For 30-some years, drivers going west on 22nd Avenue South in Gulfport passed a crumbling white statue — a life-sized man, with no left arm and no right hand, seated on a plaster stump in the far corner of a drab and browning yard. He stood sentinel out front of a nondescript wooden house, his eyes closed, his nose gone, his face peeling like a leper's.
For 30-some years, residents wondered what the hell was up with the Broken Man.
Tom Pitzen has solved Gulfport’s most enduring mini-mystery. About a year ago, the local sculptor happened to be driving past the shuttered, 1920s-era home and took notice of a work crew on the property.
“I saw that they were demolishing the house,” Pitzen said. “So I asked what they were planning on doing with the statue.”
He was directed to the big boss man.
“The boss was running the big excavator, and he said to me ‘We’ve got somebody in Sarasota who’s going to give us a thousand dollars for it… but if you take it, we’ll only charge you 50 bucks.’”
Pitzen couldn’t get to an ATM fast enough.
“I just couldn’t bear to see it thrown in the dumpster,” he says, “because that’s what was going to happen.” He grabbed some of the straps he used for moving his own work, borrowed a busted trailer from a buddy, and within an hour Broken Man had been liberated from his front-yard purgatory, and posted outside the front entrance to Pitzen Studios — where he sits to this day.
After lengthy internet sleuthing, Pitzen was able to sketch the story of the Broken Man. The artist’s name was Lee Barron; his father, Lawrence “Butch” Barron, was an art teacher at Tyrone Middle School. Lee was one of nine Barron children, all of them encouraged to be artistic.
From Melanie Johnson, Lee’s sister, Pitzen learned that the statue first appeared in the yard in the mid to late 1980s. Lee would have been in his 30s then.
“It had a wood frame inside of it that was covered in chicken wire,” Pitzen says. “Then he created a stucco mix and kept on adding stucco to it. He formed the sculpture around the wood and built it up. Then he soaked burlap in concrete, to drape over his shoulder as a kind of tunic – that’s all rotted away now. She thinks he was holding two spears, or staffs.”
The spears, presumably held in the MIA left hand, have not survived.
“His sister told me he changed it all the time. He would tear parts off it and re-do them. She doesn’t remember it ever being totally finished.”
The ravages of time and weather have worn away layers of the sand, mortar and stucco mix, and large cracks and breaks reveal that most of the original wood has either rotted away, or is barely holding on.
Sister Melanie easily answered Pitzen’s most pressing question: Why was it there in the first place?
Lee, she explained, briefly entertained a career as an artist, like his father.
“He created this sculpture, hoping someone would see it and want him to make sculptures for them,” Pitzen says. “That’s why it was out in front of the house — kind of his own little marketing thing.”
Butch Barron died in 1998, following a massive stroke, and the family eventually sold the house. Still, Broken Man remained, abandoned and deteriorating, keeping watch as best he could.
Lee Barron could not be reached for this story.
There’s something eerie about that statue, Pritzen says. Eerie and somehow powerful.
“When we first set it down, the power went out in a one-block radius. We all lost power for an hour or so. And none of us had cell phone service for a while. All different carriers. Everyone was looking at their phones going ‘What’s going on?’ And then it all came back on.”
Is Broken Man cursed?
“That’s what a few neighbors think,” Pitzen laughs. “But nothing weird has happened since then.”
Bill DeYoung was born in St. Pete and spent the first 22 years of his life here. After a long time as an arts and entertainment journalist at newspapers around Florida (plus one in Savannah, Ga.) he returned to his hometown in 2014. He is the author of Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down and the forthcoming Phil Gernhard, Record Man. Learn more here.