The full story behind the disappearance of one of Charlotte’s most beloved works of art

“So here’s the thing,” says Elijah Baumgarten, his voice lowering and his eyes darting around. “No one knows that it’s here.”

He’s standing next to his father, sculptor Lee Baumgarten — who’s standing next to a close-to-life-size statue of a man in a floppy hat, spectacles and a necktie — inside the elder Baumgarten’s studio located at ... well, that’s what they’re debating: How much to tell.

“Don’t mention the address,” Lee tells a reporter. “You can just say it’s near ...” and he reels off a few landmarks.

“That might be too specific,” Elijah says.

The two decide they can live with “off of Monroe Road.”

And “it would take a bunch of guys,” Lee Baumgarten admits, “you know, to get drunk, to come in here, and to try to steal him.”

But one never knows what might happen to this particular, peculiar piece of Charlotte art.

The Hugh McManaway statue lies in the grass after being hit by a car in 2002. Todd Sumlin Observer File Photo

The statue of Hugh McManaway — originally installed some 18 years ago on a grassy median at the intersection of Providence and Queens roads in Myers Park – was supposed to be a simple, offbeat reminder of one of Charlotte’s more eccentric characters. Then someone decorated him for some occasion (no one seems sure who or when, exactly), touching off a trend in which he’d be dressed up and re-dressed-up countless times, in everything from a Carolina Panthers jersey for a big game to a flowing veil for a wedding.

Then another, less-frequent but just as unpredictable trend developed: Hugh getting bowled over. In May 2002, he was felled by a car that spun out of control. In 2012, a motorist again knocked him off his pedestal. Last September, he took the most violent shot yet – prompting talk of building a brand-new Hugh, or relocating him to somewhere less dangerous.

So how bad was the damage? Where’s he been all this time? Is anything being done to help him weather the next crash better? Little has been made public, but Baumgarten is about to explain.

Of course, to fully appreciate the significance and charm of Hugh McManaway the statue and its latest restoration, one first has to understand the significance and charm of Hugh McManaway the man.

A life uniquely lived

Born in 1913 to Dr. Charles Gustavis McManaway and Josie Pharr, Hugh grew up in a 20-room mansion on Queens Road. That’s one of the scant details available from the early decades of his life. But in the ’60s and ’70s, he became a familiar face in Charlotte, when he began donning a bucket hat, tucking a towel under his arm, and “directing traffic” at Queens and Providence, a stone’s throw from his old family home.

“While cars streamed through the intersection, McManaway stood in the median, gesturing authoritatively,” the Observer wrote shortly after his death in November 1989, “as though the flow of traffic depended entirely upon his presence.”

This, despite a perfectly good stoplight.

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Hugh McManaway strikes the pose that was captured by Elsie Shaw in the statue she sculpted to commemorate the Myers Park man and his passion for directing traffic. Charlotte Public Library

It’s unclear exactly why he so relished doing this. He once told an Observer reporter that, as a child in the 1920s, he had helped direct traffic for a Confederate reunion parade. Beyond that, his explanation was terse: “Some people play tennis. I direct traffic.”

McManaway reportedly played a variety of instruments, including the musical saw, and was well-known to avoid conversation in favor of quoting Bible verses and speaking in rhyme. Examples of the latter often included references to himself, such as “I’m Hugh Pharr McManaway / I work for pleasure and not for pay” and “I’m not serious / I’m delirious / I can’t talk fast like you / I’m just crazy Hugh.”

Another famous Hugh remembers McManaway well.

McManaway, who died in 1989, also played the musical saw and often spoke in rhyme. Charlotte Public Library

Hugh McColl Jr., former chairman and CEO of Bank of America, recalls having breakfast at the restaurant near that intersection. “And Hugh would often be in The Town House, too. He would come over to the table and recite little poems or witticisms, always with a religious overtone to ’em. ... I think what we would say today is he was a savant. I mean, he had a very high intellect, although it was somewhat odd in the way it came through.”

And while today, standing in the street and pretending to direct traffic would surely put people on edge, and might even get one arrested, back then it was not just tolerable, by many accounts: It was endearing. Something that injected Charlotte with life, with character, with nuance.

A couple of McManaway’s admirers decided, eight years after his death, to keep it that way.

A legacy uniquely honored

Sisters Kitty Gaston of Belmont and Anne McKenna of Charlotte had grown up in Eastover and they knew Hugh personally as girls because their family was friendly with the McManaways. In the late ’90s, the two found themselves reminiscing about Hugh and started kicking around ideas for a memorial.

