Not to be confused with Elephant in the room.
For other uses, see White elephant (disambiguation).
A white elephant is an idiom for a valuable but burdensome possession of which its owner cannot dispose and whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) is out of proportion to its usefulness or worth. The term derives from the story that the kings of Siam (now Thailand) were accustomed to make a present of one of these animals to courtiers who had rendered themselves obnoxious, in order to ruin the recipient by the cost of its maintenance. In modern usage, it is an object, scheme, business venture, facility, etc., considered to be without use or value.
Albino elephants exist in nature, usually being a reddish-brown or pink color.
The term derives from the sacred white elephants kept by Southeast Asian monarchs in Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. To possess a white elephant was regarded (and is still regarded in Thailand and Burma) as a sign that the monarch reigned with justice and power, and that the kingdom was blessed with peace and prosperity. The opulence expected of anyone that owned a beast of such stature was great. One must imagine golden palaces built to house the beast, attendant staff not limited to cooks, artisans, musicians ...temples, keeping in mind the holy aspect of the white elephant, it would be akin to housing and caring for an entire church or congregation and having to devote every resource to its needs. Monarchs often exemplified their possession of white elephants in their formal titles (e.g., Hsinbyushin, lit. "Lord of the White Elephant" and the third monarch of the Konbaung dynasty).
White elephants are linked to Hindu cosmology, the mount of Indra, king of the Vedic deities is Airavata, a white elephant. White elephants are also intricately linked to Buddhist cosmology, the mount of Sakka's (a Buddhist deity and ruler of the Tavatimsa heaven) is a three-headed white elephant named Airavata.
The tradition derives from tales which associate a white elephant with the birth of the Buddha, as his mother was reputed to have dreamed of a white elephant presenting her with a lotus flower, a common symbol of wisdom and purity, on the eve of giving birth. Because the animals were considered sacred and laws protected them from labor, receiving a gift of a white elephant from a monarch was simultaneously both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because the animal was sacred and a sign of the monarch's favour, and a curse because the animal had to be retained and could not be put to much practical use, but cost a significant amount to maintain.
The Order of the White Elephant consists of eight grades of medals issued by the government of Thailand. There are also white elephants in Nepal.
In the nineteenth century the phrase became commonplace, in common use at church bazaars called "white elephant sales" where donors could unload unwanted bric-a-brac, generating profit from the phenomenon that one man's trash is another man's treasure. Many organizational and church fairs still use the term today. In general use a "white elephant" usually refers to an item that's not useful (decorative) but may be expensive and odd.
Examples of alleged white elephant projects:
City of Faith Medical and Research Center. In 1977 evangelistic pastor Oral Roberts claimed to have a vision of God commanding him to build the City of God Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Roberts sojourned to California, after the death of his daughter and son in law. He conceived the solution of constructing a teaching and research hospital for adjacent Oral Roberts University. Throughout the four years of construction Roberts raised the funds through donations which amounted to $120MUSD($309M, 2013). He claimed that God encouraged him frequently as he encountered gargantuan opposition by appearing in visions as he prayed, such as a 900 foot Jesus guaranteeing the completion. Roberts was opposed by State authorities skeptical of the feasibility of the facility, such over abundance of unused beds. As well opponents sought to denounce Robert's vision as a "product of his imagination" and the project as a hoax. A 60 ft 'praying hands' Bronze sculpture weighing 30 tons adorned the outside entrance. The hospital was intended to serve as a national world Centre of healing combining the disciplines of science and faith. The hospital was originally approved to support 294 and 8 operating theaters costing $55.2M. However Roberts disregarded the approval and the enlarged hospital was intended to support 777 beds and dozens of operating theaters. The hospital complex was composed as 3 diamond shaped towers that were adorned with golden facades. The hospital operated on a deficit for nearly a decade of operation draining Robert's ministry $30M-$40M per year. In an attempt to raise funds to save the hospital Roberts claimed to have a vision where god commanded him to raise $8M or be called home. In a televised fund raising gala Roberts managed to raise $9M. However, the hospital ceased operations and the last patient was discharged on October 1989. Roberts sold 'City of God' in 1992 with costly financial obligations:$240K owed on property taxes and $10M mortgages.,
