Remembering when the city flirted with bringing a skyscraper-sized statue of Christopher Columbus to the Downtown riverfront

Editor’s note: Think the Christopher Columbus statue at City Hall is problematic these days? Oh, it could have been much, much worse if a devoted band of locals in the mid 1990s had succeeded in their bizarre quest to build a 500-ton monument to the Italian explorer. In 1994, Columbus Monthly explored the saga of the statue—nicknamed "Chris Kong"—which eventually ended up in Puerto Rico. 

This is the story of a statute that won’t go away.

The people—as far as anybody knows don't want it. The arts community doesn't want it. The politically correct community doesn't want it and the movers and shakers, who actually could make it come if they did want it, don't want it either. 

Nobody's offered a dime, not to build it here, and not to maintain it here. Even the mayor doesn't want it. 

Still, the statue—a 311-foot, 500-ton bronze Russian statue of Christopher Columbus—keeps coming. 

At least that's the story according to Columbus' New World Foundation, as grimly determined a bunch of volunteers as this city ever has seen. In mid February, after even Mayor Greg Lashutka had thrown cold water on the statue project, the colossus still was improbably, inexorably lumbering its way toward the Whittier Street peninsula. 

"We're optimistic," said group spokeswoman and Wm. Graystone Winery owner Jane Butler then. There was news; there always is with the statue. The group just had nailed down enough warehouse space to house the statue's 1,500 parts. The 14 foot-tall bronze head would be shipped up to Columbus from Fort Lauderdale either in March or April, Butler said. The rest of the statue would be Columbus-bound as soon as the Russian ports thawed around St. Petersburg. 

The statue, in other words, still was coming, despite the derision, despite the complete lack of visible means of support, either for the $14 million to $25 million cost of erecting it or the ongoing costs of maintaining it. 

What's going on here? How did an idea as bizarre as a skyscraper-sized statue of Christopher Columbus ever take hold in the first place? How has it held on so long? How has it, at various times, at least appeared to garner the support of the mayor, a county commissioner, the governor, the Chamber of Commerce? 

Why won't it go away? 

***

Everybody laughed when the statue—The New World Monument—first came to Columbus's attention last year. The statue was, well ... kitschy. Even a stunningly beautiful 311-foot Christopher Columbus would be a little odd. This one, designed by Russian artist Zurab Tsereteli, was not necessarily stunningly beautiful.

"It looks like some kind of lamp base from the 1930s to me,” says sculptor and Ohio State University art professor emeritus David Black.

"It's a monstrous piece of junk,” says Sid Chafetz, also an emeritus Ohio State art professor. 

"Horrendous," says art consultant Susan Saxbe, of Winning Images. And the public, to judge from the letters to the editor, by and large agreed. In short order, the so-called New World Monument had earned itself a few nicknames. Big Chris. Chris Kong. 

Whatever you called it, it was going to bring us money. Statue backers were dead serious. Thousands, no, tens of thousands of cars per week would pass through the intersection of 1-70 and 1-71, get off and take a look. They'd buy our gas, eat our food. The colossus would be our Statue of Liberty, our St. Louis Arch. And it was a gift, an international gift—a gift from Russia to the United States of America. 

And we could have it here, right down on the city impound lot. 

*** 

How did we get so lucky? The story, according to the official version, the one written up glowingly in the New World Monument brochures, began more than six years ago, as relations between the United States and the then Soviet Union began to thaw. The statue was Zurab Tsereteli's idea and it was intended to be, like the Statue of Liberty, a gift of state. 

Tsereteli apparently is rich and well connected. He knows former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev and current Russian President Boris Yeltsin. And he's created such gifts of state before. Tsereteli's 30-foot statue of St. George slaying the dragon stands outside the United Nations building; it was given by the Soviet Union to commemorate a disarmament agreement. 

Tsereteli, now 60, spent the better part of his career churning out the kinds of statues totalitarian governments love. He did big Lenins, back when big Lenins were what you got paid for. 

In fact, “You can almost see all the melted Lenins that went into this," says OSU's Black of the sculpture Tsereteli now wants to give to us. 

Big Lenins aren't much in demand anymore, which is something to remember when hearing the official history of Tsereteli's gift. The New World Monument was designed and cast at a time when Soviet bronze foundries needed the work. A second thing to remember is this: The lines between state projects and private enterprise in Russia have become a little blurred during the political changes of the past few years. What may have been a state project once isn't necessarily one now. 

