Note: Authored by David Menconi, this piece has been produced in partnership with Raleigh Arts. Menconi's next book, "Oh, Didn't They Ramble: Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Roots Music," was published in the fall of 2023 by University of North Carolina Press. His podcast, Carolina Calling, explores the history of the Tar Heel State through music.



If New York City is The Big Apple, then you could call Raleigh The Big Acorn. And we’ve got the sculpture to prove it.

That would be the Great Raleigh Acorn, an iconic copper sculpture that stands about 10 feet tall, eight feet wide and weighs more than 1,200 pounds. It's a piece of public art that has become enough of a symbol for Raleigh to earn its own page with the Library of Congress.

A riff on Raleigh’s “City of Oaks” nickname, the acorn was originally made for the city’s 1992 bicentennial celebration.

With a birthday that coincides with New Year's Eve (Raleigh was founded on Dec. 31, 1792), the acorn has been a featured attraction of Raleigh's biggest New Year’s bash ever since—hoisted on a crane and lowered during the final countdown to cap off the city’s annual First Night celebration (a tradition that has often landed Raleigh on media pieces titled things like "10 Wacky and Wonderful Places to Spend New Year's Eve"). 

 

[First Night Raleigh is a ticketed event for all ages that takes place across a dozen indoor and outdoor venues in downtown Raleigh and includes activities such as amusement rides, musical performances, children's games, public art displays, fireworks, the acorn drop and way more. A full schedule will be released very soon, and tickets are on sale now.]

The rest of the year, the acorn can be found on display at City Plaza, 443 Fayetteville St., its home since May 2023. Before that it was on display at Moore Square for many years before being moved to the Martin Marietta Center for the Performing Arts complex (formerly named the Duke Energy Center) in 2016.

But wherever the acorn is, it’s one of the most popular selfie spots in town.

“It’s a beloved icon, for sure,” says Stacy Bloom-Rexrode, curator of exhibitions and collections for the City of Raleigh's Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department. “People get concerned when it’s moved, and they’re always excited when it comes to a new site. We’ve never had any vandalism or anything like that."

 

The acorn is the work of David Benson, a local artist who is also proprietor of The Third Place, a coffee house in Raleigh’s Five Points district near the Rialto Theatre. The Third Place has a lot of Benson’s artwork displayed on its walls, and he has also done pieces for various restaurants, hospitals, businesses and churches across the state.

But various manifestations of acorns loom large in Benson’s cosmos—he has rendered them in paintings, Christmas ornaments and even weathervanes. By now, he's accepted that the acorn is the legacy he’ll be best remembered for.  

“My older friends will lament, ‘You’re only remembered for three generations after you die,’” Benson says. “Hey, I believe I’ve got that covered. Don’t even have to think about that!”

Benson came to the city’s attention after fashioning a recycling award out of old soda cans. He was commissioned to make the acorn sculpture in 1991 and did most of the work at a studio space he kept at the time at Artspace.

 

“I did the designing solo, and then some friends would come by and help get involved with the building of it,” Benson says. “A lot helped, for sure. But at the end of the day, if it would have failed, I’d have been there all by myself.”

The acorn cost about $20,000 and took three months to assemble, bolted and welded together with interior struts for support. As for choice of material, Benson says that was because he’d been given a small piece of copper from the dome of the North Carolina State Capitol building. He used that piece on top, at the stem.

When it came time to lower the acorn during the New Year’s Eve countdown for the first time, the original plan was to drop it from the roof of then-recently constructed Two Hannover Square building on Fayetteville St. But the distance to the ground was so far that it would have taken several minutes to lower the acorn safely.

“So they decided to just use a crane instead, which works perfectly,” says Benson. “But the timing can be tricky. If it was even a second off, a little late or a little early, we’d hear about that all year long. Now, they just do it where whenever the crowd hits ‘zero’ on the countdown, the crane operator stops no matter where it is. That helps.”

Benson still serves as the acorn’s caretaker, spiffing it up each December in advance of its annual New Year’s Eve star turn. Nowadays it gets delivered to his house for maintenance and upkeep.

 

Some years find the acorn in need of repairs. A tornado in 2011 left it with a large dent that required a rebuilding job. To commemorate that work, Benson’s then-11-year-old daughter crawled inside and wrote on an interior panel, “December 26, 2011—today my dad is fixing the acorn by replacing three dented panels.”

“Another year, it got dropped when they were moving it,” Benson says. “But mostly it just gets dirty. They put it in front of my house and I give it a clean and polish, make sure everything’s okay. The neighbors all come by when it’s there. ‘Hey, can I touch it? Take a picture?’ Same every year.”

 

The Great Raleigh Acorn was moved from its City Plaza home in early December to be prepped for New Year's Eve. You can find it being lowered from the sky during First Night Raleigh

 

Header photo (c) Zimmytws Dreamstime

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