Christ of Ozarks statue turns 50

To celebrate, towering image gets $20,000 in touch-ups

The Christ of the Ozarks statue near Eureka Springs resembles the statue at Rio de Janeiro, but the arms on the Brazilian Jesus have a 27-foot-longer reach.
The Christ of the Ozarks statue near Eureka Springs resembles the statue at Rio de Janeiro, but the arms on the Brazilian Jesus have a 27-foot-longer reach.

EUREKA SPRINGS -- Towering over Rio de Janeiro, the 98-foot-tall Christ the Redeemer statue has been on prominent display during the Olympics over the past two weeks.


McKinley Weems, 95, of Eureka Springs uses his iPad to show photos of the construction of the Christ of the Ozarks 50 years ago.



The Christ the Redeemer statue stands above Maracana stadium Monday in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

It's the largest statue of Jesus in Brazil, made even more imposing by a 26-foot-tall pedestal and its perch atop Mount Corcovado, 2,310 feet above sea level.

Some 5,256 miles to the north, the largest statue of Jesus in the United States looms over Eureka Springs in Arkansas' Carroll County.

The 67-foot-tall Christ of the Ozarks statue on Magnetic Mountain turned 50 this year.

It looks similar to the statue in Brazil, with arms stretched out to the side. Christ of the Ozarks has an arm span of 65 feet, 27 feet shy of Christ the Redeemer.

There's no pedestal under the feet of Jesus on Magnetic Mountain. In fact, efforts were made to keep the entire structure under 70 feet tall. Otherwise, federal regulations would have required a red light to be installed on the top of Jesus' head to warn aircraft.

Christ of the Ozarks was designed by Emmet Sullivan, an apprentice to Gutzon Borglum, sculptor of the Mount Rushmore National Monument in South Dakota.

The Eureka Springs statue was made of 24 layers of white mortar on a steel frame, and it weighs over 500 tons. The statue stands on a 320-ton foundation of concrete and steel.

McKinley Weems, structural engineer for the statue, said he remembers hauling the face of Christ in a flatbed trailer from a workshop downtown. The face and hands were made separately from the body and head.

A cable was hooked to the back of the 15-foot-long face. When workers began lifting the face to attach it to the statue, it slipped and fell back into the trailer, then slid out, with the nose landing in the mud, said Weems.

Gerald L.K. Smith, who commissioned the construction, turned to a reporter from WBBM Radio in Chicago and said, "That's how we test it before we put it up."

The nose dive didn't damage the face of Jesus, Weems said.

But the passing of time did.

For the past eight months, Christ of the Ozarks has been getting a face-lift.

"The Christ of the Ozarks turns 50 this year -- 17 years longer than Jesus walked the earth," said Kent Butler, a spokesman for the Great Passion Play and one of four actors who play the role of Jesus.

"We are in the final process of the restoration effort for the memorial statue -- kind of a face-lift if you will -- in celebration of 50 years."

The restoration, which costs more than $20,000, is being funded primarily by donations. It has been a slow and tedious process, said Randall Christy, president of the Passion Play.

"The statue had several blemishes that amounted to deteriorated concrete, which needs to be removed, ground out, refilled with concrete, textured and painted," he said.

The statue was built by the Elna M. Smith Foundation, named for Gerald L.K. Smith's wife, on property the foundation owns. The foundation produces The Great Passion Play every summer.

Gerald Smith was a minister and political agitator known widely in the 1930s for his anti-Semitic views. He was an organizer for Louisiana political boss Huey P. Long.

Smith made several unsuccessful runs for the U.S. Senate and for president, the last time in 1956. He moved to Eureka Springs in 1964.

In a booklet published in 1967, Gerald Smith wrote that the statue was built to last.

"Built to withstand 500-mile-an-hour winds or more," he wrote. "An automobile could be suspended from either wrist without affecting the statue."

In 2010, the statue was considered for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, but it was only 44 years old at the time.

Normally, properties have to be 50 years old to be listed in the National Register, but exceptions can be made if they're of "exceptional importance." The State Review Board of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program decided not to give Christ of the Ozark an exemption that year.

Ralph Wilcox, National Register and survey coordinator for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, said the statue won't be nominated this year but it might be later, along with the rest of the Great Passion Play site. The Passion Play was founded in 1968, two years after construction was completed on the statue, so the other buildings on the grounds aren't as old as the statue.

Although probably the most famous statue of Jesus in the world, Brazil's Christ the Redeemer isn't the largest statue of Jesus in South America. Cristo de la Concordia in Bolivia holds that title. It's 112 feet tall and has a 20-foot-tall pedestal.

In North America, the largest Jesus statue is Christ Resurrected in Mexico, which is 99 feet tall, not counting the pedestal.

SundayMonday on 08/21/2016

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