A professor decorated a sidewalk in Georgetown with 10-foot sculptures of Bumblebee and Optimus Prime. The well-heeled locals were not pleased.
The thing about putting a pair of 10-foot statues of metal-hewn Transformers outside your townhouse in the most picturesque district of the nation’s capital is that the neighbors are going to have opinions.
And on Prospect Street in Georgetown, they were not pleased.
The statues — Bumblebee and Optimus Prime, two of the good guys from the long-running “Transformers” movie franchise — appeared in January 2021 outside the white-brick home of Newton Howard, a cognitive scientist and machine-learning expert with ties to the intelligence community.
He had ordered them from a factory in Taiwan to the tune of more than $25,000 each. Where large brick planters had once blended in with the local aesthetic, there was now something akin to outsider art by way of an anonymous welder and Hollywood’s reinterpretation of 1980s toys.
Plenty of people love the statues, which resemble invaders from the future, in a neighborhood that does its best to hang on to its cobblestone past. Students at nearby Georgetown University can’t get enough. Neither can tourists: The Transformers statues have their own entry on Google Maps as a place of interest, with 4.9 stars. “The best part of visiting Georgetown,” one reviewer declared.
“People are at my door every day,” Dr. Howard, 53, said at his home on a recent afternoon. “It doesn’t bother me. I find it to be beautiful that actually people are appreciating things.”
But some of his neighbors are less enthusiastic, and the critics of his notion of a Georgetown-appropriate sidewalk display have been trying to get rid of Bumblebee and Optimus Prime for more than two years.
Dr. Howard, a bald man with an unplaceable accent, wears dark round eyeglasses that come equipped with a camera and a microprocessor that allows him to translate languages on the spot, he said.
He paid $3.75 million for the townhouse and moved in during the pandemic. In 2021, he snapped up the one next door for $4.8 million. The homes lie close to his job at Georgetown University School of Medicine, where he is a research professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology. (He added to his real estate holdings in 2022, when he bought a $3.6 million home in Potomac, Md. It has 14 bathrooms and a bocce court.)
Dr. Howard greeting tourists who stopped by to see his Transformers sculptures.Credit…Zak Arctander for The New York Times
Putting up the Transformers wasn’t the only thing Dr. Howard did to irritate his Georgetown neighbors, who learned shortly after his arrival that he wasn’t some sort of shabby, retiring professor. He had flashy taste and he liked to show it off, parking a number of expensive cars on Prospect Street: a yellow McClaren 720S (new ones start at $310,000), a 2005 Porsche Carrera GT (which goes for $1.4 million and up), a Porsche 918 (fewer than 1000 were made, and they go for well over $1 million). Not to mention an MRAP tank and a small airplane from his collection that he once parked in front of his home. The car show came to a stop only after he received complaints.
A rich guy with loud cars is one thing, a known story. The Transformers were something else altogether. They quickly became a flashpoint in Georgetown, and on the internet, after the local news site DCist reported on the efforts of Dr. Howard’s neighbors to get the statues removed.
Sally Quinn, the author and longtime Georgetown resident, said she was firmly in the anti-Transformers camp. “I think they’re really ugly,” she said. “Some people may like them. You know, everybody’s taste in art is different. But that’s not the point.”
The point, she continued, was historical preservation: “People come toGeorgetown because it’s Georgetown. It’s a beautiful, quaint village.”
But the author Kitty Kelley, who said she has lived in the neighborhood for “two husbands,” or since 1977, sent Dr. Howard a handwritten card in support of his sidewalk flair.
“All you have to do is take a walk through Georgetown, and you’re going to see gnomes and wrought-iron benches,” said Ms. Kelley, who is known for her dishy biographies of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (“Jackie Oh!”), Oprah and Nancy Reagan. “You’ll see cement lions of all sizes. So why should this man be deprived of using the space right outside his front door?”
“Maybe it isn’t Picasso,” she continued. “It isn’t a sculpture by Degas, but I think he’s entitled.”
Ms. Kelley noted that her own outdoor decorations have included topiary monkeys, a seven-foot bird feeder and “an angel who’s shooting something across the yard.”
So: Was Dr. Howard a champion of free expression who found himself on a crusade against exclusionary zoning and “snooty neighbors,” as Slate cast him? Or was he an attention-seeking scofflaw with questionable taste?
