Albemarle historic commission denies county request to demolish library artwork

The sculptures in front of the Stanly County Public Library will stay for now after a ruling Tuesday by Albemarle’s Historic Preservation Commission.

By a 5-0 vote, with Anna Christian-Harkey recusing herself, the commission denied the request by the county to demolish the sculptures.

In front of around 30 people meeting at Albemarle City Hall, city planning specialist Brittani McClendon presented the item before the HRC.

McClendon said the county listed safety concerns and future plans for an exterior elevator as reasons for the sculpture’s removal.

She said the staff found it wrong for the artwork to be removed because it fell under two standards, one regarding “historic architectural detailing” and the other with “preserving original commercial storefronts.”

McClendon noted the artwork was not specifically mentioned in the City of Albemarle Historic Design Standards.

County Manager Andy Lucas said people “even my size” could hide behind the statues, pointing out that the primary book drop is behind the artwork. He said removing the statues would allow a “softer, welcoming courtyard.”

New London resident Deborah Noah spoke for the artwork’s removal, noting safety concerns for the Uwharrie Jamestown Society, a group that meets downstairs at the library.

She said she and others in the group had been “approached by homeless people. We felt very threatened at times that we didn’t give them money…I know this is a social issue and not art, but when you have got a place to hide, a situation where they are sleeping and leaving needles, it’s not a safe place.”

Noah said the sculptures, which were repainted in 2020 by volunteers, is peeling close to three years later.

Speaking about allegations of children climbing on the sculptures, Library Director Sara Hahn said she was not aware of any documented injuries. However, she said she has a direct view to the sculpture on the second floor in front of the main entrance. Many times, she said, she or other staff members have had to “run out” and ask children to get down.

“I think it’s an accident waiting to happen,” Hahn said. She said she is a supporter of the arts and has been in theater “for my entire life,” and that “art is vital.” From a safety point, she said, there could be a better presentation of art in the space.

Several members of the community spoke for the preservation of the sculptures, including Kent Harkey, board president for the Stanly County Historical Society.

Harkey presented a resolution passed by the board of the SCHS to the HRC, supporting public art presentations saying the designs for the sculptures are on file at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

The resolution asked for local government officials, library representatives and other local stakeholders to “restore the sculpture to its original luster and functionality, and preserve and promote this significant contribution to the rich and dynamic culture, education and history of our wide and diverse community.”

Others speaking in favor of keeping the art were Stanly County Arts Council Executive Director Renee Van Horn, Stanly Arts Guild treasurer Kathy Almond and Albemarle resident Joyce Lambert.

After the meeting, Van Horn said she felt relief when the board denied the county’s request.

“Anytime we can save public art, we need to save public art because it’s very scarce in our county,” Van Horn said.

Horne said she agreed with HRC member Razan Abd El Haque, who noted it was a county commissioner who brought the sculptures to light at that board’s recent retreat.

“(He) brought awareness of what we actually have in our county,” Van Horn said. “Everybody else would drive by and make a comment because it is 1970s art which may not appeal to all, but it was designed with that building. Both the art and the building go together, and you can’t take one away from the other.”

Lucas said he respected the HRC’s decision and will take the matter back to county staff and the commissioners to “reevaluate what options we have and look at every alternative. Safety is the number one thing…we will evaluate it and look at costs because we have to cost benefit everything.”

After the meeting, Hahn said, “my goal as an advocate for the library and the downtown community is to come to whatever decision is in the best interest of the community and its goals. It sounds like bringing advocacy for the art to be improved and the area be better improved for the community is something we all agree on. That sounds like a great win for both sides tonight.”

The sculptures were constructed by George Bireline in the early 1970s. His work was featured at the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Mint Museum in Charlotte, the Hircshorn Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. The art was originally black to match the library, but the pieces were repainted light blue in 2020.