There may be countless artistic tributes to Christopher Columbus around the world -- in fresco, statues and stained glass -- but none is more exquisite than the bronze depiction of the Italian explorer on tiny Eilers Avenue in Dundalk.
At least that's the view of Joe Witomski and his friends in the Knights of Columbus. The imposing statue is said to have been left, in pieces, for years in a shipping container repair yard near eastern Baltimore County's waterfront, and at one point a metal recycling company considered melting down the pieces for scrap.
Now it has been reassembled and cleaned up, and it has finally found a home near the front door of the Knights of Columbus Dundalk Council hall in the heart of Dundalk. Tomorrow, members of the fraternal group will gather for a formal dedication ceremony.
Bob Bichell, a former grand knight for the council, said he is pleased that the statue is in a place to be seen by many people because the organization frequently donates the use of its hall.
"We're very honored because this statue dedication reflects on our organization and community," said Bichell, an administrator at Coppin State University.
The 12-foot-tall statue appears to be a replica of a much larger work given by its Russian artist, Zurab Tsereteli, to Puerto Rico after several U.S. cities turned it down.
Much of the smaller statue's path to the Knights of Columbus hall remains a mystery.
Bob Bennett, manager of Owl Metals, a recycling company in Dundalk, said he and his men were inspecting old shipping containers for potential purchase last year when they spotted the statue.
The statue apparently had languished at the CDI container repair yard in Dundalk for years, said Ray Kuemmer, manager of the facility.
"The firm that owned the container had done some international work, including Russia," Kuemmer said. "As far as I know, it just sat and sat until November, when the local company bought it."
Bennett said he purchased the statue pieces for $1,200 and had every intention of melting them down for resale as he and his men hauled the pieces back to the company site on Rettman Lane.
But, curious, they rebuilt it. Bennett said he then attempted to donate it to several area museums but found no takers.
A few area residents volunteered to place the statue in their back yards, Bennett said, but he thought the statue deserved more exposure.
"We could have left it up in our shop, but who would have seen it?" Bennett said. "It was too beautiful not to have it displayed properly, by someone who could care for it."
When the Knights of Columbus asked for the statue, Bennett agreed. The chapter was formed the year after World War II ended and has 270 members. Its hall is near the area's community college, a firehouse and a strip of small stores.
At least a dozen local businesses and volunteers donated heavy equipment and time to move the 1-ton statue from Owl Metals to the Knights of Columbus hall, about a mile from the company.
Owners and operators of cranes, trucks and lumber companies helped in the relocation effort. Middle River Aircraft Systems donated an 8-ton slab of granite for the base, a piece upon which precision aircraft parts were once tooled, according to the Knights of Columbus.
Once the statue was up, members of the local garden club landscaped the site and merchants donated three spotlights and a decorative fence.
The dedication ceremony is scheduled for 2 p.m.
"This is one of those stories that shows what people in this area are like. They pitch in and get the job done," said Witomski, current grand knight of the Dundalk Council, where members engage in such charity endeavors as helping the mentally disabled and feeding the homeless who gather outside their hall.
Witomski, a 73-year-old retiree from the now-closed Western Electric plant in Dundalk, believes the statue represents a touch of art and class for a community recovering from decades of social and economic downturns.
Like their neighbors to the northeast in Essex and Middle River, Dundalk residents are beginning a community revitalization. A streetscape project will change the face of Dundalk Avenue, and several private developers are working on housing developments along Bear Creek.
The statue's base bears the name of Tsereteli and the year 1991.
Tsereteli fashioned the "Good Defeats Evil" sculpture in front of the United Nations building in New York from fragments of dismantled missiles. He also created "Tears of Grief," a monument that is to stand in Jersey City, N.J., across the river from where terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
The Columbus statue in Dundalk is a smaller version of the huge sculpture that was given, in pieces, to Puerto Rico several years ago. Protesters there blocked construction of the statue, which officials said would have cost more than $20 million to build and place, according to news accounts. Some said building it would be a waste of money, and some complained about its height, about 300 feet, according to the accounts.
Bennett, a former Army medic who sharpened his interest in art while stationed in Europe, said the discovery of the smaller statue in Dundalk heightened his appreciation for art and community involvement.
"At first, when we bought the statue pieces, we figured we could have made $2,000 by recycling the metal," Bennett said. "In this case, I'm very happy that didn't happen, that it found a good home."