The city’s Historic Site Preservation Board on Tuesday elected to take the next step forward in what could be the eventual removal of a controversial statue in front of City Hall, but not without considerable angst as it struggled with what, exactly, it was deciding.
The move followed the review of a report prepared by a firm hired to determine whether removing the statue would impact the historical significance of City Hall, a Class 1 historic site. The HSPB asked for the report last November after being tasked with considering a “certificate of appropriateness” for the statue’s removal.
The question before the board appeared simple, but was ripe with political overtones as the community remains divided on the issue: Does removing the statue, a bronze sculpture of former Mayor Frank Bogert on horseback erected in 1990, alter the historical significance of City Hall, which was completed in 1952 and designed by architect Albert Frey?
Not at issue, a city staff member reminded the HSPB, was whether it was right to honor Bogert with a statue on city property in the first place or to approve the statue’s removal last September. That decision was made when the Palm Springs City Council voted unanimously to move forward with the process required to remove the statue. That process included review by the HSPB, which is tasked with making decisions about the city’s historic properties.
“The thing that we are looking at was not to question the value of the statue,” said Ken Lyon, an associate planner with the city who advises the board, “but rather what happens when you take this object off this site in terms of the historic site, which is the building.”
Some on the HSPB disagreed, adding that the statue’s presence should be considered more broadly when debating what makes City Hall significant. They pushed back on the report, claiming it did not address the statue’s overall value to the site’s history as previously requested.
“Is that statue not a feature of the entire site?” asked Board Member Jade Nelson, adding later that “City Hall is an ongoing historical resource.”
After an hour of debate, the HSPB ultimately voted to grant the certificate by a 4-2 vote, with Nelson abstaining. Board Chair Katherine Hough and Board Member Stephen Rose cast no votes. A “strong recommendation” that city officials move the statue to a publicly accessible site, possibly the Village Green Heritage Center on South Palm Canyon Drive, was added to the motion.
The City Council’s vote last year came at the end of a five-hour virtual joint meeting with the city’s Human Rights Commission, which had adopted a resolution recommending the statue be removed. More than 130 people attended the September meeting via Zoom. Dozens offered public testimony.
Bogert, who died in 2009, was a prominent businessman who served as mayor twice, including during one of the ugliest periods in city history – the late 1950s through the mid-1960s. During that time, residents of tribal-owned land in the center of the city — known as Section 14 — were forced out of their homes when business owners sought to develop the property following the adoption of a federal law that allowed tribes to enter into long-term leases.
Many of the residents forced out of Section 14 were members of the city’s African-American community. Some who experienced the forced removal firsthand spoke during public comments during the meeting Tuesday, urging removal of the statue.
“I’ll never forget the extremely traumatic, cowardice act of our family being herded like cattle with no place to go and no relocation fees to get to where we were going,” said Alvin Taylor, a member of the Section 14 Survivors Group. “It makes me cry every time I pass by and see [the statue] there.”