Web exclusive: All the Presidents' Heads
WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (ABC7) -- Down a crumbling driveway in rural Virginia stands a testament to history that one man hopes to one day show the world.
“I first off can’t believe I did it,” says a laughing Howard Hankins.
Howard Hankins turns trees into mulch on his 400-acre farm just outside Williamsburg. This recycler, builder and developer is also trying to restore a remarkable collection that honors the men who led our nation.
Hankins says, “It’s almost like Mount Rushmore but we have them all.”
Here tower 43 statues of American presidents.
“It’s unbelievable the detail and to be so big. The eyes are looking at you,” says Hankins.
Their steely gazes, some determined, others ghostly, are all the more impressive thanks to the stature of these haunting sculptures. Each effigy stands 20 feet tall. Every detail distinct: from Ike’s uniform to Truman’s glasses.
“A lot of Texans and a lot of Virginians. We got Mr. Roosevelt, back there is George Bush Sr., Johnson is over there. You got Kennedy behind Carter."
Despite Washington D.C.’s dysfunction, Hankins has yet to hear a cross word out here.
Hankins says, “Well they’re getting along real well out here. I haven’t heard an argument out of them.”
The men behind these plaster facades faced the defining moments of American history: war, economic upheaval, social injustice and the immeasurable responsibility of forging a republic.
Hankins admits, “The earlier ones are my favorites I would say. They came up with the ideas. And it’s ones today like a Reagan or Kennedy that were strong presidents and stood up for America and sort of backed what those guys wrote about and did.”
It’s those timeless ideals that inspired this 62-year-old to preserve these icons of power.
Hankins says, “I just couldn’t see destroying them.”
Teddy, Taft and rest of this elite gathering once lived at the nearby Presidents Park, which opened in 2004. Hankins helped build the facility which closed in 2010. He was tasked with disposing of the 20,000 pound structures which are made out of concrete and fabric and supported by a steel skeleton.
“They wanted me to crush them. And I thought about it,” says Hankins.
But he decided to save them for history’s sake.
Hankins says, “I figured out how to lift them and put them on a trailer. It took about 7-8 days to move them all. I popped a hole in the top of their head, dropped a chain in and caught the frame work, the steel frame work.”
The move was hard on most of the figures. Some suffered broken necks, others chipped chins. LBJ, known for his foul mouth, lost his nose. And the damage sustained by our much revered 16th president was uncomfortably close to the truth.
Hankins says, “He fell and cracked his head open in the back and that’s about the worst damage.”
There’s something about the patina of time that brings these occasionally visionary and often imperfect men back to life.
“And with the deterioration it makes them look more real than when they were in perfect repair,” says Hankins.
Maybe Hankins appreciates history so much because his backstory reads like a chapter from our country’s archives.
“The family came over in the early 1600s and the land right here is an original land grant from the King of England to the Hankins brothers,” says Hankins.
Hankins says this is the last piece of his family’s original property. And here is where he is repairing and retelling history. Hankins is restoring the statues. He started with Andrew Jackson.
Hankins says, “He needs a little touch up but he’s ready for his final coat of paint, fine sanding, he’s got all his hair, eyebrows, nose intact, no bees in it.”
Hankins says, “Some of the statues have bee’s nests up their nose.”
Hankins says in six months all the statues will be ready for their new home. He’s designing a new park to be built in the Richmond area. And he plans to make bronze copies of each statue for another park in New Jersey. His future plans are as grand as his presidential companions. In the new museum he wants to display a replica Oval Office along with the fuselage of a retired Air Force One plane.
Hankins notes that, “All 43 are out here.”
Hankins says the owner of the old park didn’t have the money to build President Obama’s likeness. But Hankins assures us a new sculptor will create a full-sized “44” along with November’s White House winner. But we’ll have to wait and see who joins this treasured cast as the 45th President of the United States.
*NOTE: The statues, which reside on a private farm, are not at this time a part of a public tourist attraction. Learn more about the sculptures at www.renewthepresidents.com