Tsereteli built the statue using state paid workers and state-supplied materials, but the state, as far as anyone can tell, is out of the picture now. And Tsereteli stands to make a profit off of it—one of the most underreported facts of the entire statue saga.

It's a scenario, according to Ohio State University associate professor of Slavic and East European languages George Kalbouss, that has been playing out ever since the Soviet Union's collapse. Russians "have been constantly trying to unload on the Western world various loser projects started before the collapse,” Kalbouss wrote in a letter to the Dispatch. "This statue is one of them." 

“They just started melting a lot of Lenins when the Soviet Union fell,” Kalbouss says. “They have these foundries. They need to keep people at work. Secretly, I think this was started as another statue and they just changed the head." 

In city after city in the U.S., says Kalbouss, Russians have come bearing gifts, always aided by a group of well-meaning local volunteers. And there is always, he says, something else going on—some kind of investment opportunity, some kind of business deal, some kind of agenda. 

The same goes for Tsereteli's gift—despite the patina of official sanctioning it brings with it.

***

The major proof of that sanctioning is an event that happened six years ago. According to Butler, and to a spokesman for the now-dead Florida New World Monument Foundation, former President George Bush and former USSR President Mikhail Gorbachey met in Tsereteli's studio to choose from among three designs for what would be a major international gift. 

The statue would be, the magazine Russian Life gushed, a continuation of the "beautiful tradition that began with the presentation of the Statue of Liberty to the United States by France. This will be a gift from Russia to America."

The magazine—formerly Soviet Life—also reported that the statue enjoyed the support of President Bill Clinton, 

"The president promised me all his support and asked me many questions about the unique engineering problems posed by the monument's assembly," Tsereteli told that magazine.

It's true there's a photo of Clinton meeting Tsereteli, but what kind of support Clinton promised is anybody's guess. The White House press office hadn't heard of the statue when we inquired, and didn't know where to start asking. And if statue backers thought Clinton meant money, they haven't nailed that down yet. U.S. Congresswoman Deb Pryce received a letter from statue backers in November, saying they'd written Clinton "looking for guidance as to what involvement is appropriate at the federal level," for what the group called "a project of national importance to Russia.” The letter hasn't borne fruit yet. 

***

So what's in it for Tsereteli? 

The sculptor's generosity throughout the project has been one of the most baffling parts of the statue saga to date. According to Max Goldberg, former director of the now-defunct foundation originally assigned the task of finding the statue a home, Tsereteli spent $500,000 of his own money just getting the statue parts cast and stored, beyond the cost of the state workers and state materials. 

There have been travel costs: Public officials from Columbus and Florida, where the statue originally was headed, have been flown back and forth to Moscow and St. Petersburg, supposedly at Tsereteli's expense. (At least one of those trips may have been funded by the Russian state arts council, of which Tsereteli is president.) Tsereteli has been here, as have his people.  

There have been marketing costs: Some corporate types around Columbus got mini-statues and hard-bound coffeetable books written in Russian. (The mini-Chris is used as punishment at one local company: Screw up and he'll be on your desk in the morning.) 

It isn't over. Tsereteli will pay the costs of shipping the statue's parts here. And, at least according to the latest plan announced by statue proponent Jane Butler, he and some Russian investor friends even may pay the estimated $14 million to $25 million needed to pụt the statue together here. 

Why? The profits. Tsereteli the sculptor is also Tsereteli the entrepreneur, and he stands to make money. If the statue goes up in the United States and draws tourists, Tsereteli and friends will get every dime those tourists spend on statue related mugs and T-shirts and souvenirs. It's in the contract. 

The statue would be owned and operated by a combination of a nonprofit corporation (Butler's group) and a for-profit corporation, headed by Tsereteli. There is no indication that those revenues would go to anybody but Tsereteli and his investment partnership, despite the state workers and state bronze that went into the statue.

***

As it's become increasingly clear that Tsereteli's Chris isn't going to get front money from anybody here, Tsereteli's share of the statue's future revenues has gotten bigger. By February, Butler's group and Tsereteli were talking about putting in an IMAX theater and throwing those revenues to Tsereteli, and charging admission for the statue's "educational center" and turning over those revenues as well.

