Nixon eyes the busy populace of Rapid City.
Nixon eyes the busy populace of Rapid City.

America's Street Corner Presidents

Rapid City, South Dakota

The civic leaders of Rapid City, South Dakota, were frustrated. Millions of tourists drove through downtown and never bothered to stop -- headed south to view the big heads at Mt. Rushmore. Then, by coincidence, Gutzon Borglum's "Seated Lincoln" -- a mere life-size version of the Great Emancipator -- was put on temporary display in town. And a lot of people stopped to see it. "We were surprised," said Dallerie Davis, co-founder of the City of Presidents project. "We thought, if they're gonna get that excited about one statue of a President, why don't we give them all of the Presidents?"

Jimmy Carter waves to all from his street corner.
Jimmy Carter waves to all from his street corner.

Methodically, over ten years, life-size bronze statues of every U.S. President (minus whoever's currently in office) were added to street corners in downtown Rapid City.

Americans typically see their Presidents reproduced at a heroic scale, so the life-size Presidents of Rapid City can seem unnaturally small. And the statues initially drew criticism from people who didn't want artworks on Rapid City sidewalks, and traditionalists who didn't like Presidents standing on ground level and posing with everyday objects such as a baseball (William Howard Taft) and a fiddle (John Tyler). "At the time," said Dallerie, "it was highly unusual to not view them as stuffed suits standing on a pedestal." But the statues at least were all realistic -- no abstract interpretations are allowed -- and the depictions were generally flattering.

Lonely James Buchanan looks forward to Rapid City rush hour.
Lonely James Buchanan looks forward to Rapid City rush hour.

Over time, Rapid City grew to appreciate its street corner Chief Executives. Even Richard Nixon has become popular, and the statue artists -- all from South Dakota -- have gone out of their way to make each President worthy of a snapshot. The sculptor of George W. Bush, for example, modified the figure at the last minute to hold cuddly Barney the dog under one arm. "When you have a potentially boring statue," said Dallerie, "you give them a dog" (Note: three of the President statues have dogs).

Visitors rub Taft's baseball...for luck?
Visitors rub Taft's baseball...for luck?

Dallerie said that the placement of the pose-with-me Presidents has nothing to do with whatever businesses occupy the same corner -- although the juxtaposition can sometimes seem deliberate or funny -- and that the statues have done their job of getting people out of their cars and into downtown. Yet despite the obvious theme of the City of Presidents project, visitors are occasionally confused. Dallerie told us that some people think that William Henry Harrison -- resplendent in his War of 1812 regalia -- is Julius Caesar, and other visitors want to know where Ben Franklin is (Despite his status as Mr. $100 Bill, he was never a President).

Because the Presidents are represented as a group ("The good, the bad, and the ugly; we do them all," said Dallerie) the City of Presidents has escaped depopulation from those wanting to purge statues of Presidents they don't like. In 2020 the mayor of Rapid City told reporters that he'd received demands to remove the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama statues. The mayor refused, adding that anyone trying to remove or damage a street corner President would be tossed into jail. According to Dallerie, the criticism of Clinton was that he was a womanizer, a reason that she found absurd. "If we took down all the womanizers," she said, "we wouldn't have many Presidents left."

Downtown Rapid City is comprised of 80 street corners and America has produced only 44 former Presidents -- so the city anticipates room to accommodate bronze Chief Executives at least into the 23rd century.

Roadside Presidents
Roadside Presidents App for iPhone. Find this attraction and more: museums, birthplaces, graves of the Chief Execs, first ladies, pets, assassins and wannabes. Prez bios and oddball trivia. Available on the App Store.

Also see: The President You Won't See in Rapid City

Rapid City Presidents

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November 27, 2020

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