They were huge advocates for the arts in Charlotte; in fact, they’d owned and operated the G. McKenna Gallery on Providence Road through the 1970s, when the city had few art galleries. They also acted as agents for renowned fresco artist Ben Long, whose striking work is in the Bank of America Corporate Center and TransAmerica Square uptown.

Gaston’s son, Curtis, says his mother found McManaway’s legacy particularly poignant because her older son, Bo, had been born with cerebral palsy and other disabilities.

“Hugh was such a visible and viable part of that neighborhood,” Curtis Gaston says. “The best way for her to advocate for those with disabilities — and also her love for art — was to try to arrange for something to be made to commemorate Hugh’s eccentricities.”

A miniature model made by sculptor Elsie Shaw, before she created the full-size artwork. Curtis Gaston Courtesy of Curtis Gaston

So Kitty Gaston had a sculptor friend, Elsie Shaw of New Smyrna Beach, Fla., make a miniature model. (Shaw was a Charlotte native; her father, Victor Shaw, was mayor from 1949 to 1953.) Then, Anne McKenna called Dannye Romine Powell at the Observer and convinced the then-columnist to write about them raising money for a statue.

Hundreds of readers sent a total of more than $5,000, but that was short – by about $60,000. Gaston, McKenna and other family members raised more, and made donations of their own, but when McKenna died, in 1999, they still hadn’t reached the goal.

In the end, that other famous Hugh came through. McColl — who had become friends with McKenna over their shared love of art, particularly Ben Long’s — says he doesn’t remember how much he contributed, recalling only that it was “a considerable amount.”

“Why should we erect this statue of Hugh McManaway in Charlotte?” McColl said in a speech to City Council in support of the project in September 2000. “Aren’t there more worthy citizens who have done more, built more, or who have been great leaders for this city? I suppose there are. But I believe, and many of you here tonight believe, that ... people are the soul of the community. Hugh McManaway may not have led the people. But he was undeniably a man of the people. People like Hugh McManaway add flavor to this city. They make us interesting. They show us our common humanity. That fact is worth celebrating.”

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Kitty Gaston, one of the sisters who campaigned to have the statue created in McManaway’s honor, poses in front of it on the day it was installed in December 2000. Courtesy of Curtis Gaston

On Dec. 10, 2000, workers hooked the statue to a crane, then watched as the operator lifted it and lowered it onto a large hunk of granite that would serve as its base.

Seventeen months later, Hugh would get knocked off it for the first — but not the last — time.

A plan for making him whole again

The more recent accident came late Friday evening, Sept. 8, 2017.

“I was here the next morning, and he was still lying on the ground,” recalls James Howell, senior pastor at Myers Park United Methodist Church, whose entrance is a few dozen yards from the statue’s normal spot. “The grass was dug up and all that. And at some point, they stood him up with these big straps. ... He’s been hit before and taken off and brought back. But in those cases, it seemed like it happened pretty quickly.”

This time, it didn’t.

The impact literally knocked the statue off his feet, severing them at the ankles. His right arm — with an index finger that normally points toward the cars that drive through — was thrown out of whack: Now he seemed to gesture at the ground. A rip near his shoulder joint revealed tangles of metal that looked like sinew.

After a few days, the statue was hauled off to temporary storage in a Department of Transportation facility, and the city tried to come up with a plan.

They couldn’t consult the original sculptor, Elsie Shaw; she had died in 2015. The person who’d previously repaired it had retired to Florida. So the city asked the Arts & Science Council for a recommendation, and the ASC spent much of last fall reviewing candidates.

They needed someone who could not just repair it cosmetically, but structurally, says Todd Stewart, ASC’s senior program director of public art. “It was so badly damaged that I was afraid if it took another hit, it would be lost for good.”

Lee Baumgarten speaks at an artists’ symposium in Liechtenstein in September 2017. Courtesy of Lee Baumgarten

Eventually, the ASC settled on Pineville native Lee Baumgarten, a 63-year-old former professor turned full-time artist with a resume that includes large artworks for the major area hospitals. Once Baumgarten got a really good look at Hugh, it became clear that he and his team — including sculptors Jason Stein and Christopher Morton, and his sons/assistants Elijah and Case Baumgarten — would need to do a lot.

