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Presidents project nears completion

Presidents project nears completion

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It all started with a statue of Abraham Lincoln.

In the late 1980s, the Gutzon Borglum "Seated Lincoln" from Keystone went on display in front of the Hotel Alex Johnson, and an idea hatched in the mind of Rapid City businessman Don Perdue.

"I saw all of these people taking pictures of Lincoln," Perdue said. "What if we had a whole downtown of presidents?"

When the bronze statues of Chester A. Arthur and George W. Bush are unveiled Saturday at the Elks theatre, that idea - a marriage of public art and downtown economic development - will have finally become reality. A statue of Bill Clinton will be unveiled later this year after foundry issues delayed his arrival.

After a decade and more than $2 million in private donations, all 43 of our nation's past presidents will have found their home on street corners in downtown Rapid City this year.

"Everyone thought we were foolish and it would never happen," Perdue said. "But by God, it did."

The difference that investment has made in Rapid City is apparent whenever people gather around John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan or George Washington for a photo op, a daily sight during the summer tourist season, Mayor Alan Hanks said.

"The City of Presidents project was really the start of the revitalization of downtown Rapid City," Hanks said. "All too often, we don't realize what we have - an incredible connection with Mount Rushmore. We have 3 million people coming through Rapid City - what Don Perdue did is found a way to get people more interested in coming to downtown and spending more money downtown."

Perdue said the goal was always economic development - the statues get people downtown and once there, walking from one street corner to the next, browsing the shop windows as they go.

"We need to get people out of their cars," Perdue said.

The first statues - George Washington, John Adams, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush - were unveiled in late 2000. Every year since, the City of Presidents Foundation has unveiled another four, two from modern times and two from historic.

But Perdue's idea would not have gotten off the ground had he not met Dallerie Davis, the foundation's vice president and an artists' representative, at a Lincoln Day dinner in 1999.

"The more we talked about it, the better it sounded," Davis said. "It really was a matter of having the artists ready and available who could do the work."

She arranged for five artists native to South Dakota to sculpt the presidents - John Lopez, Lee Leuning, Edward E. Hlavka, James Michael Maher and James Van Nuys. Each statue cost an average of $50,000, and Davis said the artists should be credited as donors for all the extra time and effort they invested into making each statue unique.

"We were really determined not to just put a guy in a suit on the street," Davis said. "We wanted it to speak to his personality as a president."

Certain statues posed more of a challenge than others, Davis said.

For Richard Nixon, board members hoped to capture both the angst and dignity of a tumultuous presidency. The statue at Fifth and St. Joseph streets shows the only president to resign from office sitting pensively in a chair of Chinese decor.

For Franklin D. Roosevelt, Davis said the board debated whether to show his disability, something Roosevelt tried so hard to mask while in office. Ultimately, Hlavka created a statue that from the front, shows a strong Roosevelt at a radio podium, but from behind, shows the leg brace and cane. He is located at Fifth and Main streets.

"To Don, this is economics disguised as art. To me, it's art disguised as economics," Davis said.

The path to 43 president statues hasn't always been smooth, though.

In 2001, a dispute between the Rapid City Council and the city's Public Art Committee over the statues' placement led to the citizen committee filing a lawsuit against the city.

Committee members alleged the city did not follow its own rules for placing public art for the first four statues, but a Seventh Circuit judge later ruled in favor of the city.

Over the last 11 years, the project's success has won over even its early detractors, Davis said. This summer, the information center on Main Street ran out of brochures - after printing 10,000.

All told, 40 sponsors in four states have donated since 2000. Donors range from national banks to locally owned businesses, longtime Rapid City residents to Rapid City tourists.

Davis said the Perdue family also extended a line of credit to the foundation to make sure the project stayed on schedule, so they will continue to fundraise after Saturday's unveiling. As of Friday, six of the 43 statues still require sponsors.

Pat Hall, owner of Premier Properties in Rapid City, sponsored two presidents with his three brothers, Fred, Bill and Mike, in honor of their father, Walt, and mother, Melba.

The first, James Monroe, was dedicated in 2002 and sits outside the information center at Seventh and Main streets. The second was Lincoln, who was unveiled last year and sits by the federal courthouse at Ninth and Main streets.

Hall said he and his brothers couldn't think of a better way to pay tribute to their family, which has been in Rapid City for multiple generations. And despite the early controversy, Hall said they were positive from the beginning that the project would benefit Rapid City.

"Don Perdue's heart was in the right place," Hall said. "It was for the good of Rapid City."

"It's putting the city of Rapid City more on the map."

And while Saturday's unveiling may be the last annual event for the City of Presidents, both Davis and Perdue said they would like to continue on as future presidents leave office.

They have lined up a future sponsor for Barack Obama, Davis said, and identified up to 80 street corners.

"It's not done," Perdue said. "It's not dead."

Contact Emilie Rusch at 394-8453 or emilie.rusch@rapidcityjournal.com.

 

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