Restoring symbolic Old Glory

May 27, 1999|By David M. Shribman

WASHINGTON -- The stars droop. The stripes sag. Whole swatches of fabric have been removed by souvenir seekers. It may be known to history as Old Glory, but right now the original Star-Spangled Banner is an old mess of cotton and wool, and none too pretty, either.

But not for long. The Smithsonian Institution is about to begin one of the great restoration projects of the age, an $18 million undertaking designed to take a flag that cost $405.90 when it was sewn in 1813 and make it fit for the dawn's early light well into the next millennium.

Thus is born both a metaphor and a new tourist attraction. Beginning tomorrow, visitors to Washington will struggle for one of the toughest tickets in town, the chance to stand before the floor-to-ceiling glass walls of the Museum of Natural History that surround the $1.1 million flag preservation laboratory while a team of curators, conservators and textile specialists wage war against the natural aging process that has turned the flag's fibers brittle.

Stitching history

Yet it is the symbolism more than the scene that seems so compelling in this warm springtime in the capital. Here, on the shore of the new century, the country is taking its most cherished symbol and restitching it for the future -- the broad stripes and the bright stars. The project will, as Abraham Lincoln might have put it, bind up the nation's flag, and maybe its wounds, too.

Everything about this flag is larger than life. It originally measured 30 feet by 42 feet, about a quarter the size of the basketball courts the NBA playoffs are being conducted on now and much bigger than flags today. It has 15 stripes, one each for the 15 states at the time it was sewn; today's flags have but 13 stripes, one each for the original 13 states. And though hardly anybody can actually sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" without straining, almost everybody knows the words, or did at the twilight's last gleaming.

The flag that hung over Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the British bombardment of Sept. 13-14, 1814, will be spiffed up in a temperature-regulated lab much like the ones used to make the new symbols of America, computer chips. The conservators will control the light as well.

A delicate process

During the work, the surface of the flag will be lit by less than one foot-candle of light. That is a fancy way of saying very low light. But here, finally, is evidence that America doesn't regard its history as disposable. Every thread and shred of this flag is being preserved, with conservators laying down a delicate fiberglass screen to assure that loose fibers from the flag aren't suddenly sucked into a vacuum cleaner. Then a linen backing that was fastened to the flag in 1914 with a million individual stitches will be stripped away, with solvents and detergents applied to eliminate any harmful residues.

The word that floats around the flag lab is "stabilize," because the goal here is not to make the flag look new, but to make it look better. (A subtle preservationist's distinction that should not be overlooked: New is not necessarily better.) "We don't know what it will look like," says Marilyn A. Zoidis of Bangor, Maine, the curator of the Star-Spangled Banner Project. "This is not like restoring a historic house in Portsmouth, N.H. It won't be a gussied-up flag."

And so the flag staff will -- note the delicious contradiction in the next three words -- preserve the damage that has been part of the flag's history. Like the telltale gouges where the Fort McHenry veterans cut little keepsakes that took away about 8 feet of its length. Like the star that is missing, probably a random act of vandalism. And the funny little red "A" stitched to the surface of the flag, presumably a symbol representing Louisa Armistead, whose husband led the defense of Fort McHenry and owned the flag for many years. And, of course, the 11 patches over holes believed to have been made during the British attack.

Tourist attraction

This flag has always been a tourist attraction, and for a time it was a touring attraction. It hung on display in the Charlestown Naval Shipyard in Boston in 1873, and a photograph from the time shows that six of the stripes were barely hanging on. It is not a pretty picture. The flag was on loan to the Smithsonian Institution in 1907 and has been there since, though it was removed for safekeeping during World War II. Since 1964, it has been displayed in the Mall entrance of the National Museum of American History.

That's where it will return, in about three years, though it will be enclosed in a transparent envelope to keep dust and pollution far away and protect it from the ultraviolet light and oxygen that also damaged it in the past. Think of it as a flag-in-a-bubble, albeit a flat one.

The flag will be preserved unchanged by a nation that is forever changing -- a nation that is, even now, as the third verse of the national anthem puts it, in the havoc of war and the battle's confusion.

But Francis Scott Key knew a good thing when he saw it. So will you, when you see it again.

David M. Shribman is Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe.

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