15 January 2010

Concrete wildlife (another continuing series)

Dinosaur Hill, Dinosaur Park, Rapid City

Two things (among many) that people can't seem to agree on: what is art, and what is history? Without getting into an endless discussion of these, I'm putting up part of a series on outdoor concrete prehistoric wildlife sculpture. (Didn't know that was a genre, did you?) There are many prehistoric critter sculptures in this region, but the leader of them all, the oldest and most ambitious in its way, is Dinosaur Park on Dinosaur Hill in Rapid City. It's art AND history. Because I said so, that's why.

Triceratops concretensis

Dinosaur Park is a Works Progress Administration project, dedicated in 1936 on top of a hill overlooking Rapid City and the edge of the Black Hills. The dinos are built out of steel pipe, mesh, concrete, and layers of exhaustingly green paint. Who knew that they were so color-coordinated? Someone at the paint store really came through for this project.

Tyrannosaurus sans hands

The Works Progress Administation (WPA) was rather confusingly renamed the Work Projects Administration (WPA) in 1939. It was a Depression recovery program, proving a variety of public-works jobs to workers in need of them. WPA projects included a variety of public and park buildings, bridges, roads...and art. Many murals, especially a number of historic Post Office murals, arose as WPA projects. Dinosaur Park is listed as WPA 960, created by sculptor Emmett Sullivan. It was later listed on the National Register of Historic Places on June 21, 1990. Nice day for it.

Anatotitan, the dinosaur formerly known as Trachodon

It's very simple. Dinosaur Park on Dinosaur Hill has, er, seven concrete dinosaurs in a park on top of a hill. Hence the names. You can see them on the city skyline from multiple vantage points. They mostly represent fossils found in western South Dakota and the region, with a couple of exceptions. They don't light up or roar or move. They just stand there and look impressive and historic and a little bit goofy.

Stegosaurus bizarretailensis

They were meant to lure tourists driving to and from the Badlands and points west, witth hopes that people would stop their cars and spend money in Depression-bruised Rapid City before proceeding. Skyline Drive, where the dinosaurs reside, is a scenic and sometimes unnerving drive along a steep hogback ridge at the edge of the Black Hills, and the town fathers wanted people to leave the beaten path and explore the area.

Why dinosaurs? The Chicago World's Fair in 1933-34 featured an astounding exhibit on prehistoric life, including what could be called the first animatronic representations of dinosaurs and othe extinct creatures. As part of this, the Sinclair Oil Company focused on an exhibition of moving dinosaurs as a way to tie into the formation of oil. These do not really connect, in case you're wondering, but in 1933 it brought the crowds in by the hundreds of thousands. The big guy in the postcard above could swing his head and tail and make noises, awe-inspiring at the time. Some popular culture historians suggest that our own culture's fascination with dinosaurs started in Chicago at the Sinclair Pavilion.

Dimetrodon bubbai. No, that's not his real species name.

Not all the Dinosaur Park dinosaurs are from the region, or are even dinosaurs. This is an angry Dimetrodon, who, like me, is a displaced West Texan, and who showed up too early to be a dinosaur. Maybe that accounts for the attitude--he missed the party. There are lots of photos of him with visitors' arms and legs and heads and small children in his mouth.

Dimetrodon was featured at the Chicago exhibition, too. That seems to have been Sullivan's main criterion for which dinosaurs to include in concrete on Dinosaur Hill. You're tired of driving across the prairie, you're hot and dusty, and suddenly a line of steep hills with dinosaurs on top looms in front of you. And you know what they are, you've seen the postcards from New York and Chicago, so you stop, curious. Or at least that was the hope.

Protoceratops patiently guarding what will turn out to be someone else's eggs

Protoceratops was a major find in the American Museum of Natural History's Central Asian expeditions to China and Mongolia in the 1920s. By 1933, it was well-known, thanks to the AMNH exhibit and the popular writing of Roy Chapman Andrews. Protoceratops was found with nests and eggs, which would turn out decades later to be those of the dinosaur unfairly named Oviraptor.

Even the nest and eggs are painstakingly re-created in concrete. And then painted Dinosaur Park green. It's so lifelike...

It's peaceful up on Dinosaur Hill, and I wonder just how much these sorts of parks and exhibits have influenced our thinking and wondering about the past. The dinosaurs are stoic and patient, though they have been known to get wild and sport red bows at Christmas. I'm not sure I believe that they never make noise, though. I think I'll check them out at twilight sometime.

1 comment:

Patty said...

Sally, Cindy's father helped carry sand up that hill (walking) so he could earn some of that money during the Depression. It was one of his favorite stories to tell!