Transformers Sculptures at Heart of Property Rights Dispute in Washington

Posted on May 30 2023 - 5:21pm by Paige Brown, Managing Editor
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By Devin Meenan

“I am here as counsel for my good friend Optimus Prime.” Those surreal words were spoken by Paul Strauss, U.S. Shadow Senator for the District of Columbia, in the latest meeting of the D.C. Public Space Committee on Thursday, May 25, 2023. One item on the docket concerned whether local neurosurgeon Dr. Newton Howard is allowed to display art in front of his Georgetown residence. The art in question? A small collection of 10–foot tall sculptures modeled on characters from the “Transformers” media franchise, about giant alien robots who transform into vehicles like cars and planes. Based on photos of the site, the statues are displayed in alternating pairs.

The statues, designed by an anonymous welder, were assembled from authentic car parts and other mechanical components. They have been displayed since January 2021. What is Howard’s motive behind this public display? “I commissioned them because the Transformers represent human and machine living in harmony, if you will,” said Howard to Slate in 2021.

The statues have become a popular tourist attraction/selfie destination, but Howard’s neighbors are less impressed. In March 2021, six residents penned a letter of protest to the Old Georgetown Board at the DC Office of Planning. The letter included the following passage:

“It is clear that 'transformer robot' structures sitting on planters are clearly inconsistent with the goal to preserve the historic nature of Georgetown. By themselves, and despite the character of our historic street, these structures change the nature, and therefore, the value of all of the homes on the 3600 block of Prospect Street, NW.”

Other cited concerns include increased foot traffic, sidewalk obstruction, and safety – while the statues are secured in place by a professional engineer, their size and weight could lead to harm for any passersbys if they should fall over. The Old Georgetown Board approved Howard for a now-expired six-month permit in 2021 – he is as firm in his intent to keep them up as his opponents are in seeing them removed.

Credit: Washington Post: Newton Howard

Strauss represented Howard at the aforementioned D.C. Public Space Committee. He had two celebrity witnesses: voice actors Peter Cullen and Dan Gilvezan, who played Optimus Prime and Bumblebee, respectively, in the original 1984 “Transformers” cartoon. The actors testified in support of the statues while in-character: Cullen sent in a recording of himself while Gilvezan gave a live performance/testimonial.

Gilvezan spoke to RISMedia about the experience. As he recounts, Strauss reached out to him and Cullen separately through a mutual acquaintance, actor Emily Swallow. Despite the unusual request, Gilvezan was happy to lend his voice (or rather, Bumblebee’s).

“I think that the statues are great,” Gilvezan says. “They’re beautiful to me, works of art. And that was another facet of this thing. It's like, ‘Can I display art in front of my home?” Gilvezan’s point illustrates how this seemingly silly story represents a larger contention over property rights. 

Strauss – an advocate for D.C. statehood – spoke on this as well to The Huffington Post. “At the end of the day, this should be a decision made by D.C. residents, not federal appointees.”

However, the board ultimately voted against allowing the sculptures to stay up and denied Howard’s permit application. Howard, Strauss and Gilvezan all indicated that the fight was just beginning, with the latter saying that he would, “more than happy” to testify again. “It just seems they're not hurting anyone; they're adding a lot of joy to people's lives… Both Bumblebee and I are standing by,” Gilvezan added.

Devin Meenan is an assistant editor for RISMedia.