City of Presidents

History, On the Road, Traditions, Travel Destinations
on February 15, 2009
Johnny Sundby Dallerie Davis and Don Perdue, posing with a statue of Lyndon B. Johnson, spearheaded The City of Presidents project in Rapid City, S.D.

In 1990, Don Perdue noticed an interesting sight when a museum in Rapid City, S.D. (pop. 67,167), moved a statue of Abraham Lincoln outside on the sidewalk. "People would gather around Lincoln," says Perdue, 76, a retired local businessman. "They even took pictures of themselves with the statue. I started thinking that if people were that excited about one president, how happy would they be about all of them?"

That idea led to the creation of The City of Presidents project in 1999, with the goal of erecting a life-size bronze statue of every U.S. president for display along Main and St. Joseph streets in Rapid City, known for its proximity to the nation's most famous presidential sculptures carved into Mount Rushmore.

Today, 31 statues greet visitors, who can see Jimmy Carter waving hello, Calvin Coolidge tipping his hat and Ronald Reagan smiling in casual Western attire.

"We're trying to do four a year," says Dallerie Davis, vice president of The City of Presidents project, who coordinated installation of statues of Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley, Andrew Johnson and Grover Cleveland last year. "We decided to start at the beginning and the end of the presidency so there would be a variety of dress and a mix of older presidents with more familiar ones."

Although Perdue had the idea for the statues back in 1990, it wasn't until he teamed up with Davis, a fine art consultant and broker, that the idea became a reality. "I worked as a representative for local artists and was at a Lincoln Day dinner and started talking with Don," Davis says. "He said that the project had never gotten started because of one thing or another. I told him that I was working with four incredible artists and we could get the job done."

Sure enough, they did. After raising about $50,000 for each sculpture through private and business donations, and commissioning the sculptures, the first installation of four presidents–Reagan, George H.W. Bush, John Adams and Washington–were on display in 2000. Local artists, including James Maher, are responsible for creating the life-like sculptures, which take nine to 12 months to complete.

Maher says the hardest part is researching the background and personality of each president for their sculpture setting. "Grover Cleveland liked to be in his library among his books so I have him seated with a book in his hands," Maher says.

Artists suggest concepts for clothing and objects used with each sculpture. But the final decision is made by the four-member project board, all from the Rapid City area. "We want the sculpture to be accurate and to reflect the personality of that particular president," Davis says.

Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are scheduled to be honored in 2010, when the project hopes to have every president completed. Thereafter, each commander in chief will join the statuary after completing his or her term in office.

"The statues are a big hit with residents and visitors," says Suzette Ainsworth, of the Rapid City Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We have a free walking tour brochure of the statues and a Presidents Information Center downtown. You always see people walking around looking at the statues," she says.

The project has earned Rapid City the nickname "City of Presidents," and the stately sculptures have added a new way to cite locations around town. "Now we hear people giving directions and, instead of giving a street address, they'll say, 'I'll meet you between Bush and Reagan,'" Davis says. "Everyone knows where that is."