The “Abandoned” President's Park Heads in Williamsburg Virginia
David Adickes had an incredible idea - creating busts of all the U.S. Presidents. Big deal, right? As it turns out, yeah, it’s a big deal - literally. Each of these busts stands over 20 feet tall. But why are these enormous monuments now closed off to the public, left crumbling in a field?
“I was overwhelmed by the majesty of it,” he told [Washington Post]. “Driving to Texas, the idea occurred to me to do a park with all the presidents, big enough to get in front of and look in the eyes, rather than from a quarter-mile away.”
But why quite so big?
“I just like big,” David said. “I’m a Texan. Big is impressive. The Statue of Liberty, for example, as a piece of sculpture, is not that great, but standing in the harbor 151 feet tall, it’s great.”
And I have to say - these heads… they are great. In every sense of the word, these truly are great. They’re huge, sure, but they’re also stellar works of art. Standing in front of Buchanan, you could swear he’s looking right at you, staring into your soul. They may be crumbling now, but in their heyday they were pristine, massive, and a true sight to behold.
I remember at the ripe old age of 8, in 2000, my mother took me to see these guys. At that point, the President’s Park was planned but had yet to be opened, and these busts rested on tractor trailer beds behind a Days Inn in Williamsburg. I remember being in awe of their size, and my mother explained that they would soon go into a park for educating youngsters like me about the presidents of our country.
I had been to D.C. and seen monuments there, and I felt privileged that something so grand would be in our little town. Sure enough, in 2004, President’s Park opened - a 10-acre open-air museum where patrons could walk amongst the heads and learn about how they contributed to our nation’s history.
I visited twice during its short life, and was saddened to hear of the park’s closing in 2010. The economy, combined with a bad location (on the outskirts of town and behind a hotel, hidden from view of any passersby on the road), spelled an early doom for this piece of history.
In 2012, the land the park stood on was auctioned off, and the busts were not included in the sale. H.B. Hankins, who helped build the park, was contacted to destroy the statues. He said he didn’t feel right about doing that, and instead took on the project of removing them, in tact, and taking possession of them.
The extraction was costly, and not just financially: to move them, a hole had to be smashed through each skull, for a crane to be able to attach to the metal structure inside each head. The first busts moved got the worst of the damage; most notably Lincoln, with the entire back of his head missing and exposing the metal bars inside, prompting many to draw a parallel to his death. As they moved more busts, they got better at minimizing the damage, and eventually they all made it to Mr. Hankins farm in (mostly) one piece.
And there they’ve sat for the past 7 years. I first heard of their new location close to 5 years ago, when a Facebook friend snuck in (and got caught) to take photos for a college project. I immediately sent him a message and asked how to contact whomever was needed to contact to get in front of these. I was met with a dead end, unfortunately, as they told me the owner does not take requests for photoshoots at the park and will not allow the public to visit, due to permit issues. This began my slight obsession with finding a way to (legally) see and photograph these heads. I reached out to people I knew in the area, asking if anyone had a connection or strings I could ask them to pull to make this a reality for me. I met dead end after dead end, and it eventually trickled down into a google search every few months to see if there was any news on them. My sister, who lives in Tennessee, happened to stumble on some of this news I had missed - the heads would be available to visit for a small group of photographers! Success! I immediately contacted the man in charge, Author & Photographer John Plashal, and asked how many first-born children I would need to give up to be included in this small group. To my surprise, no human sacrifice was necessary, and a little over a week later we were at the heads for a 5 hour session.
Michael took the opportunity to really get some creative photos of the Heads with his infrared camera, which, due to the way light reflected off the concrete and plaster, gave the peeling faces a touch of startling realism and a dystopian feel. I hope you enjoy the art we were able to make from this dream come true!
A huge thanks to John Plashal for organizing this opportunity, and to Mr. Hankins for allowing us to come traipse about on his land.
Mr. Hankins has spoken publicly about his dreams for a new life for them: a new park with the heads (adding on a bust of both Obama and Trump), a replica of the Oval Office, The White House itself, Air Force One, and exhibits with the stories of former secret service members, & First Ladies, among others.
Filmmaker Adam Roffman has a great short film about the busts, Hankins, and his plans that you can watch here.