WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- When Thomas Jefferson came back to Virginia recently, he didn't get a hero's welcome. There were no red carpets, no praise-filled speeches. Many folks just wished he would go away -- far away. Like maybe to the middle of the Mojave Desert.
Jefferson's travel mates, former Presidents Martin Van Buren, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, didn't fare any better. That might seem odd, given the Williamsburg area's obsession with history.
But these heads of state are just that. Heads. Big concrete heads, some standing 18 feet tall. And for some who take their history -- and community image -- seriously, they are just too "tacky, tawdry and tasteless."
The statues are the work of Houston sculptor David Adickes, the artist who created the towering concrete statue of Sam Houston erected near Huntsville, Texas, and the disembodied cellist on the plaza of downtown Houston's Lyric Centre.
Before year's end, Adickes and his Virginia backers hope to install the six presidential heads -- along with 35 others stored in Adickes' Houston warehouse-studio -- in a forested educational park in York County, just outside Williamsburg.
Adickes, 73, believes the statues will perfectly complement Colonial Williamsburg -- the meticulously restored/re-created British capital of Colonial America -- and nearby Yorktown, site of the last major battle of the American Revolution.
The first six heads, which arrived March 17, were to have been temporarily displayed on their pedestals at a Days Inn owned by Adickes' partner, Williamsburg real estate developer Everette H. Newman III. The planned but later aborted display was designed as a "show and tell" to ease the project's way through the permitting process.
Instead, it launched a withering fusillade of criticism.
"We are surely not in danger of overgentrification as long as these Barnumlike entrepreneurs are able to push such things off on us," one resident said in an unsigned letter to a local newspaper. "My wife and I considered and rejected a suicide pact, but we are thinking seriously of moving on if this abomination is approved."
Ivor Noel Hume, who for 18 years was chief archaeologist for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, agreed. "The proposed Presidents Park has to be the tackiest project to exploit and pollute America's heritage since composer-lyricist Kermit Goel turned Pocahontas into a musical, and that was nigh on 40 years ago," he said.
W.C. O'Donovan, editor and publisher of the feisty twice-weekly Virginia Gazette -- which boasts of its 1736 founding as the first paper in the South -- insisted that the statue park would be better situated in the wide-open spaces of the Mojave.
"I think Williamsburg would have been much better served if Adickes had taken up painting miniatures," he said.
More than 90 percent of Gazette readers responding to the paper's "Heads or Tails" poll opposed the project. Overall, critics felt the heads insufficiently "authentic" to join the peninsula's historic milieu, defined by Colonial Williamsburg.
Adickes, who has invested four years and $1 million in the project, seemed nonplussed by the uproar.
"I think everyone is missing the point," Adickes said recently . "This is not a slapdash thing thrown together. It is as authentic as any contemporary sculpture can be. It is a very high-level thing for people to go to. It's one more thing that can be listed among attractions of the Williamsburg area."
Adickes said his presidential head project was inspired by Mount Rushmore in Keystone, S.D. -- and by the fact that the presidential visages there were hard to appreciate without binoculars.
Traveling with the first six heads to Virginia, Adickes noted that passing motorists frequently snapped photos of the presidential caravan, even at night. At fueling stops, Adickes frequently was beseeched for his autograph.
The project's target audiences, he suggested, are schoolchildren and a mythical couple he named "R.V. Harvey and his wife, Lou."
"That's R.V. like 'Recreational Vehicle,' " Adickes said. "Retired people. R.V. Harvey and his wife, Lou. They eat at Shoney's and stay there, too."
He likened the project's critics to painter Grant Wood's portrayal of Daughters of the American Revolution. "They're there with their teacups and snarled-up faces," Adickes said. "Williamsburg is full of those."
'Williamsburg is slipping'
"On the other hand, there are people who are trying to balance the books. Williamsburg is slipping. The cultural tide is turning against the purity of beautiful little places. [Nearby] Busch Gardens and other places are running away with their clients," he said.
One of the prime nonhistorical attractions in the Williamsburg area is Water Country USA, a water park developed by Adickes' partner, Newman. It now is owned by Busch Gardens, which attracts about 2.5 million visitors each year.
"They're having to do something within taste to improve their overall economic picture. Those who understand that are in favor of doing things to bring tourists," Adickes continued.
"I love Williamsburg. I'm thrilled every time I go there. They have re-created that century very well."
Tim Andrews, spokesman for Colonial Williamsburg, which includes 88 original buildings and hundreds of re-created and restored homes and shops on its 173-acre compound, said park attendance has been growing. As many as 3 million people visited the village in the most recent year for which figures are available. Not all of them, however, purchased tickets to tour houses and other historic structures.
Newman said the heads will be installed on 12 landscaped acres adjacent to his Days Inn East, just outside Williamsburg. The park will be screened from view of passing motorists by a buffer of natural forest, he said.
"We're not a tourist attraction in the sense of having a lot of bells and whistles," Newman said. "These presidents don't dance, and they don't sing."
Williams has developed about $25 million of projects in the Williamsburg area, and even critics like O'Donovan credit him as "a good guy" for the tasteful development of Water Country USA.
Newman said the proposed park's primary mission is educational, and each statue will be flanked by signs explaining the president's historical significance.
Ann Chestnut, sales manager for Newman's FCR Group, said she is working with educational agencies in each state to ensure that schoolchildren visiting the site will be eligible for class credit. She said that as many as 250,000 students might visit the park annually.
Newman said much of the opposition to the presidential park grows out of anger over other developments -- realized or only attempted -- in the Williamsburg area. One of the most controversial projects is a miniature golf course under construction.
Last year, a proposal for a Ripley's Believe It Or Not "odditorium" was rejected, in part because of a Colonial Williamsburg director who held a seat on the planning commission.
The first skirmish in the battle of the heads came when York County officials disallowed temporary display of the heads mounted on their pedestals at the hotel.
All sides agreed that the county originally gave an informal green light to such an exhibit. But while the heads were en route, county officials revisited the issue and determined such display would be prohibited by county ordinance, said Assistant County Administrator J. Mark Carter. He said Newman will have to find another temporary location for the heads, which remain chained on flat-bed trailers in the hotel parking lot.
"Unfortunately, there was some misunderstanding," Carter said. "All I can say is we regret that."