Giant statue of Columbus splits opinions in Ohio city

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

December 26, 1993|By New York Times News Service

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The winter wind is blowing hard and mean, the Ku Klux Klan wants a permit to demonstrate downtown, and the city's beloved Ohio State Buckeyes are headed for one of those second-tier bowl games that no one really cares about.

So, maybe it is a good thing that the people of Columbus have something else to fuss over these days: Should a 500-ton statue of Christopher Columbus that is 6 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty be put near the Scioto River, not far from the life-size replica of the Santa Maria and the other monuments dedicated to the man and the myth?

The 311-foot statue, nicknamed Chris Kong, was built by a prominent sculptor in Moscow, Zurab K. Tsereteli, as a token of friendship between Russia and the United States.

But, he says, he has not yet managed to give it away to the people of America. Several cities and citizen's groups in Florida turned him down even after a Dade County executive spent $500,000 trying to persuade his neighbors that the monument would be good for pride and profit.

Now, a group of Columbus citizens wants to bring the bronze statue to this heartland city, the largest in the country named after Christopher Columbus.

Mayor Greg Lashutka says his city has other pressing needs and will not spend a penny on the project. Mr. Tsereteli says he doesn't want any payment for his work -- only the merchandising and licensing rights.

But shipping and assembling the statue in Columbus would cost close to $25 million. Gov. George V. Voinovich likes the statue but also says no state money is available.

That leaves the citizens' group, including a winery owner, Christopher Columbus buffs, an investment banker and a blind, civic-minded masseuse, Karen Hadley, to try to raise the money for the statue.

Ms. Hadley heard about the statue last winter and told everyone she knew what a great tourist attraction it would be with, maybe, a restaurant and gift shop to go along.

"Karen has more vision than most people with 20/20 eye sight," said Jane Butler the president of the group, the New World Monument Foundation. "She was able to see into the future."

For the group, the statue is a chance to put the city and its skyline on the map. The statue would be only three stories shorter than the city's tallest building, the 34-story state office tower, and, group members insist, it would rival Seattle's Space Needle, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the Eiffel Tower and, of course, the Statue of Liberty.

"A statue like this comes along once every 100 years," said Ralph Frasca, a member of the group. "Now, we're going to be known for football and the statue. If we ever win the Rose Bowl, we'll put a big Buckeye T-shirt on it."

But for others in Columbus, the idea of Chris Kong looming over the city is a disgrace, a blow to American Indians and a sure bet to put Columbus near the top of Jay Leno's monologue for the next 365 nights.

Mark Welsh of the Native American Indian Center in Columbus said he was circulating a petition to stop the statue. In October, during the city's Christopher Columbus Day celebrations, American Indians, along with others, fasted and protested for more than a week.

"To the Native American people, Christopher Columbus represents 500 years of genocide," Mr. Welsh said. "Plus, the statue is ugly, and the whole country will be laughing at us if we put that thing up. It's a very insensitive idea."

Max Goldberg, the former president of the group that tried to bring the the monument to south Florida and who is now advising the group in central Ohio, said Mr. Tsereteli had no idea when building the statue what a disputed figure Christopher Columbus had become in the United States.

To Mr. Tsereteli, Christopher Columbus was still the heroic adventurer of old grade-school history books that barely mention the slaughter and the sorrow of American Indians, Mr. Goldberg said.

All the artist wanted to do was symbolize and support the newly discovered friendship between his country and the United States. And maybe make a few bucks.

"The name of the statue in Russian is New World," Mr. Goldberg said. "He had no idea that Christopher Columbus was politically incorrect by today's standards."

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