Washington 'green paint' vandal upsets regional tourists

Woman charged in one incident at the National Cathedral

July 30, 2013|By Jonathan Pitts and John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON — — 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.

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