Crazy Horse Memorial. An giant colossus statue of Oglaga warrior Tȟašúŋke Witkó (Crazy Horse) pointing and mounted on a horse was commissioned by Lakota elder Henry Standing Bear as a memorial to Crazy Horse and the Lakota people. He disapproved of Mt. Rushmore as 4 non-native faces peering over his ancestral land. The work commenced in 1948 by Korczak Ziolkowski a Polish-American architect who worked under Gutzon Borglum Chief architect of the Mount Rushmore monument. However unlike Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse memorial is privately funded by private donations and visitors. Ziolokowski, refused government grants of $10M twice. Work on structure was slow: as of 2012 (64 years later) only the face of 'Crazy Horse' was completed. As no historical reference such as photographs exists of Crazy Horse, a genotypical aboriginal persona visage was used as the model. The Mt. Rushmore comparatively took only 14 years to complete. The project also encountered problems such as high iron deposits making excavation difficult. The extreme weather also delays construction. Ziolokowski didn't live long enough to see his work completed. Work on the memorial continued after death of Ziolokowski managed by his ascendants through the 'Crazy Horse Memorial foundation'.Some Lakota natives object to the project as they claim that Henry Standing Bear never consulted the community especially Crazy Horse's ascendants for a consensus as culturally required. Elaine Quiver an ascendant of Crazy Horse also states that carving images into mountains was desecrating the natural beauty of the sacred Black Hills that serve as sacred and ancestral burial grounds. Some Lakota also claim that the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation attains millions of dollars by exploiting their culture and Crazy Horse's memory through gift shop sales and donations rather than put the proceeds towards completing the monument. The foundation however grants scholarships to Aboriginal students, and through a partnership with South Dakota University, they intend to construct a university campus centered around the Colossus of Crazy Horse entitled the 'Indian University of North America' as an archive to preserve and research Aboriginal culture.,
The incomplete Dragon Stele statue of Yangshan Quarry. The quarry provided the material used in many monuments of Nanjing then the capital of Ming Dynasty China. The Ming Yongle Emperor commissioned a grand project to honor the memory of his father. The stele was designed to be assembled from 3 giant components -- a base, body, and head -- with a combined weight of 30,000 tonnes. The engineers said they underestimated the scale of the project and it was impossible to move such massive objects, so the project was abandoned. The statue's body components are part of the archaeological attraction.,
The incomplete Neuschwanstein Castle one of many opulent retreats built for Bavarian King Ludwig II. Walt Disney used it as inspiration for the castle in his animated film Sleeping Beauty, becoming the trademark of his company. Ludwig intended Neuschwanstein to be his principal residence, rebuilding the ruins of a fortress overlooking Hohenschwangau Castle, where he spent much of his childhood, but construction was expensive and was not completed until after his death.,
Three Gorges Dam, Yangtze River, China is the largest hydroelectric dam in the world, and was designed to control a once in thousand year flood. The structure took 18 years to build, and provides 10% of China's hydroelectricity. In 2011 The Chinese government admitted to unforeseen problems the dam has caused: 1.4 million people had to be relocated, with an addition 300,000 more in the near future as they are at risk of landslides and future flooding. In 2002, two-meter deep cracks appeared on the facade of the dam, raising suspicion of "tofu construction". Sewage and litter from the cities and natural debris run off has accumulated in the reservoir and formed islands of garbage. Despite the intention for the dam's design to relieve drought, the dam may have altered the natural tributaries of the Yangze that feed lakes and other massive waterways causing the worst drought in 50 years in 2011. More than 1300 Classical Chinese heritage sites as the ancestral homeland of the Ba people and the scenery that inspired classical Chinese literature were submerged by the reservoir. The Three Gorges valley is geologically unstable and the dam is at risk of catastrophic failure in the event of a great earthquake. Environmentalist writer Dai Qing has criticised the dam for being more of a grand monument than an answer to electricity requirements, and during its early construction in 1993 she suggested that the project may turn into a white elephant.,
Several airports build in Spain over the previous decade are considered as white elephants. Ciudad Real Airport, just south of Madrid, has been described as the worst example of the many white elephants in that area. It promised 6000 new jobs and a boom for the local economy, but closed in 2012, only four years after opening. In a similar situation fell the Castellón-Costa Azahar Airport north of Valencia and the Huesca-Pirineos Airport. The Castellón-Costa Azahar Airport is an airport in Vilanova d'Alcolea and Benlloch in Spain. The airport was officially declared "open" by local authorities in March 2011 despite having no airlines signed up to land there, nor government approval to operate. Delayed for several years and at a current cost of €150 million, commercial flights were due to begin on 1 April 2012. As of June 2013, there has been none. The airport has become a symbol of the wasteful spending that has sunk Spain deep into a recession and a banking crisis. A $375,000, 24 metre tall statue of Carlos Fabra, the formerly powerful local politician who was the driving force behind its construction, was erected in the airport. Fabra has been under judicial investigation in connection with several cases of corruption and tax evasion.,
