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Washington 'green paint' vandal upsets regional tourists

On his first trip to Washington, Austin Jarvis most wanted to visit the Lincoln Memorial, so the 11-year-old from Georgia was displeased when he and his family had to settle for an obstructed view.

Five preservationists stood on three tiers of scaffolding erected around the legs of the statue of the 16th U.S. president, using paint brushes to apply a white, foamy substance made in Hanover that they hoped would remove the last of the defiling green paint.

"I wasn't very happy," Jarvis said about the vandalism.

The crew's work was part of the thousands of dollars — and hundreds of man-hours —being sunk into cleaning the green paint someone apparently smeared, drizzled and splattered on four historic Washington sites since last Friday.

The green paint vandal has disappointed regional tourists and riveted a nation. While a homeless woman was arrested Monday and charged in one incident — at the National Cathedral — police still are investigating whether the other incidents are connected.

The vandal or vandals left splashes and squiggles of the light-green paint on the left pant leg, coat hem and lap of the 120-ton statue of Lincoln and in two chapels inside the National Cathedral. The granite base of a statue in front of the Smithsonian Institution's administrative building was similarly defaced, as was a sculpture of Martin Luther at the Luther Place Memorial Church in Northwest Washington.

Police arrested a woman in the case, Jiamei Tian, who was hiding in a bathroom stall inside the cathedral shortly after the paint was discovered there. Tian was holding a soda can containing green paint and had green paint on her shoes, police said in charging documents. A can of green paint with a sock covering it was found in a nearby trash can.

Tian has been charged with one count of defacing property and faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine up to $5,000. In court Tuesday, a judge ordered her jailed until a hearing Friday.

As news organizations beamed reports of the vandalism around the world, visitors to the sites expressed near-universal disgust and bewilderment at the affronts to some of the nation's most treasured symbols.

"I think it's just really disrespectful," said Carolyn Otto, a 29-year-old from Wisconsin who was visiting the Lincoln Memorial with her fiance Tuesday. "I don't understand the motivation. It doesn't really even have a message behind it."

It also created headaches — and expenses — the attractions didn't need.

At the National Cathedral, four artisans from Gold Leaf Studios, an authority on art conservation and large-scale architectural gilding, had finished removing the paint from the Children's Chapel on the cathedral's main floor, where the vandal had defaced a reredos, a carved wooden screen behind the main altar.

As of Tuesday, they were preparing to move to the historic Bethlehem Chapel, the cathedral's oldest section, where the intruder had splattered green paint on the pipes of an organ built in the 1950s, its oak casing and a placard describing the instrument.

Gold Leaf declined comment, but cathedral spokesman Richard Weinberg said company president William Adair had inspected the damage in Bethlehem Chapel and determined that the paint had worked its way into the grain of the oak, which meant it might take a few days' worth of labor to fix.

Weinberg said he expected that meant the original $15,000 cost estimate would rise.

The unexpected expense was especially frustrating, Weinberg said, because the cathedral is barely two years into a 10-year restoration in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake that rattled the East Coast and caused heavy damage to the building.

The cathedral has raised about $8 million of the projected price tag of $20 million, he said.

A professional colleague of Adair's, architectural conservator John Lee of Annapolis, said the cathedral cleanup is not unlike the kinds of problems preservationists deal with regularly. As always, he said, the challenge will be to identify the content of the paint — early indications are it's latex-based — and to use the proper materials to remove it without damaging the underlying gilt and wood.

"You're working with a variety of surface materials — wood, metal and possibly gold — and you have to tread carefully, but this is all in a day's work for any good furniture conservator," Lee said.

Work at the Smithsonian appeared even simpler.

The vandal left inscrutable symbols — squiggly marks that in places looked like dollar signs — across the polished granite base of the statue in front of the Smithsonian's Castle.

The base stands at a height of about six feet, which makes it hard for passers-by to see, but preservationists approached the project carefully, testing for the right kind of solvent, according to Linda St. Thomas, a Smithsonian spokeswoman.

In the end, because that type of granite is not as porous as some stone surfaces, it was an easy cleaning job. The workers were taking a simple paint thinner to the figures Tuesday and expected to be finished by evening.

"It will be all over by the end of the day," she said.

At the Lincoln Memorial, National Park Service preservationists began their work just a few hours after two women out for a walk noticed the green paint on the Lincoln statue early Friday morning.

They closed the attraction down for 12 hours as they brought in high-pressure hoses, an approach that got rid of 90 percent of the paint by Saturday, said park service spokeswoman Carol Johnson. The toughest part has been removing a diagonal slash of paint from the marble base, a disfigurement still visible below the president's feet, she said.

Lee said it's possible that the area in question may have a rougher surface that makes it harder to clean.

For this area, the park service, having tested a variety of cleaners, chose MASONRE S-301, a cleaning product made by Cathedral Stone Products of Hanover.

"The way this material works is complicated," says Dennis Rude, the company's president, "but it actually penetrates the paint. When it reaches the substrate — in this case, the marble — it starts forming oxygen bubbles."

Those bubbles make it easier for workers to peel the paint off, he said.

On a stubborn job, Rude said, it can take several applications to complete the removal.

The Park Service crew had already applied the cleaner a few times and would do so a few more, Johnson said.

"We expect it to be completely removed within a few days," she said.

Johnson said it would be hard to estimate the project's cost yet, but in man-hours and materials alone it already is well into the thousands of dollars.

But the material damage seemed to be of less concern than the idea that someone would want to harm these attractions in the first place.

"This is one of the main things [my son] wanted to see," said Kim Jarvis, Austin's 40-year-old mother. "I can't believe somebody would do it."

On a warm, sunny Tuesday afternoon, tourists crowded into the Lincoln Memorial as always, snapping pictures on cameras hung from their necks — and straining to crop out the scaffolding.

A handful of park security officers wandered through the crowd. The restoration crew, some wearing bright green jump suits, worked silently.

Many tourists shook their heads at the scene but quickly added that the incident hadn't marred their experience.

At the National Cathedral, an Episcopal church Weinberg described as "the spiritual home of the nation," the Bethlehem Chapel on the basement level was closed to the public.

Tourists and worshipers could see into the Children's Chapel but could not enter. A ladder and a pair of lights mounted on tripods were still in the space near the high altar. There were only a handful of tourists nearby.

"We came to see the history, see the architecture – that's what it's all about," said Darlene Ortiz, a 52-year-old from New Mexico who was touring the cathedral with her husband.

Ortiz said they heard about the green paint before they arrived, but decided to come anyway.

"That wasn't going to keep us away," she said.

Jonathan Pitts reported from Baltimore and John Fritze reported from Washington.

The Washington Post contributed to this article.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

john.fritze@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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