"Now, please help me out here," says Butler, when explaining the evolving profit relationship. "It's a real typical type of scenario to have a nonprofit foundation affiliated with a for-profit part of the project. It's what they did with the St. Louis Arch." 

Not quite, according to Arch Superintendent Gary Easton. The St. Louis Peace Arch is run by a combination of the National Park Service and a nonprofit corporation, set up to collect gift shop revenues and funnel them into operation and maintenance of the arch. (The feds kick in about $3 million a year on top of that.) 

That Tsereteli stands to make some bucks off his international gift goes a long way toward explaining the relentless engine that keeps driving it here.

It also explains why it originally was headed somewhere else.

***

Pretend you're Zurab Tsereteli. 

You've got a giant statue that also is a potentially lucrative investment opportunity dependent on tourists. You look for a city with some tourists in it. Tsereteli's first choice, according to at least one news account, was New York City—which already had a giant statue and didn't need another one. Tsereteli's second choice was Miami. It had tourists, just like New York. And it had a very wealthy corporate raider named Bennet LeBow, who'd done some business in Russia, had met Tsereteli and was willing to invest $5 million to get the ball rolling. 

LeBow formed the first New World Monument Foundation in Miami and hired Goldberg away from the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circus operation to run it. (Goldberg now works for Walt Disney's video company.) 

The statue's promoters used the same lines in Miami that they later would use here—the Statue of Liberty and the St. Louis Peace Arch, the importance of being chosen to host an international gift from our new friends in Russia, the chance of big money. There, like here, they handled the project as if it were a done deal. 

They also got opposition, especially from the Miami Herald art critic. “So far," wrote the critic, “this is what they're thinking about: a really big statue, a tourist destination, a post-Communist Russian/American joint venture, moneymoneymoney." 

The critic also called the statue "as graceless as a herd of brontosaurs," and said it looked like an "exploded hydrant." 

The art critic didn't kill the statue's welcome in Miami. A whole lot of other things did. There was a little squawking about whether Columbus was politically correct, and a whole lot of grumbling about the first-choice site. The statue was to stand on state-owned land off the shore. The folks living on that shore, whose view would change dramatically, weren't happy. 

And there was that money problem. Even though LeBow had promised $5 million of his own, the Florida statue backers didn't raise the money they needed. 

As things got dicey in Miami, Fort Lauderdale took a stab at it, only to hit a tidal wave of taxpayer outrage when statue backers showed up at a fund-raising meeting talking about a public bond issue, according to news reports. 

It was in the middle of all this that a Columbus woman named Karen Hadley called Max Goldberg. 

Was there a chance, any chance, that somebody might choose Columbus, Ohio, instead?

Now you know, you just know, that Zurab Tsereteli had to cringe a little. No ocean for his colossus, no major tourist filled city, no Miami-sized stream of souvenir revenue. 

Instead, a site on an auto impound lot, facing a muddy and not very big river, in a city he'd probably never heard of before.  

It was better than nothing. Tsereteli bit.

***

Hadley's interest started with a January 1993 Columbus Dispatch story about the statue and its problems. Someone read it to Hadley, who is blind. The woman who decided Columbus needed Tsereteli's mega-Chris, the woman who started everything rolling, never actually has seen a picture of it. 

Hadley called the Dispatch. Then she called Goldberg and the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber hooked her up with a few people, including Ralph Frasco, former president of North American Aeroflot, and Jane Butler, the Graystone Winery owner who has become the project's chief spokeswoman. A committee was born.

As far as the larger public was concerned, it was a joke—at least at first. But the statue committee in general, and Jane Butler specifically, proved themselves more than capable of keeping the statue project in the public eye. 

In February, Goldberg came to Columbus. Statue backers here still were considering a handful of sites then, including a spot on the Hilltop, some acreage near Columbus State, the Pen site, the Scioto Peninsula and the Whittier Street impound lot. "Zurab," says Butler, "happened to prefer the downtown riverfront site.”

Tsereteli himself showed up the first week of April, after things had died out in Florida; LeBow was out and the original Miami foundation was folding. His arrival here—during an unseasonable snow shower—was a magical moment, says Butler. "I was feeling awful about it," she says. “I was thinking, 'You can't even see the skyline.' And then, through the interpreter, he said he saw it as a positive omen. He said the other two times he had located major projects in the United States, it snowed the first time he came. He liked the city, and really, really loved the site," Butler says. 

