June 02, 2004 News & Features » Cover Story


Goodbye, Dali 

Richmond considers then nixes Monument Avenue surrealism.

In the mid-’60s, the Richmond-based Reynolds Metals Co. was also giving an annual international award for the best use of aluminum products in design and construction. The prize included an original sculpture, cast in aluminum, by a celebrated artist. The company wasn’t shy about picking up the phone and commissioning these works.

This may be how company executive Roland Reynolds met Salvador Dali, the famous Spanish-born surrealist. The two men met for drinks one rainy afternoon at Manhattan’s St. Regis Hotel and then strolled down Fifth Avenue to the Empire State Building. They went up to the observation deck and chatted about the project.

Later in 1966, Dali sent a personal assistant to Richmond to meet with representatives of various historical and memorial groups and to scout possible sites on Monument Avenue. From all reports, Dali’s representative was flamboyant, and the daughters of the old South were taken aback when the emissary arrived at Byrd Airport with two spotted ocelots on leashes.

A sketch of Dali’s concept appeared in a local newspaper to a poor reception. In a variation of the allegorical St. George slaying the dragon, Dali was proposing a full-bodied Sallie Tompkins standing in a stylized petri dish — balanced atop a giant finger — taking a swing at a beast symbolizing disease. (Captain Tompkins always maintained that her relatively high success rate with typhoid patients was overrated; after the war she said, “We used nothing but whiskey and turpentine.”)

Richmond shot down both the messenger and message. No Salvador Dali statue for Monument Avenue.

In 1990, during the lively centennial observance of Monument Avenue, a competition for a hypothetical statue was held among architecture students at Hampton University, University of Virginia and Virginia Tech.

The site they were given by the sponsors, the Historic Monument Avenue and Fan District Foundation and the Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects, was the intersection of Monument Avenue and Staples Mill Road near Willow Lawn. The students had free range of subject matter.

The winning submission, from Tech entrants, was highly conceptual. The students suggested setting a huge square in the intersection that traffic would cross continually. The square divided into halves, one black and the other white — a cry for racial harmony along this Confederate Valhalla.

The Tech students won a $1,000 prize, but their idealistic proposal received little publicity.

Within the next few years, matters would be anything but harmonious racially as Richmonders began debating the pros and cons of placing a statue of Arthur Ashe, an African-American Richmond native and tennis player, on the avenue. S

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