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Whatever Happened to the ‘Naked Trike Angel’?

For more than 25 years, a statue of a winged naked man riding a tricycle commanded attention at Merle Hay Mall. In 2000, it abruptly disappeared. Where did it go? Writer Adam Selzer made it his mission to find out.

statue1Written by Adam Selzer

Five years ago, I was passing through my hometown of Des Moines during a road trip with a friend and suggested we go to Merle Hay Mall’s food court, my favorite place to eat as a kid. “You have to see this huge statue they have in the main walkway,” I said. “It’s a naked guy with angel wings riding a tricycle.”

My friend looked at me with an eyebrow raised. “A naked guy at the mall?”

“Yeah,” I said. “On a tricycle. With angel wings.”

We pulled into the mall for lunch, but the statue was gone, along with the fountain and most everything else I remembered about Merle Hay Mall, except for a sporting goods store and a Pizza Hut. I spent the rest of my trip Googling the statue, but there was little information about it online at the time; I couldn’t find a single photograph.

The statue soon became something of an obsession for me. In my day job writing young adult novels, I began to write it into books (though I had to convince one editor that it was real). On my night job leading ghost tours of Chicago, I began to ask customers from Des Moines if they remembered the “naked trike angel.”

Most of them did. Some remembered being afraid of it, and one remembered being afraid to be seen near it, for fear that people would think she was examining its “nakedness.” But no one seemed to think there was anything all that unusual about the statue at the time; for a generation of Iowans, the statue was simply a part of the landscape, like the statues of the “Fry Guys” and the “Apple Pie Tree” at the McDonald’s in the mall basement (which is also gone now). Perhaps we thought every town had a weird statue at the mall.

But in the 12 years since the statue was removed from the mall, it’s taken on the status of an urban legend. For a while, a friend and I planned to make a documentary about the search for the statue, which we planned to call “Where in the World Is the Naked Trike Angel?” We suspected it was still in Des Moines, but I’d heard all sorts of theories. Some said it was removed and melted down after too many people complained that it was inappropriate for a family setting. Others thought it was still hidden somewhere on the mall property, and one person was sure it was in a European gallery. A few had heard it was in a private mansion.

But before we could take off to film the movie, I’d solved the mystery—I’d gotten adept at digging up old stories and getting to the bottom of them in my job as a Chicago tour guide, and solving one where most of the major players in the case were still alive (a rarity for me) turned out to be fairly easy. With just a few phone calls to the mall office and a handful of telephone interviews, I was able to put the story of the remarkable sculpture, and its current whereabouts, together.

statue3The Beginning
When the mall was originally built in 1959, it actually put Des Moines on the cutting edge of suburban retail space. It seems impossible to imagine now, but in the 1950s the term “shopping center” was only a few years old.

In those days, an Austrian-born architect named Victor Gruen was designing the first major indoor suburban shopping centers—today, he is considered the “father” of malls. Gruen planned for malls to be an American version of the town squares he remembered from Europe: places where people would go not just to shop, but to hear lectures, play chess and enjoy works of art. (Lest we think he was too much of a utopian visionary, though, it’s worth noting that he also pioneered the use of playing music at low volumes, having benches too uncomfortable to sit on for long and other tricks to stimulate sales.)

The Chicago-based developers of Merle Hay Mall were aware of Gruen’s work and incorporated some of his ideas into their plans for a shopping center in Des Moines on the site of a former monastery. The initial version was actually an outdoor plaza; when I was a kid, I still had a few teachers who referred to the mall as “Merle Hay Plaza.”

When the mall was enclosed in 1972, developer Len Lammensdorf wanted to create a “fun” space for everyone, and commissioned Mark Jacobsen, a young Santa Monica artist, to create something. Jacobsen had been supporting himself working in charcoal and pastels but took this opportunity to create a three-dimensional work. He made several small samples of ideas, and the one Lammensdorf liked best was UpDown, the naked angel on a tricycle. Jacobsen created the 18-foot sculpture in his studio and designed a sloping brick base for it, and the finished product was installed at Merle Hay in 1974.

