Spire meant to inspire Salisbury’s future

The Downtown obelisk in a photo from 2015.

When city of Salisbury engineers began contemplating how to best move the Fred P. Adkins Monument on the city’s Downtown Plaza, there were no records on what might lie beneath the base and how the 30-foot-tall aluminum spire was structurally placed.

But one man who was there when the Alfredo Halegua sculpture was erected in 1970 remembered what he saw, and his witnessing Salisbury history proved valuable.

K. King Burnett, a longtime Salisbury attorney and iconic community leader for more than four decades, was there that winter day as a crane lifted the 4,065-pound art piece onto the base where it would remain for a half-century.

K. King Burnett.

Burnett, then-president of the county Arts Council, a highly regarded historic preservationist and a fierce proponent of Downtown revitalization, appreciated the structure’s symbolism and the progressive ideals it might inspire.

Over the years, however, a lot of people seem to have forgotten the message intended by such an unusual sculpture. It has often been the object of derision.

“It’s not a great piece of art,” Burnett acknowledged recently by phone, speaking from his retirement home in New England. “It’s a statement about our hope in life.”

He added: “It expresses a sense of pride — it says we can do something modern, too.”

In the context of the time, the early 1970s were a crucial period of transition in Downtown Salisbury. With the opening of the Salisbury Mall in 1968, Downtown’s hundred-year purpose as the Eastern Shore’s retail hub was suddenly under full assault. To compete, the decision was made to make West Main Street an outdoor mall of sorts, to entice shoppers to maintain their consumer loyalty to the urban core.

Asphalt was converted to bricks, planters, trees and fountains were installed, and an idyllic pedestrian plaza was created.

The walkway needed a centerpiece, a focal point, however, and a committee of prominent local business leaders formed to find one. 

“We needed something unique and different,” Burnett recalled. “We (put) something there that was unique, that was worth building there.

The Fred P. Adkins obelisk is lifted into place during on Salisbury’s Downtown Plaza in 1970.

“We didn’t get some statue of a man on horseback. We really looked to the future.”

The committee that sought to place the marker or statue or artwork had a mission statement:

“It should not be a memorial, but rather a work of art that will symbolize the progressive spirit of the city of Salisbury, and that will become a symbol of our city.”

The sculpture was dedicated April 3, 1970, in a grand event attended by more than 400 people. Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel arrived by helicopter, which itself was a news event.

It’s location made it visible from Route 50, so motorists headed to or from Ocean City could look down St. Peter’s Street and possibly be intrigued enough to stop.

Halegua, its world-renowned Peruvian sculptor, had constructed models to ensure the spire fit proportionally to the surrounding building. He said he had even taken the sun into consideration, and promised the structure — seven-sided at its base and rising to a two-sided point at the top — would project “an interesting shadow pattern.”

The price tag of $24,000 — $170,000 in today’s money — was raised privately.

Critics speak

The committee and city leaders were no doubt taking a risk when they approved the project. There was a distinct chance people might not share such an intellectual vision.

Many people across the Shore considered Salisbury a place where farmers came to bring their crops, sell wood or buy coal. Salisbury’s leaders had ambitions to create something of a cultural mecca.

Downtown apparel retailer Lewis M. Hess predicted the sculpture “will bring national attention to Salisbury, just as the National Indoors (Tennis Championship) has since 1964.”

In a 1969 edition of The Salisbury Times, Burnett then was quoted as saying: “No other town of our size has ever tried to authorize the creation of a work of art such as this. We hope that people in the future will come to identify the spire with Salisbury and it will become a symbol of our city.”

In March, crews from Aerial Crane and the City of Salisbury removed the Fred P. Adkins spire from its 50-year home on the Salisbury Downtown Plaza.

Curmudgeonly Daily Times columnist John Bozman, reacting in 1986 to a reader who had complained the newspaper was wrong to constantly refer to the sculpture as an “obelisk,” used the episode to unload his thoughts about the Adkins’ monument.

Bozman declared that, to please everyone, it should be called “the Smallsbury Shaft.”

In a classic diatribe, Bozman fired each of his pen barrels in regard to what he considered “an eyesore.”

“What we have here in Salisbury to honor one of our past community leaders is a seven-sided piece of aluminum with a flat chisel-like top resting on a so-called reflecting pool containing less water than your average backyard kiddie pool.”

Bozman added: “I wouldn’t even venture a guess what you call such a configuration, but it is definitely NOT an obelisk.”

Who was Fred Adkins?

If it wasn’t for the aluminum obelisk, few people would have any clue who Fred P. Adkins ever was. Hardly anyone around today knows what Fred P. Adkins ever did.

Artist Alfredo Halegua in 1969 with a sketch of his Salisbury sculpture erected in 1970.

Testaments to his life and community service can be seen all over Salisbury.

A businessman and civic leader from the 1920s through the ’50s, Adkins ran his family’s lumber yard, the E.S. Adkins Co. on North Salisbury Boulevard. To get all that lumber, the family owned acres and acres of trees all over the Eastern Shore.  E.S. Adkins was the local equivalent of Home Depot and Lowe’s before there was such a thing as big-box stores.

Adkins lived in one of Salisbury’s grand homes on Park Avenue, overlooking the city’s busy port on today’s North Prong. He was a leader in the city’s service clubs, and saw the business and cultural possibilities Salisbury possessed.

Adkins and his brothers, Dale Adkins, Harry C. Adkins and Samuel F.M. Adkins, purchased a large stake in the failing Wicomico News, invested significant cash in it, and converted the publication into The Salisbury Times in the 1920s. Salisbury might never have had a daily newspaper without Fred P. Adkins.

Just after World War II, he was at the head of another local group that pioneered air service to Salisbury with Chesapeake Airways. The airline was ahead of its time and lost money, but it established the service that today links Salisbury with the rest of the world by air.

He was an early backer of the plan to build the Wicomico Hotel (the city’s enduring modern landmark) and had a vision that Salisbury Teachers College could be far more than just a local institution.

It also was Fred P. Adkins who demanded Bethesda United Methodist Church give up its old Church Street structure and build a new church on North Division Street. That distinctive granite pile construction that defines the church? That, too, was done at Fred P. Adkins’ insistence.

Former Daily Times editor Dick Moore once wrote a column stating Adkins’ philosophy: “If we are careful, and want to do the right thing, it usually works out.”

Adkins died in 1963 at age 84.

Salisbury business leader Tom George crafted the words on the reflecting pool plaque that saluted Adkins:

“Inspired by the achievements of the past and dedicated to our faith in the future. The Friends of Fred P. Adkins 1878-1963.

New home on traffic circle

Work is continuing now on the city’s new $859,400 traffic circle at the Riverside Drive/Mill Street/Carroll Street/Camden Avenue intersection.

A 120-foot-diameter roundabout will transform Salisbury’s busiest intersection. Traffic congestion extending north to Route 50 is a longtime community headache and complaint. While traffic lights are the only remedy for West Main and 50, a traffic circle has long been touted as a solution for Riverside and Carroll.

In the center of that circle, engineers plan to relocate the Adkins obelisk, along with some planters, bushes and greenery.

Burnett, for whom the Adkins sculpture has a deeply personal connection, said he wasn’t sure he supported moving the obelisk off the Plaza and reopening West Main Street as a real city street.

But he conceded that times change, as do viewpoints and priorities and a new generation of leaders is entitled to make change.

“It will always be a symbol of our belief in a splendid future,” he said.

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