Kangbashi, Ordos, China. In the wake of a very prosperous Coal rush of Inner Mongolia, the city government planned a grand city scheme as land was sold to developers and invested tremendous resources. State of the art public facilities were planned, luxury apartments and shops intended to service the growing middle class. However, most of the apartment flats have failed to attract buyers, and much of Ordos is uninhabited as the trend of buyers acquire these properties as investments. Many Ordos residents have lost money in these prospects as they invested their compensation money into these empty properties. This ghost city phenomenon is not just localized for Ordos; as of 2010, there were an estimated 65 million vacant housing units across China in cities in similar circumstances.,
China's ambitious CRH high-speed rail project has been beset with numerous technological and safety problems, as well as allegations of corruption. The CRH has low ridership and high fares, and is encumbered with debt accounting for 70% of the assets of the China National Railways ministry. These problems, such as a corruption prior to a high profile trainwreck killing 40 people failed to attract funding from financiers and other sources within the Chinese economic apparatus. With exhaustion of funding from stimulus packages from 2009, and the Great Recession, China Railways has had trouble securing funding for future growth of the CRH network and future growth has been halted or delayed due to these problems. However as of 2013 construction has resumed.,
The New South China Mall was the largest mall in the world, conceived to accommodate 100,000 visitors a day. The facility boasted an amusement park, themed retail spaces, a Gondola course inspired by the Venetian canals, go kart track, and the world's first Teletubby Entertainment center. The mall has remained barren since opening in 2005. Poor logistics and consumer research were the reasons for the failure. The mall remains incomplete and a planned hotel extension by Shangri-la hotels was never completed. Photo journalist Wade Shepard's videos of the mall depict a littered and derelict 'ghost mall'. Drapes cover escalators and barricades cordon off empty halls. According to Wade's video report, the mall stays in operation despite being 99% empty, as the entertainment facilities as the IMAX cinema and amusement park attract visitors.,
The West Edmonton Mall was once the largest mall in the world, boasting a submarine ride, dolphin show aquarium, IMAX multiplex, amusement park, waterpark, hotel that offered luxurious theme based hotels, and theme based plazas. The West Edmonton Mall's early history was plagued: the Early 1990s recession, heavy debts consisting of unpaid taxes and loans, political complications from finance related lawsuit involving a 420 Million dollar bailout, and a lawsuit by Disney over the use of the name Fantasyland. Despite these setbacks, Triple 5, the parent company of WEM, eventually recovered with new dynamic additions to the mall instead of relying solely on retail. The company also plans a future phase 4 expansion in the near future ,
The U.S. Navy's Alaska-class cruisers were described as "white elephants" because the "tactical and strategic concepts that inspired them were completely outmoded" by the time they were commissioned - the Japanese heavy cruisers that they were designed to hunt down had already been destroyed. The primary use of those that were completed was as anti-aircraft escorts for carrier forces, a role that smaller, less expensive and less manpower-intensive cruisers could perform with equal effectiveness.,
Bristol Brabazon, an airliner built by the Bristol Aeroplane Company in 1949 to fly a large number of passengers on transatlantic routes from the United Kingdom to the United States.,
SS Great Eastern, a ship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. She was the largest ship ever built at the time of her launch in 1858, and had the capacity to carry 4,000 passengers around the world without refuelling, but was not a commercial success. Her hold was later gutted and converted to lay the successful 1865 transatlantic telegraph cable, an impossible task for a smaller vessel.,
The Thai aircraft carrier HTMS Chakri Nareubet has been criticized as having been built for nationalist reasons rather than applicable military uses. It has spent little time at sea since being commissioned in 1997 (the year of the Asian financial crisis) due to her high operating costs. However, the ship has participated in training activities, and in disaster relief after the 2004 tsunami. Coincidentally, the Royal Thai Navy ensign features a white elephant.,
Hughes H-4 Hercules (or "Spruce Goose"), often called Howard Hughes' white elephant before and during the Senate War Investigating Committee. Hughes' associate Noah Dietrich called it a "plywood white elephant".,
