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Landmark Lost: Presidents Park in Williamsburg
By Nancy E. Sheppard

PPWill imageDecaying in a field in Croaker rests the last vestige of the short-lived York County attraction, Presidents Park. The 43, 18-foot tall busts of all but two American presidents hauntingly sit shoulder to shoulder, covered in stains, cracks, and peeling plaster. No longer on display, the busts’ current owner, Howard Hankins, hopes that someday they will be returned to public view.

It all started in the late 1990’s, when Everette Newman dreamt of an open-air museum with the cause of educating and honoring presidential history. He partnered with Houston-based sculptor, David Adickes, to create busts of each president through George W. Bush to stand in Williamsburg. After five years and $10 million, the busts were complete. Before opening, Newman ran into a large obstacle: York County. The County insisted that Newman never filed for the correct permit for the 10-acre plot of land off of Route 199, stating that the attraction was an amusement, while Newman insisted that it was a museum. While the legalities raged, the park remained in limbo and all but six of the busts remained on flatbed trucks.

Once Newman successfully sued York County for appropriate permission, construction was halted by Hurricane Isabel and the storm’s aftermath. In early 2004, Presidents Park finally opened. Guests could peruse a 10,000 square foot visitors center which housed replicas of first lady gowns, an Oval Office set (which was once used for "Saturday Night Live”), and in 2008, the contents of the once Annapolis-based Presidential Pet Museum.

PPWill image2The museum had many things working against it. Many lauded it as a tacky tourist trap. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, ironically, condemned it for presenting "artificial history.” Its location wasn’t close enough to the colonial district to attract drive-by tourists and was difficult to find, situated behind a motel. Newman hoped to attract more visitors with the acquisition of the Presidential Pet Museum Collection and a replica of a Boeing 707 fuselage resembling Air Force One.

But the park always hurt for attendance and funds were limited. In 2007, Presidents Park was put up for sale at a price of $4.5 million but there were no serious offers. The museum kept bleeding from the high cost of maintenance of the busts. Without any offers, the museum was closed on September 30, 2010.

That is when Howard Hankins stepped in. The local contractor spent $50,000 and a week to move the busts to his family farm in Croaker, however it wasn’t without damage. The busts had to be lifted by a crane and holes were drilled into the heads of each statue. They arrived to the farm with broken noses, cracks throughout the statues, and each showing various levels of wear. For nearly a decade, the statues sit away from public view. Most eerie of the sights is a large hole in the back of the head of the Lincoln statue.

While Hankins hopes to one day return the busts to the public, insisting they could still be repaired, he has not had any success in restoring the attraction. He denies requests to see the statues, stating that he isn’t zoned for tourism.

Until someone wants to restore this unique piece of Roadside Americana, they will lay in wait, continuing to rot away in a Virginia field.

Mr. Hankins did not respond to multiple requests to participate in this story.

 





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