standing in the harbor 151 feet tall, it’s great.”

David wanted to put the heads in Washington, but as the backers of the presidential bicentennial monument discovered, the District is a hard nut to crack. So he scoped out Williamsburg. That’s where he was put in touch with Haley Newman, who had developed such properties as Water Country USA.

“The people at York County recommended he and I talk,” Haley remembered. “They probably said, ‘We had a guy crazy enough to do Water Country USA. Maybe he’ d be crazy enough to do something else.’ ”

He was. Haley started taking delivery of statues in 2000. At first he had a few on a flatbed truck near the Days Inn he managed. But local officials said he had to move them. They popped up, Easter Island-like, in Buena Vista, Va. Six became monoliths at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens.

There was some resistance to the idea of dozens of white concrete heads joining such genteel attractions as the Governors Palace in Virginia’s Historic Triangle. But Haley made sure there was an educational component to the park, with facts about the presidents and supplemental materials that meshed with the commonwealth’s Standards of Learning exams. He said visitor surveys showed overwhelming satisfaction with the park.

But he wasn’t able to keep adding new attractions. The park never could afford to get a large Obama (price tag: $60,000). “That monument would have paid for itself in a year,” Haley said.

At the same time, David was having trouble with his own Presidents Park, which he’d opened near Deadwood, S.D. The tourist window is narrow — just three months of summer — and when a half-million bikers show up every August in nearby Sturgis, it tends to drive away the family crowd.

David said he tried to lure the bikers by offering 50-cent beer in the visitors center, but “they’re there for women and beer and to compare each other’s tattoos and bikes.”

Only one out of 100 would leave the center to walk down the 3,000-foot path of the presidents. The South Dakota park is closed as David ponders moving it closer to Mount Rushmore.

Haley Newman said the Williamsburg Presidents Park is looking a little rough now. “The grass needs to be cut,” he said. The banks are working out what do do next. It seems unlikely the heads would be sold piecemeal. Better for the park to end up in new hands.

And Larry Creeger hopes those hands are his. The man who saved the eagle-bedecked Presidential Bicentennial Monument has been negotiating with the bank to buy the Williamsburg park, ideally with the support of Virginia investors. He would have the eagle statue there for the reopening before moving it to a new presidential park on the Mississippi that would also feature a set of David Adickes’s gargantuan chief executives.

“We would hopefully keep the park in Williamsburg as a sister park to the one in New Orleans,” Larry wrote in an e-mail to Answer Man. “As with any large project, nothing seems to come easy, even when it’s about the presidents.”

Send your questions to answerman@washpost.com.

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