“What he saw," Goldberg says, “was the spirit of the community, a real can-do spirit in the city of Columbus. He saw a very civic group of people, which, in a way, was very different from what was going on in South Florida. He looked at Columbus, and at what Columbus had accomplished with the new convention center, the Santa Maria—and he was just very, very impressed, with the business community and the citizenry and with that can-do attitude." 

Uh-oh.

***

In retrospect, maybe the whole thing would have gone away if somebody—anybody—with the power to just say "No" had done so. 

Nobody did. The mayor didn't, not at first. Columbus City Council didn't say anything. Ty Stroh, head of the Greater Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau, actually liked the idea. 

"I realize the dollar situation is always a major concern,” says Stroh. “And it should be. But my feeling is that the city could use an attraction of some kind like that. I'm always reminded of the space needle in Seattle, the Peace Arch in St. Louis, the little river in San Antonio. I'm still searching for an image.”

"It's possible that families driving through with children and so forth would stop. I think they would do that. I'm not saying it would be a magnet to Columbus, necessarily, but it would enhance it somewhat." 

The statue had a knack for making the news. First, there was the letter battle with Fort Lauderdale Vice-Mayor Carey Keno, who wrote to tell Columbus to get real and that nobody would come to "a town in the middle of nowhere" to see the statue. Lashutka wrote back to tell Keno that “your position of trust and public responsibility for the city of Fort Lauderdale is certainly well disguised in your letter," and Keno responded by telling reporters that the one time he'd been to Ohio “I froze my ass off and got stuck in an elevator." 

(Later, as things collapsed in Fort Lauderdale, Keno still wouldn't back down. "We got the head,” Keno said. “I ain't letting the head go.") 

After the letter battle came protests—artists squawked and Native American groups blasted the idea at City Council. 

Then it was trips. In the spring, Mayor Greg Lashutka and Franklin County Commissioner Dorothy Teater, among others, flew to Moscow. They were there for other reasons, but Max Goldberg was there, too, and he linked everybody up with Tsereteli. 

"I think we're continuing to move forward through very positive discussions," Lashutka was quoted as saying after that meeting. Things were beginning to sound serious. 

The news stories kept coming, expertly stoked by Jane Butler and the statue machine. For the most part, they tracked Columbus' ever-increasing chances of actually landing this important international gift. 

"Whittier peninsula could land huge statue," read one Dispatch headline. “Artist says Columbus is No. 1," read another, right about the time things went belly up in Fort Lauderdale. 

Then, finally, the news. 

"Columbus is named as site for colossus,” proclaimed the Dispatch headline in October. “We are pleased to officially announce on this Columbus Day 1993 that we have chosen Columbus, Ohio, as the host city for this international gift," wrote Tsereteli in a letter.

We'd gone and gotten ourselves chosen.

***

But meanwhile, things were going a little sour inside the Columbus New World Foundation. And Mayor Lashutka was becoming increasingly negative about the statue project.

Lashutka did not come out flatly against the project until the end of the year. His doubts, though, had been brewing. One insider with the New World Foundation, who asked not to be identified, says Lashutka never liked the statue, that he had once even called it “ugly." 

"I would never say that," Lashutka says. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Lashutka's doubts, though, were evident in an October letter to the mayor of Moscow shortly after Columbus got chosen. The letter, though written in Lashutka-ese, seemed to say the mayor doubted anyone was interested in the statue except Tsereteli. The New World Monument, he wrote, “will have greater significance to both of us and our respective cities should it also include a broader agenda for both our countries." 

Lashutka says he never got a response to that letter; “My guess is that there's as little enthusiasm for it over there. as there is here," he says. Lashutka's main problem is the financial arrangement. If Tsereteli keeps the souvenir revenue, who pays for maintenance? “With the Statue of Liberty, that's what that money goes for," Lashutka says. “I can understand Tsereteli's personal reasons for wanting to keep his arms around this thing. It's a lot of money."

"You've heard of the Trojan Horse?" he asks.

Lashutka wasn't saying those kinds of things publicly last fall. That he was saying them in private, though, may have had something to do with what happened inside the statue committee back then. A board member, and three out of three consultants working with the board, began to doubt that Butler's all-is-well, things-are-moving-along PR approach was accomplishing much. They thought a little intercity competition for the statue might liven things up. That's their version, anyway. The other version is that they tried to steal the statue and send it to Cleveland. 

