Parked and Wrecked

E yesore or masterpiece? Few local attractions have drawn a more polarized response than Ghost Parking Lot, a public art installation that occupied a portion of the Hamden Plaza lot along Dixwell Avenue from 1977 until its removal in 2003, by which time it had seriously deteriorated. A few weeks ago, the only unusual feature of that same stretch of asphalt between Starbucks and Wood ’n’ Tap restaurant was two giant piles of sad, gray snow. Most of the spaces sat empty, and the midday winter sun did little to warm them.

Whether you loved it or hated it, you couldn’t help but notice Ghost Parking Lot. The original concept comprised 20 cars “parked” in spaces fronting Dixwell Avenue that, depending on your perspective, were at various stages of either sinking into or rising from the asphalt. According to a 2000 article in the New York Times, the cars “were stripped of their interiors, sandblasted to remove exterior paint, filled with concrete to various depths, from full exposure of the body to complete burial, and then covered with a thin layer of asphalt so that the sculpture blended in with its surroundings—the shopping plaza parking lot. The vehicles include sedans, station wagons, convertibles and sports cars (but no SUVs).”

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“It was built as a work of art you could not possibly put in a museum,” Ghost artist James Wines told the Times. “Its vitality comes from being in a parking lot. We were interested in being in a situation where the people are. Art for everyone is very democratic.” Wines is the founder of the “architecture and environmental arts studio” SITE, which implements art and architectural installations worldwide using what it calls “environmental thinking.” He won the 2013 National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement, among dozens of other professional awards. His work now belongs to the collections of 35 museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Centre Pompidou in Paris, according to SITE’s website.

Wines’s interred cars weren’t Hamden Plaza’s only art installations. Before George Rhoads’s Magic Clock was set up outside the space now occupied by clothing and gift shop Dava, it (or a close cousin) apparently made an appearance in the lobby at 2 World Trade Center in New York. The Times described the sculpture as a crowd-pleasing toy of sorts whose “pings, clangs, whirs, thuds and bongs… emerged from the Plexiglas-enclosed gears, gongs, springs, pendulums, pans, spools, cages and saw blades, all set in motion by oversized pinballs and culminating in the squawk of a raucous cuckoo clock.”

An informal poll of Hamdenites today elicits memories of numerous other Hamden Plaza installations: a wheel outside Ashley’s Ice Cream that, when spun, made a “moving image of someone licking an ice cream cone”; a piece “with magnetic filaments that moved and changed to music” including “Flight of the Bumblebee”; an instrument made of metal tubes played with an attached mallet; a mirror array that “made multiple reflections of you if you stood on the X”; a rock that moved as if on its own; and “pelts” made out of vehicles, such as “kiddie pedal cars, cut at the seams and laid flat like a bear skin rug.” The plaza also boasted a billboard with the complete front of a Ford Pinto on one side and its rear on the other side as well as two murals on the buildings themselves: one with an ocean theme, the other depicting the orchards that once stood on the shopping center’s site. This outdoor art show was curated by Hamden Plaza owner David Bermant, who also included public art in four other shopping centers he owned nationwide.

For its part, Ghost Parking Lot wasn’t art to be contemplated from a distance, and Hamdenites—kids, especially—seemed to understand that. They climbed on the cars and rode their skateboards over the hillocks of submerged roofs and hoods and trunks. That was fine with Wines. But hard use, the ravages of weather and a lack of ongoing maintenance caused the installation to decay over time. Cracks opened and weeds sprung. Five cars were removed in order to widen the plaza entrance. In an attempt to clean up the site, a coat of asphalt was added without consulting Wines, glossing over details meant to be seen in the original sculpture. Wines told the Hartford Courant he would have preferred the piece to deteriorate naturally. “That was supposed to be part of the whole thing… We figured that over time, it would be destroyed—let it fade away and the cars would be revealed again. That would be a theatrical artwork in itself.”

In 2003, after numerous attempts to save and restore Ghost Parking Lot, the cars were exhumed and the lot repaved. Today, a panel mounted outside Marshall’s tells the story of Hamden’s most controversial work of art, with nine photographs that document the project from installation to decline.

Most of Bermant’s other Hamden installations have gone the way of Ghost, but three survive. George Rhoads’s kinetic sculpture Bee Tree is mounted atop the plaza’s vintage sign at the entrance nearest Starbucks. An array of silver cones on rods catches the breeze and spins like an industrial pinwheel—or, as the artist apparently would have it, like a swarm of bees.

A similar sculpture, larger and more complex in its machinations, stands front and center in the plaza’s parking lot. Unlabeled, this one too appears to be a Rhoads sculpture, titled Windamajig (1983). A tall white tower with colorful cones, Windamajig spins in a stiff breeze like a carnival ride or stands becalmed on a still day.

Only one of the shopping center’s many sidewalk installations remains. Weeping Column (1983) is an odd concrete monolith mounted on a pedestal outside Skechers. A descriptive label identifies the artist as Clyde Lynds and references the effect of light from fiber optics, no longer operating. Like Magic Clock and the moving rock sculpture recalled by neighbors, Weeping Column appeared in the World Trade Center lobby exhibition, where one might surmise Bermant did some shopping for Hamden Plaza.

Weeping Column’s original intent was to evoke “ancient civilizations,” which “have left us many records of their existence, much of it inscribed on fragments of stone from the art and architecture of the time,” according to the label posted near it today. The same now seems to be true of this 20th-century relic, which has experienced some of the decay it was designed to reflect.

Though only Bee Tree, Weeping Column and Windamajig survive as markers of Bermant’s unusual devotion to public art, Ghost Parking Lot still claims the most lasting legacy. A 2014 article in the London Observer listed it as one of the 10 best “car parks turned into art spaces,” calling it “poetry in asphalt.” Its imminent demise was mourned in Architecture magazine in 2002: “Wines’s work cross-pollinates art and architecture and has been claimed by the pop art, land art, postmodernist and conceptual art movements.” Connecticut architect Michael J. Crosbie called Ghost Parking Lot “a hauntingly witty row of cars” and held it up as an example of what public art is and should be.

Not everyone in Hamden was sad to see Ghost Parking Lot go. The label of “public art” as applied to it and the rest of Bermant’s collection was hotly contested. But even setting aside the point that you don’t have to like something to acknowledge it as art, the decisive reactions of longtime Hamdenites asked to recall Hamden Plaza’s installation heyday—“great to watch,” “fabulous,” “loved it!”—indicate that the “public” part was a rousing success.

Hamden Plaza, former site of Ghost Parking Lot
2100 Dixwell Ave, Hamden (map)
www.siteenvirodesign.com/…

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images, of Ghost Parking Lot in 1977—including a mid-construction shot—provided courtesy of SITE New York.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Join her this month on Goodreads for a guided winter reading of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein.

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