Lawn ornaments? This must be Jersey Gnomes, deer, flamingos - unmistakable signs of the land of ranchers and commuters.

Posted: July 08, 2001

They are as quintessentially Jersey as diners, Bruce Springsteen, and weekends at the Shore.

As American as apple pie, "The Star-Spangled Banner," and baseball.

And, depending on who you are, they are vehicles for personal expression, a gaudy blight on the visual landscape, or just innocent fun.

They are lawn ornaments, the pink flamingos, gazing balls and gnomes scattered across the state's vast suburban expanses like mutant pop-culture mushrooms.

To the casual observer, the plastic deer eating from a plaster Snow White's hand in the front yard may appear to be a charming bit of frivolity, which it certainly is, but it's also much more. These creations have a peculiar and rich history.

The story of lawn ornaments is entwined with the popular mythology of self-invention and with the exodus of city folk beyond the metropolis and into the wild - the suburbanization of America.

There's more to the pink flamingo than meets the eye.

The American lawn, say the experts, has drawn its look from two traditions: the aristocratic and the vernacular - or the fancy and the funky.

When people began to move from the cities to the suburbs, which then were pastoral, the yard became a space to display both newfound affluence and personal taste.

"It became terribly tempting to create your own little Versailles," said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "Most people don't realize what a heady experience this was."

At the same time, the character of life on the suburban frontier dictated what kind of ornamentation was popular, Thompson said. Having pushed out much of the real wildlife in regions just beyond the cities, faux animals, such as squirrels and deer, were all the rage.

Even today, people seem compelled to decorate their suburban greenswards with fake fauna, which of course won't run away when the latest subdivision sprouts down the block.

Sometime over the last few decades, a strange turn of sensibility has wrought division among those who decorate their lawns, Thompson notes: those who do so earnestly and those who, with a wink of the eye, arrange the plastic ducks in the front yard.

"In the golden age of lawn art, there was an innocent sincerity to all those flamingos, reflecting balls and enormous butterflies affixed to the side of the house," Thompson said.

"Now, as in every feature of American life, the stench of irony has even penetrated the lawn," he added. "One can never be sure when one passes a [lawn decorated with ornaments] whether the people who put them there did so because they thought they were pretty, or to let us know how smart they are to put up something so dumb."

Both the earnest and the ironic ornamenter, however, see the lawn as a place to display personality, taste and artistic ability.

The front yard of 80-year-old Fred Dunn's Mount Laurel rancher is home to an assortment of wooden flowers, rabbits and ducks, and a pink flamingo or two.

The array is what remains of an Easter display. Dunn also has a display of Christmas lawn ornaments, as well as those for most other holidays. He makes most of the ornaments in his basement shop.

"I just enjoy working with my hands," Dunn said. "I have to keep busy."

Dunn began making his lawn ornaments around 1983, shortly after the first of several heart operations the former roofing and siding man has undergone. Making ornaments and working on his lawn displays keeps him active and provides an outlet for his considerable energy.

"He can't keep still," said his wife, Doris, 78, who helps work on the displays. "He's so ambitious."

Both Dunn and his wife say brightening the day for those who pass by their front lawn is reward enough.

People drop by often, the Dunns said, or leave letters in the mailbox, thanking them for creating such happy scenes on their front lawn and for lifting their spirits.

A miniature lighthouse - fully operational - sits on each side of the driveway at Dennis Chickelero's Somerdale home.

There is also a plaster horse the size of a Shetland pony, a waterfall and wooden bridge, a windmill, and a figure of man that Chickelero made from garden pots. Chickelero calls his creation, appropriately, "Pot Man."

Then there are the ponds, four of them, containing 1,450 gallons of water and more than 200 goldfish, 30 tadpoles, up to 12 frogs, and a few bluegills and catfish.

Surveying the scene, Chickelero laughed and said: "Maybe I went too far."

Chickelero, a construction worker, began on the lawn seven years ago. It was just a whim.

Now, he gets up about 5 a.m. daily to put in some yard time before going to work, and he putters at least an hour each evening when he gets home.

"It gives me pleasure," he said. "I like to sit out here at night."

And Chickelero welcomes the attention others show his yard.

"So many people give me compliments," he said. "It makes your work worthwhile."

As for those who may think little of lawn ornaments, Chickelero takes a broad view.

"Everybody enjoys something different," he said. "A lot of things they might do I think are silly."

Thompson could not agree more. He views lawn ornaments as antidotes to a prevailing mood of cynicism in America.

"The number of ornaments we see lovingly placed in lawns and tended is encouraging," he said. "It gives hope to the nation."

Will Van Sant's e-mail address is wvansant@phillynews.com.

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