The installation was not without controversy; The Des Moines Register featured several articles about how people reacted to “The Winged Rider of the Mall” in its early days. One man told the Register he didn’t know what it was supposed to “represent,” and, though he wasn’t bothered by the nudity, he wasn’t wild about the sculpture in general. “Wings on a man on a tricycle?” he asked. “That doesn’t do much for me.”

His wife was even less thrilled. “If it’s nude,” she said, “it’s offensive.”

Harry Frohwein, the general manager of the mall at the time, told the same reporter that UpDown “wouldn’t cause very many comments at an art center, but this is a shopping center where you have hundreds of thousands of shoppers. And some people are unhappy. It’s controversial.”

Still, this was the 1970s, an era when children’s book authors got away with things I could never get past an editor
today, and Lammensdorf was able to brush off the controversy. “The fact that it’s nude, I take very lightly,” he told a Register reporter at the time. “I just can’t believe that Des Moines is still in the 19th century. My experience with Des Moines people is that they are open-minded. … It might have been safer not to put in Mr. Jacobsen’s art; we might have put in flowers and done just as good a business. But we wanted this to be a fun place.” Art, he believed, was for everybody—not just for people who go to museums or pay admission to art centers. Recently, in a phone interview from his California home, Lammensdorf told me that he came into town when it was installed and attended a few public meetings about it, during which he said he thought the fact that children were fascinated by it was a positive, not a negative, and seemed to win people over.

He seems to have convinced most people; any controversy that may have surrounded the statue died out quickly, and it became enough of a beloved part of the mall to be featured in advertisements. Some pinpoint it now as one of the first works of public art in Des Moines.

statue2

Jerri Scott

A New Home
UpDown remained a part of the mall for more than a quarter century before it was removed in 2000. There was no drama or controversy behind the removal—the control of the mall had simply changed hands, and the new owner didn’t seem to like it. Linda Johnson, the longtime manager of the mall, initially looked for a buyer, but to no avail. None of the art centers or museums she contacted was willing to take it on, and for a time, there was a danger that the best option would be to sell it for scrap.

But throughout the search, she received half-joking offers from Jerri Scott, an acquaintance who had always loved the statue. Scott herself called her offers “ridiculously low.” But when no other offer was forthcoming, Johnson asked Scott if she was serious. Scott was, and she happily wrote a check for an undisclosed sum to the mall, as well as a far larger one to the monument company that moved it to her East Side home.

And that’s where it remains today, a sentinel in her garden, keeping watch over the plants that grow up around it. (The sloped brick base didn’t make the move with the statue.) Scott and her friends call the statue “Merle,” a name bestowed upon the winged rider by the movers who installed him in the garden.

Over the years, she’s welcomed fans who’ve successfully sought out the now-legendary statue. “UpDown makes me laugh and I love him,” she told me when I first contacted her. “Recently, I found another detail I’d never seen before. He continues to surprise me.”

“Merle” couldn’t ask for a better guardian. When I first visited the statue at its new home, Scott showed me lots of touches that I’d never noticed as a kid, like the eagle faces built into the wings, the J (for Jacobsen) on the wheels, and the face on the end of the penis, which can only be seen if you look underneath.

An Urban Legend
As UpDown has become something of an urban legend, it has increased in value; Scott recently turned down a five-figure offer (she declines to specify the exact amount) from a restaurant.

MD Isley, executive director of Bravo Greater Des Moines, hopes to one day see it return to public display. “We’ve got a good movement of interest in art in the city now,” he told me. UpDown is “a bit iconic. It has a connection to the heritage of a certain group of residents in Des Moines, and that’s important for the fabric of the community.”

Mark Jacobsen, the sculptor, went back to school and became a lawyer shortly after completing UpDown. Now living in Honolulu, he recently retired and returned to art full time. In a phone interview, he said he’s been amazed by the resurgence of interest in UpDown “after so many years of obscurity,” when the statue was standing in plain view to hundreds of shoppers every day. He was thrilled to hear that kids used to climb on it, as he’d always hoped they would.

