Palo Alto History. Org

Foreign Friends: An Unfriendly Welcome

It was not exactly The Statue of Liberty, but Palo Alto was once given a statue in friendship from its sister city, Linkoping, Sweden.  Known as “Foreign Friends” --- Fjareen Vanner in Swedish --- it was installed at the grassy corner of Waverley and Embarcadero in September of 1989 as a tribute to the bond between the two cities. The 11 foot wood plank statue depicted a couple sitting on a bench accompanied by a dog at their feet and a bird perched above on a street lamp.  Opinions differed greatly on the statue --- some saw it as grotesquely ugly, others as charmingly original.  But the tale of Foreign Friends would be a sad one --- in ten years time, Foreign Friends would be nowhere in sight, rotting away and buried in a Palo Alto landfill.

Foreign Friends was a favorite picture-taking spot and curious attraction when it was first installed.  Around holiday time one year, some jolly yuletider dressed the pair in Santa hats and on another occasion, apparently imbibed with the spirit of a neighborhood wedding, the couple appeared dressed as a bride and groom.  One year, city boosters put the couple in a tux and party dress to advertise the city’s fund-raising gala, the Black and White Ball.  And on particularly cold mornings, neighborhood care-takers would sometimes wrap the statue in blankets.  

Corny?  Sure, but also rather charming.

But the statue also had a legion of critics.  Some of the statue’s new neighbors were anything but welcoming, calling it a public eyesore and vowing to have it removed.
And the oversized wooden couple would soon become a sitting duck for area bullies, helplessly picked on for more than five years. On several occasions the statue was spray-painted or defaced with graffiti.   One morning the couple was found holding an enormous envelope inscribed with the words “Return to Sender.”  
And in a story almost too weird to be a true, Foreign Friends was once doused with gasoline and nearly incinerated by a Stanford professor.  And it would get worse…

On Halloween night 1993, the statue was decapitated.  Rallying to the statue’s defense, the Palo Alto’s Public Art Commission asked Hungarian artist Tamas Ortutay to reattach the heads and restore the work --- thanks to the help of an anonymous $3,000 donation. The “Friends” were again looking their best for a picture taken with the Gunn High School Band departing for Linkoping on a foreign exchange trip.

But on February 10th, 1994, Foreign Friends was again the target of vandalism.  The heads were sawed off for a second time --- and this time carted away --- leaving the eerie specter of a headless statue to welcome newcomers driving into the city.  

As the statue was transferred to the city’s maintenance yard, Ralph White of Neighbors Abroad found a sculptor to redesign the heads in redwood.  When finished, the new heads were again attached by the indulgent Mr. Ortutay.  

But everyone seemed to agree that these new California heads were a poor match to the statue’s Swedish bodies.  If Foreign Friends was unpopular before, it now lost the last of its well-wishers.  The Palo Alto Arts Commission voted to remove the statue completely from its collection, saying it was “no longer art.”

Foreign Friends had nowhere to go.  Obviously not safe at its Embarcadero post, the city’s leaders debated what to do with the wooden couple.  A plan to give it permanent watchdogs by placing it in front of Fire Station #3 was nixed by Fire Captain Jerry Davis (he said firemen already dealt with “enough vandalism”).  The Secret Garden behind the Children's Library
 seemed an ideal fantasyland spot, but the 11 foot statue was deemed too bulky for that locale.  City officials then tried to put the statue in Briones Park on Arrastradero Road, but local residents wanted nothing to do with it.

By 1998, the statue had reappeared, this time in Werry Park in College Terrace.  But neighbors there were not pleased either.  16 College Terrace residents had soon signed a petition signed to get the statue removed and one reader of the Palo Alto Weekly wrote in to say that the "Foreign Friends statue should be relocated to the Palo Alto city dump…I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else.”

If was almost enough to make a wooden statue cry.

Having lost all its allies, Foreign Friends began to rot and was removed from Werry Park.  Soon the statue had seriously deteriorated and was finally buried unceremoniously in landfill out in the Baylands.  A sad end to a couple that just wanted a friend. []

 Our Reader's Memories:

"I was the person responsible for bringing Foreign Friends to College Terrace
and, of course, was sad to see it go. The reason it was 'decommissioned' was
that the piece was made from soft wood and had rotted beyond rescue. Yes,
many residents didn't want the piece in Werry Park but good sense prevailed
and the installation was considered   Just goes to show you what can happen
to things considered 'permanent.' "


"Although my opinion is probably a rare one, I actually really liked this statue!  I
thought it was fun and colorful, and made more sense to me than more
modern art (like the pieces displayed in front of the cultural center).  I
remember being very ashamed about how we, as a community, were so
negative and rude about our sister city's heartfelt gift.  Yes, it was a bit out of
place, and took some getting used to, but to me, that's the point of having a
sister city.  You share something special that may not feel 'Palo Alto' at first
glimpse.  But isn't friendship the most important thing there is?  Our sister city
extended their hand in friendship, and we threw it away.  I still feel horrible
about the Foreign Friends statue and wish we'd reacted differently."


"I wonder what the artist who carved Foreign Friends thinks of this story. It's
possible he thinks it's some sort of compliment that it would draw such a strong
reaction from a member of the public. I wonder what the vandal thinks about
his 'handiwork' today, ten years later -- I presume that the vandal was a
clueless teenager; I recall that a radio shock jock in San Francisco was either
lauding the damage or inciting it. Not that I'm defending vandals, but I think all
that an artist can ask for is the chance to create -- once the piece is out there
he's got to let it go. Like a sand painting."


Send Us Your Memory!

The Foreign Friends, ready for the Black & White Ball. (PAHA)

The Foreign Friends under attack. (PAHA)

The statues were actually quite large. (PAHA)

Posing with the Foreign Friends. (PAHA)