The Hains Point Hand: Stealing Away A Public Treasure
The wealthy developer who bought the hugely popular sculpture that lures thousands of visitors to Hains Point at the southern tip of the District says he is trying to be provocative by moving "The Awakening" to his new shopping mall and hotel complex in Maryland. He's succeeding.
Milt Peterson wants his decision to dig up and remove the 70 feet of aluminum body parts that now poke up from the ground where the Potomac and Anacostia rivers converge to cause a ruckus and win him some publicity for his National Harbor project.
Ok, I'll bite.
"The Awakening," by J. Seward Johnson, is a big-deal tourist attraction and a special favorite of parents and children, who are terrific at coming up with all manner of fabulous tales about how this guy came to be buried and frozen beneath the turf of the nation's capital.
The sculpture, which Johnson made in 1980, has been in danger of losing its home for some years, thanks to a bone-headed decision by the National Park Service to transform "The Awakening's" home into a dull and meaningless "National Peace Garden," approved by Congress in 1987 and consisting of a bunch of trees, an open plaza and a pool. Luckily, the Peace Garden foundation was never able to raise the money for its project, so that idea is now dormant. But the bureaucracy works in strange ways and the mere existence of the Peace Garden concept prompted the owner of the Johnson piece, The Sculpture Foundation, to decide to sell it.
That's where Peterson comes in. As he told The Post's Anita Huslin, he was looking for something controversial and provocative to entice visitors to check out his National Harbor project, a mix of hotels, retail, offices and residential development that is to open next year in Prince George's County, across the water and a bit downriver from Hains Point. So Peterson bought the sculpture for $750,000 and plans to move it off Park Service land in the next few months.
Since the sculpture is privately owned and always has been, there's nothing to stop Peterson from going through with his plan--except that The Awakening has become a beloved piece of Washington, a mainstay of the artistic and touristic landscape that fits beautifully in a wind-swept, riverfront park setting. Putting it in a shopping center would render it just one more piece of clutter. Context matters; indeed, sometimes, as Gene Weingarten's masterful piece on putting a world-class violinist in a Metro station showed a couple of weeks ago, context is sometimes the master of our perceptions.
National Harbor may have a spectacular setting and may even boast attractive architecture--the plans really don't show enough detail to draw any fair conclusions--but if the list of eateries included in the project is any indication, the complex may turn out to be as bland as most malls across the land. The restaurants Peterson has signed up are of the huge, corporate type (Sequoia, Gallagher's, McCormick & Schmick) where predictability and convenience crowd out creativity and intimacy. (The project also includes lower-end mall standards, such as Johnny Rockets, Auntie Annie's and the like.)
Putting "The Awakening" in that kind of setting promises to steal much of its power. If Peterson is looking to win goodwill and big crowds, he'd be far better off donating the sculpture to the Park Service (though they don't want it) and devoting some of his riverfront to the kind of people magnet that Georgetown has long craved, but never achieved: An extensive riverwalk where people can stroll, take a boat ride, or nurse a drink without being in a cookie-cutter outdoor shopping mall.
For anyone who has taken kids to scamper in and around "The Awakening," this is a sad and disappointing turn of events.
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