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Curious Origins Of The Wings of Freedom Sculpture

A rendering of the "Wings of Freedom" sculpture being proposed for the tip of Navy Pier in downtown San Diego.
A rendering of the "Wings of Freedom" sculpture being proposed for the tip of Navy Pier in downtown San Diego.
Curious Origins Of The Wings of Freedom Sculpture
San Diegans will soon weigh in on a proposed 500-foot sculpture for San Diego’s Navy Pier called Wings of Freedom. But the sculpture’s design has curious origins.

Magnificent. Iconic. A set of bunny ears. A giant hood ornament.

Those are just some of the terms used to describe Wings of Freedom, a massive sculpture being considered for the tip of Navy Pier.

The sculpture resembles two sails rising out of the ground to tower 500 feet over San Diego Bay.


Partial credit for the design goes to Malcolm Leland, a San Diego artist known locally for the Bow Wave, a bronze sculpture in the civic plaza in downtown San Diego.

It was more than 25 years ago that Leland developed a different design he was quite proud of, according to shop owner David Skelley.

Skelley owns Boomerang for Modern in Little Italy and is a close friend of Leland's. He says Leland was so proud of his design he built a small wooden model of it. "Malcolm, when he designed this model, had a very simplistic name and a very appropriate name, called 'Harbor Wings.' ”

Skelley doesn’t think much of the name, Wings of Freedom. "It’s pretty hokey. It’s not what Malcolm would call it."

It’s not just the name that’s different. Leland’s original design was an outdoor amphitheater with two large sails that could fold down over a seating area to shield the audience from rain or harsh sun.


Skelley exhibited Leland’s model design in his store. "People were always blown away by it. It was like, 'This needs to be built!' "

Skelley was surprised when shown a picture of today’s proposed Wings of Freedom sculpture. "Well, that doesn’t look like Malcolm to me. I wonder how this got this far from the original concept, which is very, very different."

Today Malcolm Leland lives in an assisted living center in Portland. I called him to talk about his design. He’s going to be 90 this year and he's quite frail. In an almost whisper, he admitted, "well, I’m frustrated that they’re not using my idea because it’s so simple."

He said there are likely reasons why they can’t use the original design, both technical and financial.

Leland added: "I’m kind of in the dark. It's so far beyond my having any effect on it I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it. It was an honor to have done the original and maybe someday somebody will build it."

Hal Sadler is the founder of the firm Tucker Sadler Architects. He’s guided the sculpture proposal through its many iterations. Sadler is also a longtime friend of Leland’s. We sat in his offices on the 16th floor of the Wells Fargo building, overlooking dramatic views of San Diego Bay. I asked Sadler who designed Wings of Freedom.

"Well, it’s kind of a team that worked on it. Me on the original and certainly Malcolm Leland. He was a vital part of the team but we all gathered together and created the forms," Sadler said.

Greg Miller is the CEO at Tucker Sadler and he sat in on my interview with Sadler. Miller added: "This is a perfect example of artists and architects working together to come up with a perfect solution."

Leland’s amphitheater was estimated to cost $130 million dollars. Wings of Freedom will cost $35 million. Philanthropist Denny Sanford, who lives part of the time in La Jolla, has pledged the entire $35 million to build it.

I asked Sadler if he thinks the sculpture will actually get built. He didn't skip a beat. "Sure I do. If I didn’t I wouldn’t have spent 20 years of my life sitting around, worrying about it, spending half of our profits every year trying to get out on it."

After being out of touch for a couple of years, Sadler spoke with Malcolm Leland the very day he and I met. I asked him what they talked about. "We talked about the design, of course. He’s saying is there any hope at all (for the original design) and I told him a number of times there’s not. And we both commiserated a little bit …. When you have something you’ve done that’s so special, you don’t want to ever give it up. You just keep going, keep trying to make it happen."

As for the name of the sculpture, it was the Midway Museum who came up with Wings of Freedom. (The Museum is responsible for proposing a development project for Navy Pier to the Port District). Greg Miller explained. "They looked at it as a perfect example of wings of freedom, sails of freedom, and they coined the term. And that’s the beauty of art and architecture. It’s open to interpretation and people can see what they want in the structure."

That may be both the beauty and the curse. Not everyone agrees on what constitutes good art.

Mary Beebe is the director of the Stuart Collection at UCSD. She’s not a fan of Wings of Freedom.

It would be so great if San Diego could get an internationally known artist to do something important on the waterfront. Rather than [this sculpture that looks like] water wings that children wear. It’s really an opportunity to do something significant that would be internationally recognized instead of something that looks so silly."

Hal Sadler obviously disagrees. "It’s a proud statement of who we are and what we can be. It’s a major step forward."

According to recent polls, public opinion is split down the middle on whether Wings of Freedom should be built. The public will get to weigh in on "Wings of Freedom" in a series of meetings beginning November 29th.

The Midway Museum (developers of the proposed park and sculpture) will hold three public meetings on the Navy Pier plan, all at the port's headquarters, 3165 Pacific Highway: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 29, 6:30 p.m. Dec. 6 and 9 a.m. Dec. 10.