Or maybe this was simply a case of an eccentric and mysteriously rich guy being eccentric and mysteriously rich.
Optimus Prime, a Transformers statue in front of Dr. Howard’s home, with flowers in its hand.Credit…Zak Arctander for The New York Times
Neighbors Weigh In
Georgetown is not the most futuristic place. Some of the streets still have cobblestone and the remains of streetcar tracks. The neighborhood is filled with pastel rowhouses from the 18th and 19th centuries and with newer homes meant to recall the older structures.
The area also has its share of stately brick mansions that make you wonder who lives there, or used to. Often, it’s someone well-off, but occasionally it’s a someone someone. Power players in media, politics and entertainment — like Madeleine Albright, Ben Bradlee, Katherine Graham, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and Elizabeth Taylor — have called Georgetown home. But it wasn’t always Washington’s glamour spot.
“Georgetown was kind of a dump in the early 20th century,” said George Derek Musgrove, the co-author of the 2017 study “Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital.”
The old houses had largely fallen into disrepair, and the neighborhood was home to working-class Irish and African Americans. Then, with the explosion of government hiring during the New Deal, Ivy League graduates moved in. They fixed up their homes in an array of styles until the national craze for historical preservation took hold. In 1950, “Old Georgetown” was designated a federal historic district, with all the restrictions on home modification that entailed.
“By thetime you get to 1960, and John Kennedy leaves his Georgetown mansion on N Street for the White House, you just couldn’t afford to get in if you wanted to,” Mr. Musgrove said.
A lot of the residents support efforts to keep things more or less the same. Catherine Emmerson, whose family lives close to Dr. Howard, helped start the Prospect Street Citizens’ Association a few years ago to stop a condo conversion that would have blocked local residents’ views of the Potomac River.
When the Transformers arrived, the group had a new target.
It’s not that the association was against celebrating film history. In fact, its members argued that the condo conversion would have threatened something that ought to be a landmark (and now is): a set of steep steps on Prospect Street, built in 1895, that appeared in “The Exorcist.” (Think: tumbling priest.)
But that was “The Exorcist.” A film. (Maybe?) An old movie, at least. The “Transformers” franchise, which has grossed more than $5 billion across six films, was more like … I.P. (Michael Bay, the “Transformers” producer, declined to comment on Dr. Howard’s decorating choices or the neighbors’ reaction.)
And the Citizens’ Association had clear recourse. Before putting up the statues, Dr. Howard did not apply for any kind of permit, despite Georgetown’s historic status and the fact that the sidewalk is public space.
There is a process, a local official emphasized when he appeared in front of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission via video in March 2021, three months after Bumblebee and Optimus Prime had become part of the neighborhood. And he had bypassed it entirely.
The commission went on to inform him that, before gaining approval, he would have to apply to something else: the Old Georgetown Board, a federal body of three architects that ruled on any changes to the exteriors of properties.
Ms. Emmerson and another neighbor, the author and former television journalist Luke Russert, also weighed in. Ms. Emmerson argued that the statues represented a safety hazard and drew crowds of disruptive gawkers. (Dr. Howard later had his Transformers bolted in place.)
An Optimus Prime statue watches over the neighborhood from Dr. Howard’s rooftop.Credit…Zak Arctander for The New York Times
Mr. Russert was more blunt. “What’s to stop someone from putting up a statue of Joseph Stalin and saying, well, this is provocative, it’s art, it speaks to me?” he argued. “They are a nuisance, they are an eyesore, and they detract from the spirit of the neighborhood.”
As tensions continued, Dr. Howard said he started hearing two terms that he had never heard before — NIMBY and YIMBY. (“Not in my backyard” vs. “Yes in my backyard.”) The pro-development crowd wanted to claim him as a hero. He declined to ally himself, exactly. Instead, Dr. Howard argued, his statues were all about “the American idea,” because they welcomed visitors to a cloistered part of the city.
“You don’t want to just come up with ways to shut down your neighborhood so nobody comes into it,” he said.
His critics disputed the notion that he was motivated by an idea of civic good. “His repeated disregard for the law and procedure tells a story of someone who is not operating in good faith for the collective community,” Ms. Emmerson wrote in an email to The New York Times.
‘The Real Tony Stark’
There was no horde outside Dr. Howard’s townhouse on a recent Sunday afternoon. A young man paused to snap a photo of his 2-year-old son standing with the statues. The toddler’s blue and yellow shoes matched Optimus Prime’s color scheme.
