On the shore of Lake Kittamaqundi, in the heart of Columbia, is a 30-foot high sculpture being regilded with 23-karat gold. But who knowswhat it is?
"It's beautiful. The gold shines so nice," said one woman taking a lunch break along the lakefront. "But what's it supposed to be?"
It's supposed to be a golden monument to Columbia, a "Tree of Life" showing 66 stick figures of children stretching out like branches to symbolize a community reaching for harmony, growth and well-being.
Longtime Columbia residents know it as the symbol of their community, its shadowed logo etched on stationary, T-shirts, old bumper stickers and the entrance to the town mall. Yet, its symbolism has withered and suffered through the years.
Erected 25 years ago to commemorate the birth of Columbia, the Fiberglas tree has physically decayed, with pollution and acid rain eating away the gold sheathing covering the branches.
The Columbia Association is spending $11,000 in the hope that gilding specialist Bryan Parker will be able to restorenot only the sculpture's former luster, but its popularity and influence on the community.
It seems that over the past two decades, a lot of people have forgotten that Columbia has a symbol.
"A lot ofpeople have stopped by and asked me what I'm doing and what the sculpture is," said Parker, who lives in Bowie. "They say they don't knowwhat the tree is, which is surprising to me, since it's supposed to be the symbol of their community."
Fred Pryor, the director of theColumbia Association's open space management, said his workers have gotten the same reaction. "People who have lived here 20 years come up and ask, 'Hey, when did you put this tree up? What's it supposed tobe?' "
The association is also investing $1 million on improvements -- new lights, a dock, brick walkways -- to the nearby thriving lakefront area, regarded as Columbia's trademark community center. But the tree's revitalization stands as the cornerstone symbol of renewing community spirit.
"We're re-dedicating to the ideal of Columbia,as well as to the sculpture," said Helen Ruther, who works in the Town Center village office and has lived in Columbia since its creationin 1967.
The Tree of Life was sculpted in that year by French artist Pierre duFayet, who sold the work to Columbia's founding fathers for $50,000. It is described in art literature as "the graphic symbolof Columbia, Md.," and as "a modern representation of people celebrating life."
"I don't think the new residents know it's supposed tobe symbolic of their community. It's just not explained to them anymore, and most of them never know that the tree is even there," Ruthersaid.
He said in the early days, seeing the logo of the "People Tree," as it is commonly called, on someone's car or clothing was an automatic signal that "this person was from Columbia, and right away you felt a sort of kinship."
Although the lakefront area is still alively social center, the tree itself has fallen into obscurity and insignificance. Ruther and others hope they can make people start to notice and appreciate the tree's intended symbolism.
Two natural trees that Columbia Association members felt were blocking the view ofthe sculpture have been removed. "The plan is to open up the vistas again," Ruther said.
Parker, who has been working on re-varnishingthe sculpture with a fine gold inlay since April 8, said he hopes tofinish the project early this week. He and his wife, Karen, are working on a scaffold that seems to have attracted more attention than the tree has gotten in years.
Pam Mack, a spokeswoman for the Columbia Association, said visibility of the tree -- it is located right behind Clyde's of Columbia restaurant -- has been one of its drawbacks.
Trees surround it and buildings block it from nearby Little Patuxent Parkway.
"While it was losing its prominence, there was talk of moving it" closer to the shore, Mack said. "But the feeling was that it would just be lost in the lake if that were done."
Parker, whose Savage-based gilding business works only with gold, said his biggest surprise in working with the structure came when he began workingup close on the figures.
The male figures are readily distinguishable from the female figures, with obvious anatomical differences.
"It's certainly not a dull piece of sculpture," he said.