There are two matching white office towers at 6400 Arlington Blvd., on the west side of Seven Corners in Virginia. On the plaza between the two buildings is a model of (I believe) an F-14 fighter jet, with about a 6-foot wingspan. The surface of the plane is entirely covered in pennies. I’ve seen the plane there for years, and have never found any sign explaining who, what, when or why.
— Richard Vodra, McLean, Va.
The why starts with a notion that the folks at the Crystal City Business Improvement District had in late 2007. The idea was to celebrate Crystal City’s connection to flight — including its proximity to Reagan National Airport and the presence in its office blocks of many aeronautical corporations — by placing statues of airplanes around the neighborhood.
“We had 50 different planes,” said Rob Mandle, chief operating officer at the Crystal City BID. “Some were in that jet style. Another style was more vintage — a propeller type airplane — to signify the evolution of flight.”
Hart Johnson of TivoliToo, the St. Paul, Minn., company that fabricated the planes, calls these campaigns “statue events.” The craze got its start in the United States in 1999, when 300 life-size cows — decorated in myriad styles — invaded Chicago.
The airplanes are made of urethane resin, just like the donkeys and elephants TivoliToo made for the District in 2002 and the pandas it made two years later.
Artists were invited to propose how they would decorate the blank, 3-D canvases. Among those selected was Alexandria’s Courtney S. Hengerer , or Courtney Stevens as she was known in 2008. She called her idea “Pennies From Heaven.”
“Each penny was put on one by one with glue,” Courtney told Answer Man. “Previously I did mosaics. I sort of like piecing things together. It’s sort of monotonous, but meditative.”
To fit a penny on a curved surface, Courtney used pliers to bend it.
The creation of the art was as public as its eventual display. Courtney and the other artists worked in a space in Crystal City that passersby could peer into.
“I would have people bringing me little bags of their pennies, which I thought was really fascinating,” Courtney said. “We figured out it took 14,000 pennies to cover it.”
Businesses and organizations were invited to sponsor different planes. “Pennies From Heaven” was sponsored by BB&T, which was fitting, since it’s a bank and it had an office on 23rd Street in Crystal City, which is where Courtney’s plane was parked.
The statues for what was called “Crystal Flight’ were unveiled in April 2008. Courtney checked on her statue periodically. If any pennies fell off, she would glue some more back on to fill in the bare spots.
Rob of the Crystal City BID said Crystal Flight lasted about two years. At the end of the campaign, the more popular statues were sold. “Eight of them wound up on some guy’s driveway in western Virginia, all lined up,” he said.
When BB&T moved its offices to the Falls Church Corporate Center, “Pennies From Heaven” went, too.
There are still a few of the grounded planes on Crystal City’s sidewalks. And there are two inside the Crystal City BID’s office. They’re off their heavy, concrete bases, mounted like deer heads.
Rob spotted one veteran of Crystal Flight when he was on vacation in Virginia Beach. “I caught a little glint in my eye and saw one of the planes that was covered in mirrors,” he said. “I didn’t even know it was there.” (The mirror-covered plane is “Can You See Yourself Flying?” by Christie Otvos.)
There was a time when it seemed that every city was putting up big civic emblems: Washington had the pandas, Baltimore had crabs, Norfolk had mermaids. Not lately, though.
“It definitely has kind of diminished in popularity,” Hart said. “I feel like there were so many things about those events that were so special and meaningful, I would think potentially at some point maybe they would come back.”
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.