You can’t throw a stone in Washington, D.C., without hitting something presidential—from marble memorials to Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, to the Kennedy Center, the White House, and even the name of the District itself. But to see a (nearly) complete, larger-than-life set of presidents past, visitors need to travel 3 hours south to a farm in Croaker, Virginia.
Forty-two sculptures, representing 43 presidencies from George Washington to George W. Bush (Grover Cleveland’s non-consecutive terms account for the discrepancy) were originally constructed for Presidents Park, a collaboration between Texas sculptor David Adickes and Virginia businessman Everette H. “Haley” Newman III, located in Williamsburg from 2004 to 2010. After the outdoor attraction closed due to financial difficulties, it sat abandoned for a few years before Enterprise Rent-A-Car bought the property and hired Howard Hankins to remove—and presumably pulverize—the concrete-and-plaster busts in December, 2012.
But Hankins, a history buff and owner of a contracting business selling stone, mulch, and sand, couldn’t bear to destroy the presidents. Instead, he kept them as intact as he could, moving them 11 miles west of Williamsburg to his sprawling business in Croaker. They once again sat mostly in solitude until 2019, when Richmond photographer John Plashal convinced Hankins to open his private property for guided tours a few times a year.
Thanks to trespassers, and later tourists, Virginia’s “President Heads” have gone viral with regularity since they were relocated and began to decay. Removed from their protective bases, exposed to the elements, and damaged in different ways during transport, today the sculptures seem to appeal to a wider audience than they ever did as the centerpiece of a manicured, educational attraction. After years of being mesmerized by photos of the U.S. presidents slowly crumbling under the stars relatively close to my home in Capitol Hill, I finally secured tickets for a tour of the property on Memorial Day weekend.
In a recent episode of Plashal’s podcast, 95-year-old Adickes says that D.C. was the natural choice for his first Presidents Park. But after encountering too many legal obstacles, red tape, and financial challenges in the nation’s capital, a suitable spot was chosen near Colonial Williamsburg. The presidents traveled from Texas to Virginia two to a flatbed truck, with the heads separated from their bodies so the 18- to 20-foot-tall sculptures could pass under bridges.
According to Adickes, “There wasn’t a scratch on them” when they arrived at their destination, thanks to two small access points built into each bust allowing them to be hoisted by nylon straps. Unfortunately, he says he wasn’t consulted when they were moved again to Croaker; although Plashal insists that Hankins did the best job he could, several of the busts suffered damage that Adickes calls “really devastating.”
Hankins stacked them in rows, giving little thought to how they were arranged besides “to keep them out of the way of his trucks,” according to Plashal. There was more of a method to Adickes’ process—after finding a list of the presidents ranked by accomplishments, he chose to make seven larger than the others to convey their significance: Washington, Andrew Jackson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Woodrow Wilson, and Thomas Jefferson.
Washington, Lincoln, and Jackson sit in front, separated slightly from the other 39; Plashal says that Jackson is his favorite because of his elaborate epaulets, while Adickes says his favorite president (both politically and artistically) is Lincoln. “I like them all, but some are better than others,” he says. “Lincoln has such a great face, and he was such a great guy.”
‘It’s the imagery’
In addition to offering several other guided tours and photo workshops at properties throughout Virginia, Plashal is also a medical device salesperson. He remembers frequently passing the heads while he traveled around the state in the mid-2000s, but was never inspired to visit Presidents Park while it was operational. “There was nothing super sexy about the park,” he says. “It was in an odd place, tickets were overpriced, and the experience was kind of ho hum.”
When the attraction closed and the heads were moved to Croaker, photos taken by urban explorers finally caught his attention; he convinced an employee of Hankins’ to allow him to photograph the set under a meteor shower at night, and later Hankins himself to open the property several times a year to visitors.
