Columbus' never-ending voyage

Art: A Russian sculptor's controversial 31-story statue of the explorer finally may have sailed home.

February 16, 2000|By Brendan A. Maher | Brendan A. Maher,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Where does a 500-ton, 31-story, multimillion-dollar sculpture of Christopher Columbus stand? Apparently, not just anywhere it wants. But after almost a decade adrift, "Birth of the New World" by Russian artist laureate Zurab Tsereteli may finally have found safe harbor.

The controversial Tsereteli, whose stark monuments can be found across Russia (as well as outside the United Nations building in New York), wanted to make a gift of the monumental bronze-and-steel work to the United States in time to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus' famed voyage of 1492. He hoped the grand gesture might tighten the bonds of trust between the United States and Russia. But for reasons financial, political and artistic, prospective host cities from Ohio to Florida have turned Columbus away.

Among them was Baltimore, where in 1997, a group of businessmen headed by one Joseph DiCara unsuccessfully proposed erecting the enormous sculpture in the middle of the Inner Harbor.

Most recently, the concept has docked in Puerto Rico, where some believe the monument -- most of which is stored there as a disassembled puzzle of more than 2,000 pieces -- could provide a desperately needed economic boost. For the record, here's the log of the modern-day voyage of the Columbus colossus:


New York City: Tsereteli was not new to New York. In 1990, he added to the U.N. building a 39-foot depiction of St. George slaying a dragon fashioned from old missile parts. The next year, plans to erect his Columbus on Roosevelt Island were met by some size issues. It would have dwarfed the Statue of Liberty, while being overshadowed itself by the nearby city skyline. Donald Trump's proposal to place the monument near a project on the Hudson brought snickers from Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's office. Also, Giuliani's office was wary of the "Tseretelization" of New York. The proposals were cast aside.


Miami: Columbus made his way South as financier and investor Bennett LeBow offered the monument to the city, vying for a spot near the entrance of the Port of Miami. Purists spoke up about the depiction of Columbus clutching the ship's wheel of the Santa Maria, as wheels didn't replace tillers until more than 250 years after Columbus' voyage. Creative license notwithstanding, the plan flopped due to the hefty price tag.

Fort Lauderdale: As the idea petered out in Miami, Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Gary Keno began expressing interest in Columbus. The sculpture's head arrived in 1992, and Keno was certain that the sight of it would inspire those dragging their heels on the proposal to come aboard. It didn't, and the 11-ton noggin remained in a warehouse for six years. Keno toyed with the idea of displaying just the head in a Fort Lauderdale park, but found little support.


Columbus, Ohio: After bouncing around Florida, Tsereteli's proposal was floated in the largest city in the world to be named after the explorer. The fever caught on and a letter of intent was produced by Gov. George V. Voinovich. Once again though, the price tag raised major issues. In addition, Native American activist groups, who also had been vocal in South Florida, suggested they would take action to halt the veneration of a man whom they view as a rapist and murderer. Others found its monstrous proportions to be an affront to artistic taste. As one Columbus Chamber of Commerce official put it: "Nobody wants to be responsible for scaring children for 20 miles in either direction."


St. Petersburg, Fla.: Voyaging back to the Florida coast, Tsereteli cast his eyes on the skyline of this city. Perhaps the city's name caught his attention. But while his similarly proportioned statue of Russia's Peter the Great in Moscow drew bombing attempts and eventually a referendum to remove it, Columbus (which had since earned such endearing names as "Chris Kong" and "Robo-Columbus") ignited no real interest in St. Petersburg. The city's apathy, though, did not let the wind out of Tsereteli's determined sails.


Baltimore: Enter Joseph DiCara. His construction management firm would have been responsible for getting the statue into one piece. While Mayor Kurt Schmoke was reportedly "intrigued" by the idea, Ivan Kazansky, director of Moscow's Union of Sculptors, advised Charm City: "You have a pretty bay in Baltimore. I really don't want Mr. Tsereteli to ruin it." One member of the mayor's advisory committee summed things up this way: "It's a little large, isn't it?" Columbus was forced to weigh anchor and sail on.


Catano, Puerto Rico: Perhaps the last stop of Columbus' voyage will be the shores of the only soil under the American flag that the explorer actually set foot on. Mayor Edwin Rivera Sierra dreams grandly that "Birth of a New World" will be the Eiffel Tower of Puerto Rico and the centerpiece of a grand waterfront development. Critics counter that the cost to erect the sculpture, estimated at close to $30 million now, would be better spent on Catano's dilapidated infrastructure. While the projected October 2000 deadline for construction is looking about as likely as falling off the edge of the world, the mammoth monument may have finally found a home.

Sun staff writer Kathy Lally contributed to this article.

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