Missing Big Bill in the land of McKinley

Former Arcata Plaza McKinley statue's status not publicly known; multiple display sites available in former president's home town

CANTON CAN-DO Mayor Tom Bernabei with a sheaf of sites at which the former Plaza statue could be located. In his hand is an image of the Stark County Courthouse, where young William McKinley practiced law. KLH | Union

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

CANTON, OHIO – Somewhere in this midwestern town, where young attorney William McKinley embarked on a political career that propelled him into history, a large statue imported from the left coast is waiting to emerge, restored and rebooted, and again be placed on public display. 

The present location and status of George Zehndner’s 1906 gift to the people of Arcata – who rejected it by a two-thirds majority vote in 2018 – isn’t publicly known.

“I assume it’s around here somewhere,” said Canton, Ohio Mayor Thomas Bernabei. He’s quick to add that no public funds went into the statue’s acquisition, and refers inquiries to its non-governmental custodians. While initially delivered to renovation experts at Canton’s Coon Restoration and Sealants, it remains under the protective custody of the Timken Foundation, which partnered with the City of Canton and other civic-minded groups to restore and re-install it here. 

So far, Timken has kept the statue and its restoration plans under wraps – literally and figuratively – defying fact-finding efforts by reporters local and otherwise. Communication, initially terse, went from minimal to nonexistent in the months following its import from Arcata. 

Tattered, chemical-splattered and voted off his Plaza island, Haig Patigian's statue of William McKinley awaits transport to Canton, Ohio last March 11. KLH | Union

If its present owners feel protective about the massive McKinley likeness, that could in part be because of the condition Arcata left it in – dirty, damaged and splattered in solvent, not to mention denounced and disrespected in ways unthinkable here.

With the communications embargo, hopes of seeing the battered statue undergoing restoration proved fruitless. But Canton’s affable mayor was eager to share what he could, and took time out of his busy day to usher a reporter around to some likely new locations for Arcata’s longtime Plaza fixture.

The Stark County born-and-bred Bernabei is a Canton man through and through, and clearly enjoys showing off his town’s many civic and cultural assets. While McKinley’s name appears on multiple landmarks, there are still available places which could readily accommodate Haig Patigian’s reverential rendering.

Mayor Bernabei at Saxton House, now the National First Ladies Library, where Ida and William McKinley lived during his congressional service and one of many possible sites for placing the restored statue. KLH | Union

Statue-friendly sites include Saxton House, where Mr. and Mrs. McKinley once lived, Canton’s Central Plaza, the Canton Museum of Art, the Stark County Courthouse, McKinley Senior High School, even Crossroads United Methodist Church, in which McKinley was active. 

Though an April online poll by the Canton Repository newspaper showed 45 percent in favor of placing the statue at the McKinley Presidential Library and Museum, that institution has (so far) declined the offer. The Central Plaza came in second at 33 percent, and Saxton House third at 15 percent.

Despite the opacity of the process, it seems likely that Canton will honor both the will of the Arcata City Council and Bernabei’s promise, made in a pitch to acquire the statue, that it will be “publicly visible.” Arcata's council turned down several offers by private interests who wouldn’t necessarily have done so. One provision not specified by Arcata during transfer negotiations was that the restoration process be known to the public.

As gracious as Bernabei were the staff of the Canton Repository newspaper, which is also following the statue story and who took a visiting reporter on a tour of its offices.  

Canton repository Staff Writer Charita Goshay in the newspaper's well-maintained archives. KLH | Union

Another Arcata Plaza feature that went away last March was the 1963-vintage plaque honoring Registered Historical Landmark No. 783 – the Jacoby Building – at Eighth and H streets. Its “Indian troubles” claim deemed inappropriate and misleading, the plaque’s revised wording is still in the works. Replacement verbiage approved by the Historic Landmarks Committee and local Indian tribes is being adapted to fit on the replacement plaque.

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