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A Presidential Gift
Turns Out to Be
A Monumental Bust
Not Even the White House
Wants a 27-Ton Sculpture
Sitting in the Backyard
By Michael Selz
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 1996, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
WASHINGTON -- Like many public-spirited citizens, Howard Tullman would like to make his own little contribution toward beautifying the nation's capital.
But Mr. Tullman's offering is a bit more ambitious than most. The Chicago investor and Democratic fund-raiser has been trying for three years to give the government a monument that stands 17 feet tall and weighs 27 tons.
The polished granite and bronze Presidential Bicentennial Monument features a soaring bald eagle atop a flapping flag over a crystal image of George Washington inlaid in gold. There is also an empty panel for an image of the incumbent president, together with reproductions of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights chiseled in granite and bronze copies of the signatures of all 41 past U.S. presidents.
"It would be a glorious tribute to the institution of the presidency," says Mr. Tullman. What's more, he says he knows just the place for it -- the White House lawn.
Washington, of course, already has plenty of public monuments, some 150 at last count. Government officials, from President Clinton on down, seem to regard Mr. Tullman's donation with all the enthusiasm of newlyweds contemplating a deer-foot lamp among the wedding presents. "We can't accept the monument without an act of Congress," a White House spokeswoman says. The National Park Service, which manages monuments on public property, sent Mr. Tullman a note earlier this year proposing he park his gift somewhere else -- like the airport. Mr. Clinton himself has discussed the monument with Mr. Tullman. His suggestion: Try the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue in Lafayette Park.
Mr. Tullman seems undeterred. He has offered to pick up the tab to move the presidential monument from its current resting place -- the headquarters of the District of Columbia police narcotics squad -- to the White House lawn. "It's an enormous loss that this thing should fall into disrepair or be forgotten," he says.
Mr. Tullman's motives aren't entirely patriotic. If the monument were installed at the White House, he thinks he could sell enough reproductions to recover the $135,000 he spent buying the work at a federal marshal's sale in 1993. He has formed a company, Monumental Art & Events Inc., to sell replicas of the monument should it make it to the White House grounds or some other high-profile federal resting place. Profits would be "off the charts," he says. Hardly anybody, of course, would want a reproduction of a monument sitting in the D.C. narcotics division.
Mr. Tullman's current frustration is only the latest chapter in the presidential monument's roller-coaster history. Artist Brett-Livingstone Strong began creating the work in 1988 in his studio in Culver City, Calif. Mr. Strong, an Australian by birth, already had a couple of big artistic hits under his belt. He carved a bust of John Wayne from a 116-ton rock that he says he sold for more than $1 million. A Japanese businessman paid $2.1 million for a portrait he painted of a friend of Mr. Strong's, singer Michael Jackson.
Mr. Strong also drew praise from former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and President Reagan in 1987 for a seven-ton monument he carved to commemorate the bicentennial of the Constitution.
Mr. Strong had similar high hopes for his presidential monument. A bicentennial commission headed by the late Justice Burger officially "recognized" the piece in 1989, and President Bush offered to dedicate it on April 30, 1989, the 200th anniversary of George Washington's first inauguration. But the presidential monument turned out to be nearly four times as heavy and twice as tall as Mr. Strong's Constitution monument, and the big day passed before he could finish the work.
Mr. Strong figures the cost of buying the stone, bronze and other materials for the monument, then sculpting it and transporting it to Washington from California on a pair of flatbed trucks ran to $650,000. "Sometimes it's hard to estimate what something costs when you want to make it better and better," he says.
To recoup that outlay, the artist eventually sold most of his rights to the piece to a group of investors calling itself American Spirit Corp. The group also hoped to place the monument on the White House lawn and make money selling copies to collectors. In a prospectus, American Spirit valued the presidential monument at $4.5 million, based, it said, on an appraisal.
Mr. Strong says Mr. Jackson pulled some strings to find temporary storage space for the work at the narcotics squad's headquarters in Washington. (For the monument's projected White House unveiling, Mr. Strong says the pop star envisioned singing the national anthem, backed by a children's choir.) But American Spirit ran out of cash, and in 1993 the monument was put up for auction to settle legal claims.
That's where Mr. Tullman found it. "I was attracted by the business proposition of it," the 50-year-old entrepreneur says, noting that a replica of the monument "would be quite an object to have sitting in a conference room."
Since then, Mr. Tullman's efforts to give the monument to the government have produced nothing but a thick file of correspondence with the Clinton administration. Park Service officials say that Mr. Tullman would have to slog through a 24-step bureaucratic process that requires sign-offs from the National Capital Planning Commission, the D.C. State Historical Preservation Officer, the Advisory Council on Historical Preservation, the secretary of interior and others. The whole procedure, they estimate, could take seven years.
Meanwhile, officials at the D.C. narcotics division are getting tired of babysitting Mr. Tullman's gift. The monument is blocking a service bay where prisoners are unloaded, says police Sgt. Ralph Wax.
"It's a beautiful piece of work," Sgt. Wax says. "But we'd like to get it out of here."