‘Art on Call’ Rehabilitation Project Moves Ahead

Five Designs Approved, 20 Assigned

Posted July 22, 2003 at 2:21pm

Five call box designs have recently been approved and 20 more have been assigned throughout the Capitol Hill area as part of the D.C. Heritage Tourism Coalition’s Art on Call project, which aims to restore decaying call boxes into pieces of art.

Nancy Metzger, Historic District Committee chairwoman for the Capitol Hill Restoration Society and Art on Call’s Capitol Hill contact, confirmed the status of the project and elaborated on the design details that span the realm of both historical content and background.

A design has been approved on Benjamin Latrobe, an architect for the Capitol and the Navy Yard, Metzger said. ‘It’s a classic piece with more of a ‘great white man’ approach to history,” she said.

Another call box, commemorating one of the first volunteer fire departments and based on an 1840s Beaver Parade Top Hat, ‘celebrates the Anacostia Fire Company through a ‘common man form of history,’” she said. ‘Fighting Fauna is a third idea, in which an elephant and a donkey are duking it out.”

Another design has been submitted and, pending committee approval, will commemorate the Parking Act of 1871, which gave Capitol Hill a front yard. ‘The act made the area out front of the Capitol public. It’s officially part of the street but it’s a park,” Metzger said. The call box will feature details about the act and colorful ceramics of flowers.

‘The boxes will have a variety of themes, designed in a variety of mediums showcasing information as well as artwork,” Metzger said. ‘Our hope is that people will learn about their own neighborhoods or the neighborhoods they’re walking through by stopping and looking at the call boxes.”

Betsy Damos, artist of two call boxes, learned about her neighborhood by researching the history behind houses and discovered the Home Theatre. ‘I picked it because I would go for walks and wonder what it was doing there in the middle of the row houses.”

She discovered that the odd building, now a church, had once been a theater originally designed by William Plager in 1916 and later redesigned by Mihran Mesrobian in the 1930s.

Damos plans to use photos in her display to illustrate the changing face of the former theater. ‘It originally had a dome, but was redone in deco — quite the change,” she said.

Having located the photographs, she is now seeking permission to use them before submitting the proposal to the board.

In the meantime, she continues work on the design for her second box, in line to be primed. Damos said she selected her second box, one commemorating the Carolina Theater, because of a unique discovery. ‘I’m not a theater historian but when I realized that the Carolina was done by the same man, Plager, I wanted to do them both.”

Damos’ plans for the box outside where the Carolina once stood include line drawings of the original theater. ‘It’s more out of love than anything else,” Damos said, ‘a love of the neighborhoods and histories behind them.”

Metzger hopes that many people will feel as Damos does, as there are more than 100 boxes waiting to be adopted. The call boxes, installed in the Washington area in the 1860s, once served communities by allowing citizens to signal the fire department during emergencies. Their success prompted the introduction of police call boxes. Through technological development and electrical advancement, the city’s phone systems evolved, leaving the call boxes useless but fixated in their cemented iron bases.

Over time, these historic boxes have suffered vandalism and destruction and now stand in various states of disarray throughout the city. The fixtures, overlooked by many and acknowledged by few, caught the eye of area resident and artist Will Fleishell and prompted him to propose a solution to the city’s problem that would transform the defaced pieces of history into art.

Because of his idea, the D.C. Heritage Tourism Coalition in October 2002 launched its rehabilitation phase of Art on Call, ‘a citywide effort to restore deteriorating fire and police call boxes and re-use them as mini-showcases for community art and history.”

The transformation process has proved a difficult road. Officially launched in September 2000, the project had expected completed boxes to be displayed by the summer of 2001. The first step was to strip the more than 100-year-old boxes, an effort adopted by Unity Construction.

‘Each box must be stripped down to the metal part but then must be painted quickly or it will begin to rust,” Metzger said. ‘All the rain we’ve experienced just hasn’t allowed Unity Construction to move as quickly as it first anticipated. It’s been a process that we’re feeling our way through.”

Following the cleaning, which ranges from full stripping to various repairs depending on the boxes’ condition, boxes are adopted by individuals, artists and community groups who then develop a theme relating to the history of their individual neighborhoods and the overall idea of ‘Capitol Hill History and Neighborhood Life.” The groups then submit their designs and, upon receiving approval, are granted up to $250 to subsidize the cost of revamping their boxes.

‘It can be almost anything,” Metzger said. ‘I anticipate future designs of Native American historical facts or even of dinosaurs roaming the Hill. The designs can be ancient or from 200 years ago.”

For more information about the call box restoration project, contact Nancy Metzger at (202) 543-0425.