From the rooftop, a six-foot Optimus Prime statue peeked down at the street. It had once stood at the front door, but after the initial controversy Dr. Howard commissioned a taller version for the sidewalk. Then he moved the original, perched as if part of some SWAT team on the lookout for any Decepticons.
The interior of Dr. Howard’s home, which he said he decorated himself, resembled a lair. The glassy back of the townhouse overlooks the Potomac, where the buzz of jets headed into and out of Reagan National Airport adds to the techno-paradise vibe. Motorcycles were parked in the living areas as objets, and five more Transformer statues stood guard. There was also a giant model of Iron Man, a Marvel superhero dear to Dr. Howard.
“A lot of people used to call me the real Tony Stark,” he said, referring to Iron Man’s alter ego.
The interior of Dr. Howard’s Georgetown home includes motorcycles and more Transformers sculptures.Credit…Zak Arctander for The New York Times
The memorabilia on display included his concealed carry permit, as well as framed photographs of him with Bill Clinton and Tim Tebow, the former N.F.L. quarterback who became known for kneeling in prayer on the field. Dr. Howard, who said he is a follower of Messianic Judaism, a religion sometimes referred to colloquially as Jews for Jesus, said that he and Mr. Tebow belong to the same fellowship group. (Mr. Tebow couldn’t be reached for comment.)
His home was fastidious, except for a half-built child’s toy in the living room. Dr. Howard has four children, ranging in age from 5 to 26, he said. (The older children are from a previous marriage.) He and his wife, Rebecca, are also fostering five Afghan refugees, he added.
Senator Markwayne Mullin, Republican of Oklahoma, became friends with Dr. Howard through a shared interest in Afghanistan.”I call him Tony Stark,” he said. “I would have called him that without the statue.” (Senator Mullin made a splash in 2021 for personally trying to escort Americans out of Afghanistan after Kabul fell to the Taliban, against the explicit wishes of the State and Defense Departments. Dr. Howard was “very involved” in similar efforts, Senator Mullin said.)
The professor — who is, duh, a fan of the “Transformers” movies — said the sculptures had a deeper meaning for him. Not only did they represent machines and humans coexisting in harmony, he said, but the word “transform” had a great deal of personal significance.
“I like changing things when you’re in a status quo and they’re wrong,” he said. “When one looks at themselves and feels self-pity and falls into dwellings of darkness, you should transform.”
Dr. Howard has gone through several transformations himself. He was born in the Sinai Peninsula when Israel controlled it. His family — Egyptian Jews who ended up living in France, he said — moved to the United States when he was 11.
He said he joined the Army at 18, then worked as a linguist in Michigan “across various agencies,” specializing in Arabic, Farsi and Dari. He changed his name around that time because, he said, “it was offered by an agency.” He declined to provide more detail.
“There’s a lot of things during that phase of my career that should be kept secret,” he said.
Dr. Howard — whose doctorates include concentrations in mathematics and neuroscience, and who holds an appointment at the University of Oxford alongside the one at Georgetown — is a curious mix of limelight-seeking and discreet. After college, he said, he worked in military intelligence. He later did work for InQTel, which is functionally the C.I.A.’s venture capital fund.
What precisely he did to get rich is unclear. He said his wealth resulted from selling various businesses, some of which he could not talk about. The walls of his townhouse are filled with commemorative plaques of his patents, many of which have defense industry applications, including “Wireless Network for Routing a Signal Without Using a Tower” and “System and Method for Automated Detection of Situational Awareness.”
A tabletop Transformer in Dr. Howard’s townhouse beside a couple upright books.Credit…Zak Arctander for The New York Times
He said he suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2000 while delivering medical supplies, though he declined to offer more detail. After his recovery, he decided to focus on applying the principles of machine learning to the human brain, and turned to neuroscience. “I figured instead of sitting and getting my brain worked on, I would work on it myself by studying it,” he said.
His ventures include Aiberry, a start-up that tries to use A.I. analysis to improve on mental health screening. He said he hoped to help solve the problem of degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s with a cloud-connected deviceimplanted in the brain, using A.I. to optimize the levels of deep brain stimulation.
In other words, he would like to help human beings preserve their humanity by becoming a little more machine.