Bolstered by the photogenic heads’ popularity on Instagram and TikTok, Plashal says the tours are often sold out: “We get people from all over the world. Post pandemic, people seem to be much more experiential in traveling. They’re spending their money on super cool events and unique locales.” Plashal and his tour partner Fred Schneider are on-site for the family-friendly tours, offering scavenger hunts, presidential trivia, stories, and souvenirs for sale.
The irony isn’t lost on Plashal that the heads are much more popular in their decaying state than they ever were when they were displayed pristinely in Presidents Park: “They are becoming iconic because of their dereliction,” he says. “No disrespect to D.C., but anybody can go see clean presidents anytime they want. The juxtaposition of these 42 men of significant power deteriorating at a rapid pace and stuck in a field in Croaker, Virginia, is the main driver—it’s the imagery.”
‘The best likeness of each guy’
It’s probably no surprise that Adickes, a Texas native who studied in France under artist Fernand Léger, was inspired to create his own monumental presidents after a trip to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota (his other creations reside mostly in Texas, including a 67-foot-tall statue of Sam Houston). Even so, he says he’s not a political person or even particularly knowledgeable about U.S. history: “Franklin Pierce—I had no idea what he stood for or anything about him. I’m a sculptor and so I just wanted to do the best rendering of these 42 men that existed—or that I could do—and that’s pretty much it.”
Adickes started by creating a life-size model of each out of clay and plaster, trying to be as accurate as possible and basing his versions on existing paintings or photographs. He made the bodies first, then the heads, and finally the variety of neckties and other identifying accessories such as the pince-nez glasses worn by Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt.
The final sculptures are basically hollow, created by casting a plaster and concrete shell from rubber master molds on top of a metal skeleton. Whether Adickes succeeded in his goal of creating “the best likeness of each guy,” is up for artistic debate—but even with a cursory knowledge of U.S. history, it’s fairly easy to identify who’s who without the help of an on-site map provided by Plashal. Like their real-life inspirations, each president is weathering in its own unique way: Bees have built a honeycomb in one of Richard Nixon’s eyeballs, Chester A. Arthur is missing most of his mouth, and the back of Lincoln’s head features a sizable hole—not from an assassin’s bullet, but because it toppled backwards sometime during the move.
Using his molds, Adickes created two more sets of presidents after the one designated for Williamsburg. The second went to South Dakota, where Adickes ran into problems similar to the ones he encountered in D.C.; land close to Mount Rushmore was too expensive, so he settled on a piece of property 50 miles northwest in Lead. The western Presidents Park ultimately suffered the same fate as its East Coast counterpart, closing in 2010 and reverting to private property. Plashal says the new owners offered to sell Hankins their full-size Barack Obama—the Croaker set only has a miniature artist’s model on display—but he declined to buy it because, “We’ve got a brand going with Baby Obama.” A third set currently resides in Adickes’ Texas studio.
Adickes says he didn’t realize his creations have gained an international following not in spite of, but perhaps because of, their ruined state—but he’s not too surprised. “Everyone likes to see a ruined government,” he says, laughing. “The news that sticks is always the bad news. So be it, it’s out of my control now, and it is what it is.”
Even midway through his ninth decade, Adickes is still thinking big—and he’s not ready to retire anytime soon. He may be done trying to make the presidents into a viable roadside attraction, but he says he’s still enamored with one of them in particular: “It would be a lot of work at 95, but I think I still have the energy left to do a 75-foot-tall statue of Lincoln.” Adickes thinks that apart from Illinois, which he says “already has enough Lincoln,” there is no other place more uniquely associated with the 16th president than D.C. But he’s reluctant to compete with the centerpiece of the Lincoln Memorial sculpted by Daniel Chester French, which he calls “the most beautiful piece of sculpture in the world ever done.”
Nevertheless, Adickes still dreams of creating a towering version of his favorite president: “I just don’t know where it would go,” he says.
If you go
Please note that the president heads currently sit on private property and are only visible a few times a year during guided tours. Visitors must have tickets in advance.