I told Jacobsen that I’d recently shown a picture of the statue to a Des Moines resident who was on one of my ghost tours. The man was amazed to see it because though he remembered the statue, he had come to believe it was just something he dreamed about once—not something that was ever actually at the mall.

Jacobsen laughed. “Sometimes I think the same thing myself,” he said.

41 Responses to “Whatever Happened to the ‘Naked Trike Angel’?” Subscribe

  1. Rob Heater 01/30/2013 at 6:27 pm #

    When I was a kid I heard a rumor that a child ran down the slope into the statue and died is that true?

  2. Darla 01/30/2013 at 8:43 pm #

    Adam – Thank you for solving the mystery! I sure wish they’d make a zillion little copies of that statue so we could all have one :o) I remember shopping with my mother at Merle Hay Plaza – the stores were connected by a big cement patio trimmed with square tiles and blue sky overhead :o).

  3. Becky Waller Bausman 01/30/2013 at 11:41 pm #

    This made my day. I remember it, vaguely, dreamlike, and must have passed by it nothing short of 400 times in my teens. Great piece, Adam.

  4. Mike 01/31/2013 at 12:20 am #

    I’m very glad that you dug this up. I moved from Des Moines in the late 90s and haven’t really been back to the mall since. I remember the statue well, but I’m afraid it’s absence might not have been noticed by me. It’s odd how one can grow accustomed to things and not notice when they are gone. Had I returned to the mall I probably wouldn’t have noticed that he was gone. That’s a bit sad in and of itself. I will remember UpDown now!

  5. Melanie Mann 01/31/2013 at 12:48 am #

    I was so sad when I came back from college & discovered the statue was gone. The mall lost it’s character with the disappearance of the statue. I often wondered what became of that mysterious work of art. Thank you so much for doing the research & sharing the history. I’m glad it found a good home, I just wish it was viewable to the public so I could share it with my daughter.

  6. Meg 01/31/2013 at 1:05 am #

    Now I can’t stop thinking about the old basement McDonald’s. Man, the 80′s were a great time to be alive. Great article! I haven’t been in Merle Hay Mall since maybe 1999, but one could never forget the winged trike rider!

  7. Laura VanValkenburg 01/31/2013 at 2:12 am #

    Excellent article! I heart DSM.

  8. Russell 01/31/2013 at 4:40 am #

    I remember working night cleaning shortly after it was moved off the main floor. It was stored in an empty store down on the first floor. A group of people found it and pushed it back out into the main walkway. It took 3 cleaners and 2 security guards to move it back. People who saw us moving it asked if it was coming back out. They seemed sad when we said no.

    • jerri scott 02/27/2013 at 11:27 pm #

      thanks Russell. UpDown didn’t like those years in the dark.

      Jerri

  9. Angie 01/31/2013 at 4:49 am #

    When we were kids, my sister and I would climb up the brick slope and check the statues mouth for coins after having found a quarter in there once. It was a ritual. It had to be done every time we were at the mall. I miss seeing the statue.

    • jerri scott 02/27/2013 at 11:28 pm #

      Adam Selzer put a quarter in his mouth when he last visited. I keep hoping for a bird family, but no luck yet.

      Jerri

  10. Brian 01/31/2013 at 4:09 pm #

    There was another sculpture that had a wishing well around it. What happened to it?

    • Adam Selzer 01/31/2013 at 8:04 pm #

      Brian – the fountain itself is gone, but the “Eagle” statue from it is still on mall property – outside of the bank near the Aurora entrance.

  11. Anne 02/01/2013 at 3:11 pm #

    I always wondered what happened to the statue. Thank you for your research.

  12. Jane 02/01/2013 at 4:06 pm #

    What a wonderful piece, Adam! Terrific investigative work and I enjoyed how your descriptions took us along for the journey. Clearly, this story struck a chord with the community. Looking forward to reading more of your work.

  13. stacy hancock 02/01/2013 at 4:42 pm #

    awesome!

