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Architecture

Head case

Displaced statues molder at Old Fort Wayne

MT photos/Doug Coombe
Frank Stomzenski
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Published 7/7/2004

Frank Slomzenski calls the agglomeration of severed heads, torsos, cornucopia and a 7,670-pound bell “Detroit’s Easter Island” because, as with the stone heads on the Polynesian island, they sit near a body of water. Easter Island’s figures overlook the South Pacific; Slomzenski’s are near the Detroit River. Easter Island’s Polynesians created their stone heads to represent sacred chiefs and gods; Slomzenski says the local statues represent the four “civic virtues” — art, justice, commerce and industry. On Easter Island, at least 360 statues of varying heights, the tallest reaching 40 feet, are in full view of visitors and locals alike. Slomzenski’s statues are on display only for those who wander away from the main buildings at Historic Fort Wayne.

Slomzenski, 72, a retired contract photographer and amateur historian, says the statues once adorned the bell tower atop Old City Hall on Woodward Avenue. Workers demolished the building in 1961 and moved the city-owned statuary, along with the big bell, to Fort Wayne for storage. They have remained exposed to the elements ever since.

“They are lying around just like trash,” Slomzenski says.

One severed head, whose eyes once gazed through heavy lids from a height of more than 100 feet, now stares directly at the ground. The remaining pieces are scattered about the concrete and shrubbery.

Slomzenski’s friend and fellow antique scavenger Robert Pedroza discovered the statues while attending a flea market at the fort. Pedroza then informed Slomzenski, who sought out the statue remnants himself.

“I happened to have my camera, so I took many photos,” Slomzenski says.

He researched the statuary at the Burton Historical Archives at the Detroit Public Library, and put together a story and slide show on CD-ROM that he calls Detroit’s Easter Island.

Slomzenski’s CD-ROM is not available for purchase, though he says he’d like to distribute it to historical museums. His goal is to create awareness of the statue remnants and have them salvaged.

“These are impressive pieces of artwork. I am disappointed that we don’t save some of our past,” says Slomzenski.

He suggests that the pieces be incorporated in the landscaping of new casinos being built. Slomzenski notes than a War of 1812 cannon that once sat in front of Old City Hall now sits in front of the Dossin Museum on Belle Isle.

Slomzenski says he called museum administrators about the pieces moldering on Fort Wayne, but never got a solid response.

“It seems like nobody’s interested: ‘So it’s there: so what?’” he laments.

“At this point, that’s not a high priority for us,” says Dr. Dennis Zembala, director of Detroit Historical Museums, in response to inquiries about the statue remnants. “They’re in terrible shape. They were in terrible shape to begin with. They’ve been exposed to the elements for over 100 years.”

Zembala says the fort does not have an appropriate place to display the statues, and Detroit Historical Museums hadn’t considered selling the statues at auction.

“They’re really meant to be seen from a hundred feet below, so the detail on them is not really crisp. Displaying them at eye level would not do them justice,” says Zembala.

Zembala says the statues were originally taken to Fort Wayne because it was a safe place to store them.

Ted Gillary, executive manager for the Detroit Athletic Club, says club officials once considered putting the statues on Madison Boulevard in front of the DAC. But “the scale of the statues was not appropriate for street level viewing, so we abandoned the idea,” says Gillary.

The fort, occupying more than 80 acres along the Detroit River at 6325 W. Jefferson Ave., was built in 1845 to safeguard against the British, who then controlled land across the river. The fort is run by Detroit Historical Museums and was closed to the public in 1991 due to state budget cuts. The fort opens on summer weekends and for soccer games and occasional flea markets throughout the year. The old post is home to historic buildings that include a limestone barracks dating to 1848 as well as parade grounds, the Great Lakes Indian Museum and the Tuskegee Airmen’s Museum.

Zembala and his charges at Detroit Historical Museums may be too preoccupied to deal with the statues, because Fort Wayne is slated to finally see $2 million of the Wayne County Parks millage this year, eight years after it was passed. Renovations using the millage money will begin at the fort this September, according to Zembala. He says the $2 million will go toward revamping a museum gallery; improvements to facilitate youth soccer facilities at the fort, such as installing locker room facilities and public bathrooms; and lighting the fort’s perimeter.

While that’s great news for the fort, it still leaves the Old City Hall statue remnants out in the cold, or heat.

Zembala says he’d be happy to talk to anyone interested in purchasing the statues. There are currently no other plans for the remnants.

“We’d like to find a place to put them,” he says.

Joanna Galuszka is a Metro Times editorial intern. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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