A fingerpost project planned for Elting Memorial Library received a certificate of appropriateness from the Village of New Paltz Design Review Board and Historic Preservation Commission last week. The measure passed by a 3-1 margin.
A fingerpost is a post at a junction with one or more signs that show the direction and distance of different destinations. The Elting Library fingerpost is the brainchild of village resident Alan Stout, who is also covering the costs of its creation and placement. The actual destinations are yet to be determined, and in the digital age directions from any point to any point are readily available at one’s fingertips by way of smartphones, but the Elting Library fingerpost will be as much a sculpture as a practical informational guide.
The fingerpost, including a decorative topper, will stand 12-feet tall, with its top-third dedicated to around 25 fingers and the finial, leaving around eight feet between the signs and the ground. The fingerpost itself will be a two-inch galvanized steel pipe painted midnight blue. Shrubs planted at the base of the fingerpost have also been suggested as a way to create natural spacing between the post and observers.
The finial will include a handmade 27-inch copper arrow pointing to the north; commercially produced aluminum N-S-E-W directional letters spray-painted copper; and a handmade copper likeness of a book.
What will be on each of the directional signs has yet to be determined, though a mockup provided by Stout shows local options like the SUNY New Paltz campus and Water Street alongside Brooklyn, the North Pole and Disney World. The post is planned for erection at the southwest corner of the Elting Memorial Library property along North Front Street just off the corner of Main Street.
A public hearing on the fingerpost was held at the Design Review Board and Preservation Commission’s meeting held on Monday, April 10, and its uniqueness in the Village bred many different points of view.
“Everything about this application is unusual,” said Historic Preservation Chairman Thomas Olsen. “Let me just say we’ve never had a signpost application before.”
Fingerposts entered popular culture in the 1970’s, most notably on the TV show M*A*S*H, where they showed the distance and direction of cities from the 4077th mobile Army hospital in South Korea. Increasingly perilous fingerposts also dotted the journey of Sir Robin the-not-quite-so-brave-as-Sir Lancelot on his solo quest in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, released in 1974.
But fingerposts have been around much longer than that, becoming popular at intersections and crossroads in Great Britain and Ireland in the second half of the 17th century. In the following century, the Highways Act of 1766 and the Turnpike Roads Act of 1773 made their use compulsory in the United Kingdom.
There is nothing compulsory about the Elting Memorial Library fingerpost project, but for its supporters that is part of its charm. For its detractors, not so much.
“The thing has absolutely, in my view, no practical function, therefore, it’s not suitable,” said local resident Misha Harnick. “It doesn’t fit outside the library, in fact, in the area at all. So it is not desirable. Short of suggesting mileage to…Casablanca, Carnegie Hall and several other irrelevant destinations…as indicated under the mock-up model, it doesn’t appear to offer any relevant information.”
Harnick continued, calling the fingerpost an attempt at “a Dadaistic joke.”
The Commission’s deputy chair Kamilla Nagy, who voted against granting the certificate of appropriateness, said she was concerned about the potential for traffic issues.
“It’s a very large sign, much bigger than any of the traffic signs and the street signs, and it could cause confusion, you know?” Nagy said. “It’s a very busy intersection…My concern is that as people drive by, because it’s so big, it automatically draws your attention. And you look away for a minute, somebody steps in front of you, that will be an issue.”
Olsen also cited concerns about theft or vandalism, particularly of the individual directional signs.
“The risk of vandalism or theft is, I don’t know how significant, but I think it’s present,” Olsen said. “College dorm rooms are full of street signs and orange cones. And not only college dorms, these just seem to be souvenirs to people.”
Stout acknowledged theft might occur, but said the possibility shouldn’t stop the fingerpost project, or many others.
“If you’re going to be concerned about vandalism, you’re not going to be able to do positive things in the community,” You’re going to have to accept that as a possibility. I can’t say it’s not going to happen, but to me, I’ve decided that it’s not a reason to not do good things.”
In addition to support from the Commission, the Elting Memorial Library fingerpost was also received favorably by the majority of those at the public hearing, as well as those who could not attend but submitted e-mails.
“I think people would view it as a curiosity, a positive curiosity,” said local resident Ron Fields. “People would take pictures of it…It doesn’t have to be appropriate. Nobody really needs to know how many miles it is to the North Pole. But I see it as a very, very positive addition to the New Paltz ambiance.”
Olsen expressed reservations about some elements of the fingerpost project, but voted in favor of granting the certificate of appropriateness.
“I’m not 100 percent behind this,” Olsen said. “But I do think that there’s potential for this to be exactly the thing that some of the members of the public talked about, which is something iconic that people will want to go to and take pictures next to. And I have high hopes that that’ll happen.”