  14. Laurel 02/01/2013 at 5:12 pm #

    I came to Des Moines to manage a store 2 years after it was moved. In the ten years I’ve lived here, no one’s ever mentioned it. What a great article to stumble on today!

    Now I’m going to have to roam the east side looking for wings in someones back yard.

  15. Tricia Sandahl 02/01/2013 at 5:38 pm #

    This is my favorite piece of art. I remember being fascinated by it as a kid and enjoyed watching my son experience similar wonderment. He’d ride his big wheel and yell that he wanted wings. I moved from central Iowa and didn’t visit the mall until two years ago. I tried to explain the statue to my daughter and got nothing but an eye roll. I’m very glad this angel found a home.

  16. Ryan Bergman 02/01/2013 at 6:07 pm #

    This is an important part of Des Moines urban history and folklore. I’m glad it’s not melted down but I’d like to start a drive to purchase the statue and have it installed as a piece of public art in the city somewhere. Perhaps in a park along the bike paths. Who’s with me?

  17. Judy Gustafson 02/01/2013 at 7:44 pm #

    I shopped for baby furniture and clothes at the Merle Hay Plaza in 1959 before it had a roof over it. You can’t believe how cold it was in December–the north wind blowing so hard I could hardly climb the distance from Younkers to Sears! Thank goodness there was a grocery store in between, and I would duck inside a few minutes just to get warm. And years later, yes, the statue was whimsical–not my favorite–but fun. I’m almost 80 years old now, and we truly did call it the Merle Hay Plaza and I still go there to shop. So many memories!

  18. linda mark 02/01/2013 at 11:01 pm #

    My dad, Robert Campbell (now deceased) would circle that statue and just laugh and laugh. He was a truck driver and had no experience with art. I was a preteen and embarrassed by the nudity, but laughed at my Dad’s reaction. Thanks for bringing back long forgotten memories!

  19. miguel 02/01/2013 at 11:18 pm #

    It would be awesome in the sculpture park or at the art center

    • jerri scott 02/05/2013 at 9:16 pm #

      Miguel, the Art Center didn’t want it.

      Lucky for me, huh?!

      Jerri

      • scot 02/22/2013 at 7:51 am #

        ~ thank you for saving UpDown, Jerri. i grew up in DesMoines and remember the opening of the Plaza. i have lived in StLouis for over 35 years but quite some years back after being given a 2 foot tall chrome articulated art figure by a friend i found a very rusty childs tricycle at a flea market. i assembled them into the first piece a visitor would see when entering my home, high on top of a stair way wall.

        • jerri scott 02/27/2013 at 11:24 pm #

          Next time you plan to be in the Des Moines area, let me know. UpDown always enjoys visitors, Scot.

          Jerri

          • Kerry C 04/08/2013 at 3:39 am #

            I would love to visit Merle and show my wife.

          • Jerri 05/31/2013 at 2:47 am #

            UpDown likes visitors, Kerry.

            You’re welcomed.

            Jerri

  20. This S 02/06/2013 at 7:34 pm #

    Back in the good old daze, I was the Continuity Director at KRNT/KRNQ Radio. I wrote a TON of spots for various stores in the MHM. I used to use the sculpture as a point of reference for one of the stores, maybe a frame shop? The copy said something like, ‘just look for the naked guy with wings on the tricycle’ or words to the effect. Seemed to work.

    I wonder if that store is still open …

    :)

  21. Thomas Abbott 02/14/2013 at 3:58 pm #

    Have always had a great deal of respect for the message this artwork expresses! I am dissappointed more people aren’t able to experience it.

    • jerri scott 02/15/2013 at 12:18 am #

      Hmm, Mr. Abbott?

      What message do you think UpDown expressed?
      I’m curious.

      Maybe we agree.