Lambert-St. Louis International Airport runway 11/29 was conceived on the basis of traffic projections made in the 1980s and 1990s that warned of impending strains on the airport and the national air traffic system as a result of predicted growth in traffic at the airport. The $1 billion runway expansion was designed in part to allow for simultaneous operations on parallel runways in bad weather. Construction began in 1998, and continued even after traffic at the airport declined following the 9/11 attacks, the purchase of Trans World Airlines by American Airlines in April 2001, and subsequent cuts in flights to the airport by American Airlines in 2003. The project required the relocation of seven major roads and the demolition of approximately 2,000 homes in Bridgeton, Missouri. Intended to provide superfluous extra capacity for flight operations at the airport, use of the runway is shunned by fuel-conscious pilots and airlines due to its distance from the terminals. Even one of the airport commissioners, John Krekeler, deemed the project a "white elephant".,
The Millennium Dome in London, built at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds in Greenwich in London to celebrate the millennium, was commonly termed a white elephant. The exhibition it initially housed was less successful than hoped and the widely criticised building struggled to find a role after the event. It is now The O2, an arena and entertainment centre.,
Christ's Hospital railway station was constructed at great expense in 1902 to accommodate Christ's Hospital school, a large independent school which had relocated from London to the West Sussex countryside. The station had seven platforms and a magnificent terminal building. It was envisaged that the station would be busy due to the 850 pupils regularly using it, and also the foreseen westward expansion of the nearby town of Horsham. It was also the meeting point of three separate railway lines. However, the railway company failed to realise that the school is a boarding school, as a result of which the station is only used by large numbers of pupils a handful of times per year; and the development of Horsham did not materialise. Two of the railway lines also closed down in the 1960s as a result of the Beeching Axe, and the station now has two remaining platforms (one northbound to London Victoria, one southbound to Portsmouth), and one train per hour in each direction.,
Montréal-Mirabel International Airport is North America's largest airport, but has been abandoned as a passenger airport due to its awkward location and lack of traffic. Ironically, the name of the project's most-notable supporter Pierre Elliott Trudeau was ultimately placed on the busy Dorval Airport which Mirabel was intended to replace.,
The Philadelphia Athletics baseball team was referred to as a "white elephant" by rival New York Giants manager John McGraw prior to their meeting in the 1905 World Series. Although the Athletics lost that series, in defiance they adopted an elephant as an alternate team logo and eventually as a full-fledged mascot.,
Olympic Stadium in Montreal cost about C$1.61 billion. Since the departure of the Montreal Expos baseball team in 2004, it has had no main tenant. The debt from the stadium wasn't paid in full until December 2006. Because of the financial disaster in which it left Montreal, it was nicknamed "The Big Owe". The French-language term "gros bol de toilette" has also been applied as a pejorative.,
Osborne House, East Cowes, Isle of Wight, England, was one of Queen Victoria's favourite royal residences. She died there on January 22, 1901. In her will, she asked that it be kept in the Royal Family, but none of her family wanted it, so Edward VII gave Osborne to the nation. With the exception of Princess Louise and Princess Beatrice, who each retained houses on the estate, the rest of the royal family saw Osborne as something of an inaccessible white elephant.,
The Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea, designed as the world's tallest hotel, began construction in 1987. Due to financial difficulties, construction ceased prematurely in 1992. Since then, the structure has remained as a massive concrete hulk, unfit for habitation. Construction resumed in April 2008.,
Ada programming language, commissioned by the United States Department of Defense (DoD). It was designed to be a single, standard language, particularly suitable for embedded and real-time systems. The DoD mandated the use of Ada for many software projects in 1987, but removed the requirement in 1997. It is still used in many countries, especially for safety-critical systems such as air traffic control and subways. It came to be known as the "Green Elephant" for the color code used to keep contract selection unbiased. It became irrelevant for commercial applications, barely surviving the wave of free and successful tools such as C++ and Java. The introduction of the GNAT compiler and the Ada 95 and 2005 standards has to some extent mitigated the cost.,
Several incomplete or badly functioning dams, such as the Bujagali dam (Uganda) and Epupa dam (Angola). Most were constructed by foreign companies in the interest of foreign aid. Although the buildings do not meet expectations, if construction is completed or restarted, they could still provide a contribution to the local population.,
In 1907, author Henry James described the mansions in Newport, Rhode Island as being "white elephants" and "witless dreams" because they were summer homes for the wealthy and were unoccupied for most of the year. Thorstein Veblen invented the term conspicuous consumption to describe the mansions.,
