OCEAN CITY — With restoration funding uncertain, the future of the landmark Indian sculpture at the Inlet in Ocean City is in doubt this week as the weather has taken its toll on it over the last three decades.
Artist Peter Toth presented the Indian sculpture perched near the entrance to the Inlet parking lot to the town of Ocean City and the people of Maryland in 1976 as part of his larger plan to create a similar piece for every state in the U.S. as part of the nation’s bicentennial celebration. Through his Trail of the Whispering Giants plan, Toth created a sculpture unique to each state to raise the public’s consciousness of the plight of Native Americans and his gift to Maryland represents the Assateague Indian.
For over 30 years, the sculpture carved from 100-year-old oak has stood the test of time, tides and fierce weather along at the entrance to the Inlet, but it has gradually eroded to the point it will likely need to be restored to last another three decades.
Ocean City Public Works Director Hal Adkins said this week the deterioration of the sculpture was noticed following Hurricane Sandy, which passed over the resort area last fall.
“When doing our initial recovery from Sandy, we discovered a large whalebone that sat next to the Inlet Indian for years had washed into the street,” he said. “While we were restoring that, we decided it was a good time to take a closer look at the sculpture, and we discovered it had started to split again and was in need of some serious restoration.”
From that initial analysis came a plan to solicit bids for restoring the aging sculpture and a noted West Ocean City woodworker and carpenter came up with a plan to repair the Inlet Indian at a cost of just under $10,000. The plan called for removing the sculpture with a crane and transporting it to the West Ocean City shop for a major repair and restoration, then returning it to its original location.
While a plan was in place for the restoration, a funding source was not immediately identified. Adkins said he first approached the Ocean City Development Corporation (OCDC), which has a public art sub-committee, to consider funding the restoration or pursuing grant money to find the funding. The OCDC was on board initially, but has recently backed off its support.
“There was an interest expressed by OCDC to try to replicate this badly damaged sculpture, but the board decided not to pursue it,” said OCDC Executive Director Glenn Irwin this week.
OCDC President Bob Givarz said this week the organization was initially involved in the effort to restore the sculpture, but changed its position after doing some research on other Toth sculptures around the country.
“Initially, when we heard it was in desperate need of some attention, we thought it was important for us to be involved,” he said. “When we started doing some research into it, we learned many of them around the country were in the same state as ours and some had just gone by the wayside or disappeared over time. We then started thinking a repair might not be the way to go and began considering a way to replace it or replicate it.”
Givarz said that realization led the OCDC board to consider letting the Inlet Indian run its course and pursue another piece of public art in or near the same area in the future.
“We started thinking maybe it was the right thing to do to let the sculpture live out its useful life and consider another appropriate piece of public art in the downtown area, just as we have in other areas of town,” he said. “The OCDC has made a firm commitment to do something in the downtown area and the board has decided to commit some money on a different piece of public art in that area.”
Meanwhile, Adkins said he has not abandoned the idea of restoring or replacing the landmark sculpture at the entrance to the Inlet. He has since approached City Manager David Recor and plans to make the situation known to the Mayor and Council.
“We need to bring it to their attention,” he said. “If somebody doesn’t maintain that Indian sculpture, it’s eventually just going to fall apart.”
Thus far, no immediate plan to restore the sculpture has emerged although Adkins holds out hope there could be a viable funding solution.
“So far, I haven’t received any guidance on how to proceed,” he said. “I’m waiting to hear something back on it. At some locations, they have deteriorated to the point they just fell apart and were not replaced. I’m hoping there’s a sensible solution to keep that from happening here.”
Toth’s Trail of Whispering Giants includes sculptures in other neighboring beach resorts including Virginia Beach, Bethany Beach and Rehoboth. Some have been restored and in at least one case, a fiberglass mold now stands where the original sculpture was placed. Others have deteriorated and have been left to serve out their usefulness.