The Old Georgetown Board seems to rule with an iron fist — just try putting up a neon sign in the neighborhood — but its power is advisory. The city of Washington, D.C., has the real authority to enforce decisions, but the influence of neighbors complaining in unison cannot be discounted.
Topher Mathews, a commissioner for Georgetown’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission, said that the Transformers mess wouldn’t even make his top five neighborhood dramas of the past 10 years. Easily outstripping it, for instance, was the agita caused over the opening on O Street of Call Your Mother Deli, which attracts long lines.
And locals love to bring up the Tree Incident of 2018, which involved a new homeowner’s decision to prune and cut down magnolia trees on his property, which happened to be the former home of Ms. Onassis. In response, a neighbor created a Halloween display with a mock tombstone reading, “Beloved magnolia 1840-2018 destroyed R.I.P.,” and a grim reaper that announced “Tree Killer Lives There.”
Dr. Howard has argued that his statues constitute meaningful public art. The “Transformers” movies follow a classic good-versus-evil struggle in which the Autobots (the good guys) work to save humanity from the Decepticons (the bad guys). Reviewing the first installment of the franchise in 2007, Manohla Dargis of The New York Times wrote that it was “part car commercial, part military recruitment ad, a bumper-to-bumper pileup of big cars, big guns and, as befits its recently weaned target demographic, big breasts.”
The Old Georgetown Board took up the matter of Dr. Howard’s statues in spring 2021, and the city gave him a six-month permit to keep them up. But well after the six months was up, Bumblebee and Optimus Prime were still in place.
Dr. Newton Howard shows off a device that he says will use A.I. to optimize and adjust the levels of deep brain stimulation.Credit…Zak Arctander for The New York Times
By the time the board met again, in April 2023, Dr. Howard claimed that he had spent tens of thousands of dollars fighting to keep his statues up, an amount that included legal and architect advisory fees and city fines.
This time, the board ordered him to take the statues down. Instead of complying, Dr. Howard appealed to the D.C. Public Space Committee. He also rebuffed offers from the Advisory Neighborhood Commission to help him find another place in the neighborhood to display his statues.
Dr. Howard seems to enjoy the attention that has come with the ongoing case. He has talked extensively with the press about his crusade. He was flattered that Paramount, the studio behind the Transformers movie, had invited him to the Washington premiere of the next installment, “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts,” which comes out June 9.
As DCist and The Washington Post chronicled the twists and turns of the neighborhood drama, sentiment online seemed to swing his way. A student at Georgetown University started a Change.org petition, signed by more than 900 people, to keep the statues up. “This is so dumb,” Hayden Gise, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission vice chair who lives in a neighborhood close to Georgetown, wrote on Twitter. “Let him live oh my god. Everyone loves property rights until some guy does something cool.”
On May 25, the statues’ fate went before the Public Space Committee. Dr. Howard had hired Paul Strauss, D.C.’s shadow senator, to represent him. Or, as Mr. Strauss put it, he was acting as counsel for Optimus Prime, while a colleague represented Bumblebee.
“People have misunderstood the issue,” Mr. Strauss said. “You talk about compatibility with a historic district? Technically, these guys are millennia old. I mean, they’re prehistoric.”
Mr. Strauss and Dr. Howard also persuaded Peter Cullen and Dan Gilvezan, actors who voiced Optimus Prime and Bumblebee on the 1980s cartoon series based on the toys, to attest at the hearing about the history and significance of the nearly 40-year franchise.
The entreaties didn’t work. The D.C. Public Space Committee denied Dr. Howard a permit, meaning that he would have to take the statues down himself, or the city would. It wasn’t a question of art; it was a question of following the rules.
Dr. Howard didn’t seem inclined to stand down. Before the meeting, he suggested that he would appeal a ruling against him on First Amendment grounds. His lawyer clarified that they saw the issue as one of equal protection: Plenty of people fill their sidewalk planters in Georgetown and never get dinged for it. Why is his client required to seek a permit for what is in his planter?
After the meeting, Dr. Howard said he thought he would apply for a new permit. But he seemed deflated.
“I’m sad,” he said in a text to a reporter, adding,”What do you think I should do?”
The victory that Dr. Howard said he was seeking was a moral one.
“I know what these Transformers mean to me,” he said. “What does it mean to them?”
As of June 1, the statues were still standing.
Kitty Bennett contributed research.