Contrary to popular belief, the Hugh sculpture is not a bronze. It’s a mix of several different metals, including copper, brass, zinc, and other materials. (It’s also taller than 5 feet tall, though it’s often estimated at 4.) Its surfaces are crinkled, almost like aluminum foil that’s been crumpled up, then uncrumpled.

“It’s actually pretty unusual, something that emulates sort of the Old World styles of bronzing,” Baumgarten says. “Once we got inside of him and saw the armature — well, that’s also very, very Old World. ... It’s almost like the interior of a real human body. There’s arteries and all kinds of things made out of copper tubing. It’s very odd.”

A look at the damage that was done to the sculpture’s lower legs. Courtesy of Lee Baumgarten

Making a thorough assessment wasn’t quick. The city had umpteen other priorities; Baumgarten was working on other projects. So nearly three months passed before Baumgarten presented the city with four options, at four price points.

At the top end, he could make, basically, a mold of the old Hugh and re-create him.

At the bottom, he could do what had been done in the past: Patch him as cheaply as possible and stick him back out there.

What’s taking so long?

The city went with something in between, which allowed Baumgarten — as he explains — “to go in there and figure out how to work with what armature was there, and then redevelop that concept, and make him stronger. ... We wanted to fortify everything using steel, heavy steel, so that if it ever gets hit by a truck or something like that again, it’s not comin’ apart.”

Baumgarten’s estimate for the work? $19,500.

This time, no one begged Observer readers for help, no call went out for an 11th-hour rescue from Hugh McColl, and no dramatic speech was delivered to City Council.

It was much more boring.

“A large part of it,” says Derrel Poole, a project manager for the City of Charlotte, “was just going back and forth with the insurance company. I know it’s probably not what people want to hear, but that’s the reality.”

It was July before Baumgarten could move Hugh into his studio, off of Monroe Road, and get to work.

Case Baumgarten (left) and Christopher Morton (right) look on as Jason Stein works at repairing damage to the Hugh McManaway statue’s arm. Courtesy of Lee Baumgarten

At roughly the same time, someone caused a stir by placing a large cardboard figure as a stand-in for Hugh to celebrate a late-July wedding. (“Usually, when people get married at the church, the statue gets decorated,” the mother of the bride told WFAE at the time. “And (my daughter) was distraught when she found out the statue wasn’t there anymore.”)

“I really had no idea Hugh was so popular,” says Poole, laughing. “We’ve been getting phone calls from everywhere, asking, ‘Where’s Hugh?’ ‘What’s being done?’ and ‘What’s taking so long?’ ... I just want to tell the public, we’re doing our level best to get Hugh back up as quickly as possible.”

On his feet once again

Just days ago, Baumgarten and his team completed the roughly 400 hours of work needed to repair, restore and re-fortify Hugh.

The statue has been moved back to a city-owned facility, Baumgarten says, adding that Hugh should be reattached to his granite base by this weekend. Though no exact date has been set for his official return to Myers Park, there seems to be a unanimous feeling that Hugh will be back on his median in November, perhaps even this month.

Hugh was draped in Carolina Panthers colors and garb in February 2016 as the team prepared to play in Super Bowl 50.

Hugh won’t just look better than he has in 18 years — thanks to a polishing process that took Elijah Baumgarten a couple dozen hours — he’ll also be considerably tougher than when he was new.

And he’ll probably never again take the kind of hits that toppled him. That’s because the city plans to build, essentially, steps on all four sides, leading up to a concrete platform 3 1/2 to 4 feet off the ground. His original granite base will go on top of that. So Hugh’s shoes could be close to 7 feet off the ground.

It would take a pretty big truck, maybe a bus, to get to him.

Still, with Hugh, anything can happen. No one would have predicted that people would venture onto the median to put wedding veils on him. Or high school sweatshirts. Graduation caps. Balloons. Wigs. Giant beaded necklaces. Leis.

“That, to me, is the most incredible thing about it, how it just took on its own energy and life,” says Curtis Gaston, whose mother, Kitty, died in 2014. “I’m glad that my mother lived to see that ... because I think that’s what the greatest pieces of art actually do: They not only represent their original intention, but people see it and they bring their own definition or own understanding to each piece, making it better and stronger and more personal.”

And perhaps all that’s happened to Hugh is a reminder that when we get knocked down, the people who love us (in spite, or because, of our idiosyncracies) can pull us out of the dirt – and maybe even lift us up, a little higher and a little safer than we were before.