State of Heads

updated 07/10/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/10/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The majestic scale of Mount Rush-more's granite Presidents stunned David Adickes in 1994. Bugged him too. "You can't get close-you're about a quarter of a mile away," says the sculptor. Driving back from South Dakota's Black Hills to his home in Houston, he thought, "Wouldn't it be great to have Mount Rushmore on the ground, or at eye level, or in a garden?"

Sure, and while you're at it, why not lay Lady Liberty on her side and let kids slide down her nose? Even that concept probably wouldn't daunt the fearlessly grandiose Adickes, 73, known in Texas for Huntsville's 76-ft. Sam Houston statue. In 1995 Adickes set up shop in a derelict factory and, with more than $1 million of his own earnings, set to casting concrete busts—19 to 23 ft. tall, more than three tons each—of all 41 Presidents, from deep-furrowed Honest Abe ("If you can't do Lincoln, then go home") to the less distinctive Gerald Ford ("He doesn't have features you can grab hold of"). Looming over them would be a 92-ft.-tall George Washington, britches and all. "It's in my DNA to think big," says the twice-married Adickes, father of a daughter, Mary Van Pelt, 28, an employee of Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art.

Sometimes, though, it pays to think ahead. Working with Virginia real estate developer Everette Newman III, Adickes decided the ideal site for his busts would be 11 acres of greenery in York County, outside another historic tourist hub, Colonial Williamsburg. Even before Adickes arrived in March with three trucks bearing six busts for an official look-see, his Presidents Park had locals firing verbal muskets. Williamsburg's Daily Press described the project as "P.T. Barnum meets Easter Island." County officials forbade Adickes to unload the busts, and a zoning administrator declared that what the artist envisioned as an admission-charging outdoor museum sounded like an amusement park, requiring special permits and hearings. "The FDR Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial—I don't believe they entertain you," a baffled Newman said. "They inspire you, educate you."

Still, the project may not be a bust after all. Opposition began to fade after Adickes agreed to drop Jumbo George, and on June 14 county planning commissioners recommended letting the project go forward (on condition, among other stipulations, that the heads don't rotate). The final hurdle will be a meeting of the board of supervisors scheduled for July 18. For now, Adickes's six chiefs, including Woodrow Wilson and Martin Van Buren, have a temporary home 40 miles away at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens, where, says spokeswoman Esther Knox, "we recognize that art is an individual taste." But things seem to be heading the sculptor's way. "I think they're going to have a home at last, poor guys," says Adickes.

Tom Gliatto
Margery Sellinger in Virginia

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