      Jerri

  22. Mark Jacobsen 03/05/2013 at 3:21 pm #

    I was just a kid myself when I created UpDown. It was (is) laden with personal meaning – a self-portrait more than anything. Not in a literal sense of course – I donʻt have wings and am not nearly so well endowed – more like an impressionist expression of things I felt – the ups and downs of life, my own or anyoneʻs. Up at one moment, soaring on heavenly wings, only to find yourself down the next, earthbound on something so ludicrous as an out-sized tricycle – pedaling furiously up and down hoping to gain enough momentum to fly again – seemingly tragic and comical at the same time.

    I deliberately made UpDown to be accessible to children, I even designed the base, which I considered integral, so that kids could easily climb up-to and on-to it. I hoped the sculpture would do all the things that so many of the kids who grew up with it have said it did for them: intrigue, puzzle, scare, offend, mystify, entice, imagine as naughty, imagine as nice … or just imagine. It has been tremendously gratifying for me, more than 40 years later, to see this story and the comments of these now grown children, and know that this sculpture exceeded my fondest hopes for it.

    I would like to thank Adam Selzer for his own fascination with UpDown and his determination to find out what happened to it, and for writing this story, he got everything right!; DSM Magazine for publishing it; Jerri Scott for having saved “UpDown” from the melting pot; everyone who has commented here; and most of all, Len Lamensdorf who had the foresight and courage and audacity to commission this sculpture in the first place.

    I would be so very honored if the idea of finding a permanent home for UpDown in a public place were to gain traction, and will happily lend my support in any way I can to that effort.

    Thank you Des Moines!

    Mark Jacobsen

    PS There are more pictures of UpDown, and its companion sculpture, a fountain at the other end of the mall (I wonder where that is now), on my website at http://www.mjacobsen.com

    • Mjacobson.com 03/12/2013 at 5:12 am #

      Mark,
      Are you any relations to the Jacobson families in Decorah? They donated their 150 year old family farmstead to the Norwegian American Museum here, and it preserves a a rich heritage.
      UpDown. Started Drake Law School in 1974 and visited Merle Hay Mall often, not to shop but to see “my” statue – I still smile when I think of it. The good news is that I now have some really good pictures of it. I owe you more than a few beers. Next time I’m in Honalulu I’d like to pay up.
      Darrel

    • MD Isley 07/31/2013 at 2:48 am #

      Wonderful!

  23. Mark Jacobsen 05/07/2013 at 4:11 am #

    Not that I know of, but Iʻll accept the beers!

  24. Jim Bochner 10/23/2013 at 1:40 am #

    I remember when this went into the mall, I was only 10 at time and we were just opening our family art gallery called Artistic Hangups, we changed the name to Bochner Gallery in 1980 I use to love eating my lunch while siting on his base and watching the kids play on him :) great memory’s, I was saddened when they removed both sculptures from the courtyard, but am so glad he found a good home, Merle Hay Mall is just a shell of its formal glory now and most of the stores around the courtyard are now empty but I still have my memory’s of it :)

  25. Mike Alley 10/23/2013 at 3:24 pm #

    It was always Ironic that “Merle” was between Hickory Farms and Spencer Gifts–kind of made those two opposites meet in the middle as it were.

  26. Terri Holmgren 10/25/2013 at 12:18 am #

    I am pretty sure this statue was what inspired the tricycle races they used to have around the pond that used to be behind Crawford Dorm at Drake University. They were held at Homecoming time….great fun. This was in the mid-late 1960′s. I worked at Younkers at the mall…both when it was open-air and after they enclosed it. I liked it better open! It was called Merle Hay PLAZA, at first, not mall.

    • Jerri Scott 10/25/2013 at 5:50 pm #

      Sorry Terri.

      UpDown wasn’t conceived or cast until 1974 in California.

      But your trike races sound like a hoot!

  27. Alex Kelly 02/06/2014 at 12:23 am #

    I was so excited to read this entry and put those questions to rest! Thanks for doing the investigating to get to the bottom of things.

    Also, it’s been a while since I was last there, but I’m 99% sure the apple pie tree (from the McDonald’s that used to be in the basement) is now in poor shape, sitting behind Atomic Garage in Valley Junction.

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