The problem surfaced during an October trip to Moscow by committee members, consultants, Franklin County Commissioner Arlene Shoemaker and Frank Fela of the Cleveland-based Voinovich Cos. (The trip was funded either by Tsereteli or by the national arts organization he heads, depending on who's talking.)

Three things happened when the group got back. The foundation board booted one of its members. The board cut off the three consultants. And Fela, in cooperation with one of those consultants, wrote a letter to Tsereteli in early November, suggesting that Cleveland was a better idea. 

The letter said the statue's Columbus backers "do not currently have the full support of the Mayor of Columbus or key Columbus business leaders," and that Voinovich Cos. had been contacted by the city of Cleveland, which had a "strong interest" in having the statue go there, 

Coincidentally or otherwise, Governor George. Voinovich, whose brother runs Voinovich Cos., sent a letter of his own around this time. The letter, which Voinovich press secretary Mike Dawson says was "purely ceremonial," accepted the statue on behalf of Ohio's citizenry, said there'd be no state money and never mentioned Columbus. Butler says the foundation didn't solicit the Voinovich letter and she doesn't know who did. (Neither does Dawson.) 

Butler made the most of it all. “That iced it," she told the Dispatch of the governor's official acceptance letter. The statue's parts now could be shipped as early as January, she told the Dispatch.

The statue-stealing plot didn't get far. After it went public in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Cleveland Mayor Mike White killed it decisively. 

"The city of Cleveland doesn't have any interest in erecting a 300-foot statue of Christopher Columbus,” White told the Plain Dealer. The story got national play, landing Tsereteli's statue on the front page of the New York Times.' 

"I'm flattered that someone thought it worth stealing," Butler says now. "It gave the project great credibility.” 

Two weeks later, Lashutka spoke up in public. The city, he said, had other priorities.

"I am courteous in my audiences with the people who are leading the charge," he said in an interview with the Dispatch."But I'm not at the front of the line. Occasionally, you have to look over your shoulder and see if any people are following you. I don't feel a lot of people following on this issue." 

In the minds of a whole lot of people, that killed the New World Monument project. The mayor had spoken. The debate was over. 

Those people were wrong.

***

That the statue-backers won't give up raises an interesting question. Can they really do this? 

No law yet exists that says private money can't put private art on private land simply because most of us don't like it.

Even arts types are reluctant to call it a public art issue, though they believe they should be involved in the process somehow. "I think the people who are behind it are not qualified to make those kinds of decisions,” says Ohio State's Black. "If you want to put up a big sculpture on the riverfront, have a competition, do it right." 

But is a private sculpture public art, simply because we'd all have to look at it? Black doubts it. So does the Greater Columbus Arts Council's Ray Hanley; “We all have to look at each other's porches, too,” he says. 

Tom Kipp, of the city development department, says he doesn't yet know what zoning laws would apply but is fairly certain something would. It's also possible the new Riverfront Development Corp. could have some say-so; the organization is supposed to decide what the riverfront will look like. 

"Columbus should have some control over the development of its Downtown riverfront," says Black. “This statue would kill that. It would be an overgrown atrocity. It wouldn't put us on the map. It would get us laughed off the globe."

*** 

Meanwhile, down at the statue committee, they're still optimistic. The mayor's disapproval? No problem. "The mayor's been pretty consistent on this,” says Butler. “This is not a public project, and it's inappropriate for him as a mayor to come out and take a lead on it because it's not a public project. He has, however, met with us a number of times, and he's met with the artist a number of times. He's communicated with the mayor of Moscow. The door is still open." 

"No one in this city has closed the door to the monument. They are quietly working with us. In the background. They've been very consistent, with saying this is yourproject." 

And so, the committee spent February eyeing the privately owned Lazarus warehouse as the statue site, Tsereteli and friends were going to put up the front money, and the parts were supposedly on their way—the head in March, the rest in late spring. CBS's Eye to Eyeprogram was going to come to town, newspapers from as far away as Texas had been calling, rumor had it that Bill Clinton would visit Tsereteli's studio and Zurab would be coming back here, and the ball was rolling, really rolling. 

"The media seems to want to think of this as frivolous," says Butler. "It's not. This is an international gift that's been recognized at the federal level, and Columbus, Ohio, has an opportunity to capture it." 

This story originally appeared in the April 1994 issue of Columbus Monthly.

***

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