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Monument restoration crews make 200-year-old discovery

RenovationArchitectureHistoryMount Vernon PlaceBasilica of the AssumptionGeorge Washington

Who exactly J.W. Hogg was to Baltimore's Washington Monument may be a question left for the ages. Master craftsman who helped build it? Or vandal who defaced it?

Hogg's name, written in block letters with a pencil next to the date 1829, was among dozens of 19th-century signatures and drawings discovered this week by a restoration crew using hand tools to delicately remove loose plaster from the monument's subterranean vaults.

"They could be craftsmen They could be carpenters. They could just be truant boys; this was a work site," said Lance Humphries, who is helping to lead restoration efforts for the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy. "Whether it was Mr. Hogg the carpenter or 12-year-old James 'Bad Boy' Hogg, we just don't know."

Finding markings in old construction isn't unusual, but each holds its own mystery and intrigue, and allows the writers to leave their mark on history.

Similar discoveries have been made across the country: the signatures of the craftsmen who built the dome on the State House in Annapolis, a face drawn in the blood of a British soldier in 1777 on the wall of a mansion in Germantown, Pa., and heights of children recorded inside the doorjamb of a planation home at Drayton Hall in Charleston, S.C.

"There's a mystery inside every building; there are always surprises and secrets," said Tyler Tate, president of the Owings Mills-based Lewis Contractors, which was hired to restore the monument.

"This idea of leaving your signature in the mortar, or leaving your mark behind, is timeless. So much has changed over the years, but at the same time, traits like this haven't. When we uncover things like this, in many ways, we connect ourselves to all those common traits of the builders that came before us."

The monument is undergoing $5 million in restorations to correct decades of water damage that weakened the plaster between the bricks, marble and stones. Mildew and moss must be scrubbed from the structure, the cast-iron fence recast and repainted and new electrical and lighting systems installed.

The site is expected to reopen in time for its bicentennial on July 4, 2015. In all, the conservancy is trying to raise at least $12 million to improve the monument and the four surrounding public squares.

George Wilk II, project superintendent, said the exterior stones and marbles have all been cataloged, itemized and addressed so that each one can be put back into the same place in the same orientation. The perimeter fence has been cataloged and removed for restoration.

The scaffolding around the column is being constructed now and should take another five weeks to complete. By Tuesday, a crane is expected to arrive to help build the temporary encasing, he said.

If anyone gets a chance to sign the monument this century, Humphries said it will be Wilk, who added his John Hancock to the undercroft of the Basilica of the Assumption when Lewis Contractors completed its renovation.

Inside the monument's basement, some of the 19th-century signatures are faint and hard to decipher like E.E. King (or is it F. F. King?) and perhaps G.J. Oldden. Others are clear, jumping proudly off the wall, like Jacob Monk Jr., written in elegant cursive, Wm. Emmonds and the decisive Edward Smith, April 13, 1819.

A wall is also adorned with a big-nosed caricature of a man's profile with sleepy eyes, a bald head and a protruding chin. Nearby is a stick-figure woman, wearing a skirt cut above her ankles; risque for the 1800s, quipped Peter Pearre, an architect and member of the conservancy's board.

It's unclear when or why the markings were concealed, Humphries said. The monument was an active work site on the edge of the city on land donated by Revolutionary War Col. John Eager Howard for years after the cornerstone was laid in 1815. The 16-ton statue of George Washington was perched atop of the column in 1829, but it wasn't until a decade later that the interior was complete.

The conservancy hasn't decided exactly how it will preserve the markings, Humphries said. Crews will likely install plexiglass over the signatures and drawings, most of which are contained on one section of a wall.

The public won't be able to see the signatures and drawings in person, though the conservancy plans to put photos online. At the bottom of a winding staircase made of stone with low ceilings, the underground vaults don't meet safety and handicap accessibility standards.

That's a similar case with the signatures inside the Maryland State House dome. More than 140 narrow wooden steps lead up space where the craftsmen scrawled their names in paint, but the setting is reserved for only a select few lucky enough to get a tour.

State historian Elaine Rice Bachmann said that to the craftsmen who worked on the dome, leaving their signature was like an artist signing a painting, she said. Uncovering the markings is almost like an architectural find, she said.

"It connects you and you sort of feel their presence across time," Bachmann said.

Katherine Malone-France, director of outreach, education and support for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said markings — sometimes called graffiti by historians — are found in many of the nonprofit's 27 properties, including the Cliveden mansion in Germantown and the planation home in Charleston.

"Historical buildings, they have the capacity to hold their stories and hold secrets that then can be revealed and interpreted and reinterpreted," Malone-France said. "People are particularly intrigued by the graffiti. It's such an almost quick and casual way of recording your presence.

"There is something just fascinating about that," she said. "Who was this man they were drawing? Why were they showing this woman's ankles? It prompts so many questions."

ywenger@baltsun.com

twitter.com/yvonnewenger

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Go to the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy's Facebook page: facebook.com/mountvernonplace.

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