In "Hills Like White Elephants", a short story by Ernest Hemingway, an unborn child is viewed as a white elephant.,
The Cross City Tunnel in Sydney was touted as a model for public-private partnerships, but went bankrupt in 2006 and had to be bailed out by the NSW state government.,
The Cambridgeshire Guided Busway (CGB), a public transit project in East Anglia, whose immense construction costs far exceed even the most optimistic projections of revenue. Because the 50,000 tons of concrete used to build the busway is itself white, the project is particularly often referred to as a white elephant.,
Brisbane, Australia's Clem Jones Tunnel. The operating company Rivercity motorways posted a A$1.67 billion loss in 2010, largely due to overly optimistic traffic projections. Despite cutting tolls by up to 50% traffic volumes are less than half of the projected 60,000 vehicles a day.,
The stadiums built in South Africa for the 2010 FIFA World Cup have been dubbed "white elephants", citing a massive misappropriation of national funds to provide a spectacle for the sporting event that might have been directed toward the country's staggering poverty.,
Shanghai Maglev Train or Shanghai Transrapid. The journey was designed to connect Shanghai Pudong International Airport quickly (approximately 7 min. train ride) to the outskirts of central Shanghai where passengers could interchange for their final destinations in the city centre. Due to the proprietary technology the Maglev Trains couldn't be incorporated into the Shanghai Metro and became a "train to nowhere" as its final stop is another 20 mins connection to the city centre via the Shanghai Metro.,
Digital terrestrial television project by Radio Televisyen Malaysia is described as a "white elephant" because it has been delayed and recently deferred because technology rapidly evolved over time.,
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is being increasingly viewed as a "white elephant" by the U.S. military, due to its astounding price tag of some $380 billion for nearly 2,500 aircraft in three differing versions, to equip nine nations' air forces, along with lower performance than originally anticipated. The lifetime cost of the F-35 program has since been estimated by the Pentagon at $1.45 trillion.,
The National Ignition Facility, a laser fusion research facility in the United States, has been described as a white elephant for being five billion dollars over its original budget and years behind schedule. A common joke in the fusion industry is that "the technology is always 20 years away".,
The Temple of Olympian Zeus in ancient Greece was intended to be the biggest temple of its time, but due to its high construction costs and human power demands, the temple remain unfinished for many centuries. Its construction was finally completed during the Roman times 638 years after the project had begun.,
The Sagrada Família church in Barcelona has been viewed for many years as a monumental white elephant. The construction started in 1882 and until today the church still remains under construction. The lack of funds, the death of the architect Antoni Gaudí, the Spanish Civil War and the complexity of the project led to delays and interruptions over the years. Completion is not expected until at least 2026, although it functions as a church and tourist attraction in the meantime.,
The Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania was built by dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu as the world's second largest building (second to The Pentagon). After the 1989 overthrow, the cost of demolishing the palace would have been higher than the cost of finishing it.,
The Tupolev Tu-144 was the first supersonic transport aircraft in the world, two months ahead of the Anglo-French Concorde. The craft did not live up to expectations, as it had a limited range and a loud air conditioning system, and in 1974 a Tu-144 crashed at the Paris Air Show. Air & Space magazine called the plane a "Mach 2 white elephant".,
Cesana Pariol hosted the bobsleigh, luge, and skeleton event for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. It was termed a "white elephant" due to its difficulty as a track. Homologation on the luge side was delayed until late 2005 to its safety, then its upkeep and the economic crisis in Italy led to the track being shut down in late 2011. The track is in the process of being dismantled as of 2013.,
The Russky Bridge was built across the Eastern Bosphorus strait, to serve the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting that took place in 2012. The bridge connects the mainland part of Vladivostok with the meeting venue on Russky Island. The world's then-longest cable-stayed bridge terminates in a dead end on the island - whose population of 5,000 lack access to telephones, public lighting and mains water - and was completed at a cost believed to have exceeded $1 billion USD: the total bill has not been published.,
Maryland Route 200 whose cost exceeded $2.5 billion was funded through infrastructure bonds and the debt was expected to be paid off from tolls collected. The highway witnessed less than half traffic and revenue projected and had little impact in easing the capital area traffic congestion. Higher toll rates could cause even lesser usage and the project debt is unlikely to ever be fully amortized from tolls. Consequently, the MTA raised tolls to in other locations to compensate, which caused an outcry from many citizens.