The Headless Governor

An itinerant historical statue finds a new home, for now

The marble statue in the flower garden outside Cortese Tree Specialists could give kids nightmares. A little bigger than full size, it has a long-tailed, long-cuffed, double-breasted uniform, no left hand, and no head.

This agreeable spot at the end of Marion Street, on the fringe of Mechanicsville, is just the last destination of a nomadic statue of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier. He's traveled more than 100 miles in the last 50-odd years, and there's no reason to think he's settling down. But he makes for an arresting sight now for motorists up on I-275 trying to decide whether to go to Henley Street or Asheville.

Usually you stare at a ruined old statue and just wonder. I could happily have filled this column with poetic speculation. But the Internet was invented to abolish poetic speculation. If the Internet had been around in 1818, Shelley would have just Googled Ozymandias, and said, "Oh," and gotten back to the real work of chasing women.

The first time I noticed this statue was 10 years ago or more, by the parking lot outside the Foundry, at the north end of World's Fair Park. He stood at attention, sword in hand, tri-corner-hatted head on shoulders. I'm not sure it was the sort of work of art you'd see in a museum—his demeanor suggested little complexity, his stance no subtlety. But it wasn't an amateur job, either. It looked like it was made by somebody who knew how to carve a statue.

It found admirers, but parking cars bumped into it, and the governor kept falling over. In the fall of 2002—it seems significant to those who recall it that it was during UT's fraternity Rush Week—parties unknown knocked Sevier's head off and broke off the hand holding the sword. It's a marble statue, and dismembering it was no simple process. The head hasn't been seen since.

It was a disappointing development for the bicentennial dreams of Don Ault. You may remember Don, who once ran for City Council and who used to wear a top hat and tails to give horse-and-buggy rides around downtown. The great-great-great-great-grandson of John Sevier himself, he has long dreamed of reconstructing a house Sevier knew well, the Old Capitol, the wooden tavern building where the state Legislature met during his tenure as governor, torn down in the 1920s. During the Nashville-centered celebration of the state's bicentennial in 1996, Ault, a retired engineer, made credible plans to build a replica. At the time, he seemed to have state permission to build a new one at the southeast corner of Summit Hill and Central Street, a shrine to be known as the First Capitol.

The arrival of the statue of his ancestor seemed a serendipitous accessory. Originally part of the unusual interior decor of a new Home Federal bank in Kingsport, the statue was the work of sculptor Edgar W. Bowlin, a World War II veteran who worked as a professional sculptor. Attracted to patriotic themes, he sculpted a Hall of Presidents in wax, somewhere in Pennsylvania, and carved a statue of Hellen Keller that stands somewhere in Alabama.

He finished the Sevier statue around 1958. On the Web there's a photograph of the sculptor, a clean-cut man in business clothes, posing with Sevier, who then stood on a high pedestal in the bank's modernist lobby, bedecked with flowers for the dedication.

Things change, though. Sevier hadn't stood there for 40 years before the bank sold the building, and the new owner didn't have any use for the statue. Somehow it wound up in Knoxville, in the hands of developer Bill Conley, who played with the idea of installing it in the lobby of a high-rise office building on Gay Street, between Cumberland and Church, the site of the constitutional convention and the best candidate for the Birthplace of Tennessee. That didn't work out, though, and when he heard about Ault's First Capitol project, Conley gave him the statue.

It might have made a perfect accent. A local sculptor appraised the statue, for tax purposes, at $200,000. While Ault worked out the details of his ambitious First Capitol project, he stored the statue at his buggy-ride headquarters, at the base of the Sunsphere, where Ault kept the stables for his horses. Sevier lived there until about a decade ago when, as the city planned its World's Fair Park and convention-center construction, Ault was evicted. He found a monument mover who fearing the liability of taking the expensive statue out on the roads, agreed to move it elsewhere on the World's Fair site. Marianne Greene, proprietor of the Foundry, the 1865 factory building that hosts banquets and fraternal meetings, gave him permission to keep it there. It seemed a safe place for a 1.5-ton marble statue, and was for a couple of years.

When you carve something of Vermont marble, you figure it's at least going to outlast you. Bowlin died in late 2001 in Kingsport, aware that his work might be part of the First Capitol project, down in Knoxville. The decapitation came just months later. Police assumed the governor's head was in some Fort Sanders apartment, or UT fraternity house. They hoped someone would brag, but no one did.

It was a last insult to Ault's dreams of a Sevier memorial park downtown. By then, TDOT had withdrawn its offer of land for the First Capitol project. Ault finally retired from the buggy-ride game about four years ago, and sounds discouraged about his statue. "Without its head, it's not that attractive," says Ault.

But tree man Jim Cortese, who's a regular at Foundry functions, always admired the statue regardless of its shortcomings. Early this year, he took custody of the dismembered statue, and found a place for it on the grounds of his Fifth Avenue tree business.

"It doesn't bother me that it doesn't have a head," Cortese says. "I've been to Europe many times, and in Europe there are thousands of headless, legless, and armless statues. It's about time America had a few headless statues."

Fixed typo: Bowlin died in 2001, not 1981.