RSA Tower – Art For The Park

Tower ParkDirectly across Monroe Street from the Tower is a half-block of open grass area bordered by a huge oval sidewalk, and flanked at the center of the far side by a large waterfall.  The waterfall has the letters “RSA” emblazoned behind the plunging water.  It makes a very impressive forecourt for the Tower.

Yet in 1996 David Bronner did not consider the park’s open space as appropriate–he saw it as just an empty space.  it was an omission that he was determined to remedy with two giant sculptures, sculptures so large that they would rise above the 9-foot waterfall plateau and be visible from Dexter Avenue.  I counseled against his plan, suggesting that artwork so big would overpower the waterfall and diminish the open effect that had been created by the park’s designer, landscape architect Nimrod Long of Birmingham.

Despite my admonition, Bronner plunged ahead and appointed a special Park Sculpture Committee to conduct a competition.  The Committee consisted of two members of the Goodwyn-Mills-Cawood firm: Jean Belt of Corporate Art Source; Mark Johnson, Director of the Montgomery Museum of Art; Georgine Clark, Assistant Director of the Alabama Arts Council, and yours truly.  Through Jean Belt we solicited entries from sculptors throughout the nation.  About 35 proposals were submitted, many with diminutive replicas of a concept, others with elaborate sketches.  The entries were from New York, California, Texas, all over.  Every single one was awful.

Notwithstanding my dismay and objections, the selection committee plunged ahead.  The Museum and Art Council executives were ecstatic over the entries, and with this opportunity to hob-nob with such renowned artisans.  The sane voices of our group beat back the more bizarre proposals, but there was not a conservative entry in the entire batch.  The Committee finally selected a first, second and third choice and invited Dr. Bronner to come see all the impressive responses to his invitation and to bless our selections.  After a quick review of the entire field of submittals, he said he’d be damned if he would put any of the awful things in his park.  The Sculpture Committee was disbanded.  Jean Belt went into a funk.  I secretly applauded the return of David Bronner’s sanity.


A Lesser Vision

Tower Architect and Contractor SculptureAfter mourning for six months over the failed competition, Jean Belt approached Bronner and proposed that he commission a pair of ultra-conservative sculptures for the waterfall park as illustrated by diminutive replicas of work created by Mobile sculptor Casey Downing.  Casey was the husband of the Susan Downing who had done the river scene for the Burnt Can Lobby.

Bronner summoned me to his office to view the two 18-inch-high statuettes prepared by Downing.  One depicted two men striding arm-in-arm, one obviously a contractor, the other an architect with T-square in hand.  The two figures were to represent industry and commerce.  The second set of figures was of a black school teacher with two children clinging to her skirt.  The two sets of figures were to trumpet Bronner’s favorite theme, “The interdependence of commerce and education.”  He wanted my blessing on the new proposal and perhaps my assistance with the political aspects of the undertaking. I said okay, provided the height of the statues did not exceed eight feet, and provided the architect was taken out of the depiction.  “No contractor and architect ever locked arms like that,” I said.  “Let the two men just be labor and management.”

Other than to arrange for a surreptitious pass-through payment to the artist, my only part of the operation was to prepare the foundations which would support the heavy bronze castings and their granite base.  The park had already been grassed and opened to the public.  It would not look good to go digging it up again so soon, so the work was to be done so as to draw the least amount of attention.  PH&J was given the assignment because we had a $75 Million project ongoing directly across the street and no one would look askance at anything we did, like digging two holes in the park.  The foundation mission was accomplished without mishap and no one took note of the activity.


Off With Her Head

Tower School Teacher SculptureMonths later, in March of 1997, Bronner was scheduled to travel to Mobile to give a final approval of the two sculptures in clay form, just before the negative rubber moldings were made and the bronze was cast.  At the last moment he encountered some sort of conflict and requested that I go in his place.  I felt unqualified for that task but reluctantly agreed.  Jean Belt and I journeyed to Mobile a few days later and proceeded to the Downing studio.

I was pleasantly surprised at Downing’s work.  Inside his shop, the figures presented powerful images, and I thought they would be compatible with David Bronner’s conservative taste.  The architect was no longer depicted and the two men were a reasonable representation of labor and management.  However, the school teacher now wore a “slave dress,” was barefoot and, horror of horrors, was a virtual dead ringer for Rose Sanders.  That, I thought, would be a public relations disaster of the highest magnitude.  Rose Sanders was an arrogant black civil rights attorney-activist from Selma, an absolute repugnance to the white community.

Downing protested that he had never heard of Rose Sanders and her political pillaging, and staunchly defended the changes he had made in the teacher’s dress and demeanor.  Jean Belt, influenced by her allegiance to the art community, tried to brush aside my concerns, which were admittedly prudent and not artistic.  She proudly took photos of the virtually completed sculptures.

When we returned to Montgomery, I made my report to Dr. Bronner, pointing out that the lady teacher now looked like the notorious Rose.  Bronner thought I was kidding or, at the worst, just exaggerating.  A day later the photos were developed and I presented a set of these to Dr. Bronner.  When he saw the pictures, Bronner exploded in horror.  Jean Belt was called in and work was ordered to a halt.

Subsequently, an extremely reluctant Casey Downing was required to cut off the teacher’s head and to completely redress the figure from shoes to jewelry.  A new head was molded, a black woman still, but a nondescript one this time.  The episode set back production a good three months.

Tower Statues Clipping

Just one more of the scores of Advertiser articles that covered the political turmoil and gossip that surrounded David Bronner’s efforts to remake downtown Montgomery. This one appeared some six months after the statues were erected, signifying his success in keeping this expenditure under the radar.

The Non-Veiling

Tower Management and Labor StatueDavid Bronner gave me one final assignment in connection with his statues on the green in front of the Tower.  I was to arrange to have them quietly erected when the press would not be looking. Ergo, I quietly went about having the lawn sprinkler system reworked, and having stone-clad pedestals built. Everyone thought they might be square benches.

So it was early on a Saturday morning, later that year, when a truck-mounted crane and operator, two laborers, Casey Downing, Jean Belt and I assembled at the waterfall park to await the flat-bed truck from the foundry in Atlanta.  As soon as it arrived, the bronze figures were deftly swung onto their pedestals. The city felt quiet and deserted.  Downing looked deflated and complained bitterly that he had not been allowed to publicize his creations.  He proclaimed that we were having a “non-veiling” of his work.

In the midst of the operation, a young lady strode up with a camera around her neck and began to take pictures.  “Zounds!” I exclaimed.  “We have been found out.”  But Jean Belt calmed my fears.  “That,” she said, “is Casey’s wife, Susan Downing, who painted the river scene.”  Yours truly was much relieved, and the clandestine operation continued.

Our low-key installation seemed to have worked as Dr. Bronner wished.  Little comment appeared in the media.  The City just woke up one day and the statues were there.  The Rose Sanders illusion was undone and all was well. Some do say, however, that the two men standing arm-in-arm are surely homosexuals, but at least neither of them is thought to be an architect–I managed to fix that.


-Charles Humphries (“Peril and Intrigue Within Architecture”)

This is one of many RSA Tower stories. The rest can be found here.

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