ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
You might think of graffiti as a blight on buildings, trains, bathroom stalls. Or maybe you see it as a hip urban artform. But in the tiny town of Brandy Station, Virginia, graffiti is history. It sends messages from the Civil War.
Robert Luddy heads the Brandy Station Foundation, which is trying to restore the Graffiti House. He leads me inside the old, red clapboard house, upstairs to a bright sunny room.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
SEABROOK: This room is - got this big plank, old wood floors. Big, almost floor to ceiling windows in the rooms, which is gorgeous. And the paint has chipped away on the walls - on some of the walls. And there's this graffiti but it's much bigger than I would have expected. I mean, the letters are a foot high.
Mr. ROBERT LUDDY (President, Brandy Station Foundation): Oh, in some cases, yes. And so what's looking at on the wall is a series of signatures, names, drawings, just expressions by the soldiers as they walked through.
SEABROOK: The modeled gray paint and white wash has been chipped back, revealing scrawls and sketches made from fireplace pole. It's not fine art. More like the 19th century version of George was here. But there is folk art -a picture of a horse, its ears perked up, flowing wings of angel? Part of the wall has been destroyed. And so the rest of the picture is lost. And then there are women.
Let's look at this lady on wall over here. There's a picture of a woman with big dress on - if I can make it out correctly. And looks like she has a two-inch waist. She's real synched in at the waist, as was the style…
Mr. LUDDY: As was the style. That's absolutely right. She is crossing over a plank. She doesn't want to get her dress dirty so she takes her hands. She pulls up on her skirt, showing us high top shoes, shins, petticoats. Will be dancer here. Now, what's more important thing for us is she leaves us a message.
SEABROOK: What does it say?
Mr. LUDDY: The whole message reads: I am turned over to Lieutenant Gale. And we've come to the conclusion that the right Gale is Lyman Gale of the 10th Vermont Infantry, whose unit camped literally across the road here in a vacant field outside the house during the winter encampment here. And so we think Lyman was the right guy.
SEABROOK: Luddy takes the clues he gets from the walls and tries to piece together the history of this house. Before the winter encampment of Union soldiers, it had been a Confederate field hospital. The house was also at the center of one of the biggest cavalry battles of the Civil War - the Battle of Brandy Station. And so the graffiti scrawled across the walls comes from both sides.
But it's hard to recreate the exact history - not just because records are spotty and the references sometimes oblique - but because the walls themselves are falling to pieces in places. Cracks spider across, meeting others, breaking some walls into large chunks, held up only by horse hair. That's right. Horse hair. This house have a skeleton of wood and lass(ph) slathered with a plaster that's mixed with horse hair as a thickener. Now, the hair is the only thing holding the wall together in some places.
(Soundbite of train)
SEABROOK: And there is the daily traffic of commuter and heavy freight trains out back that send tremors through the house, Luddy says.
Mr. LUDDY: It's almost like its won mini version of tectonic plates. They move back and forth across one another with the vibrations from the train. And as they move and they rub, then the plaster breaks down and you wind up with the white dust that just falls to the floor.
SEABROOK: This stuff.
This makes the job of uncovering the house's hidden messages all the more delicate. And that job belongs to Kirsten Travers. She's a restoration and paint removal specialist, hired in the summer to test ways of removing the multiple layers that cover the historic graffiti. Before Kirsten can even start in area of this room, she has to test the wall's strength.
(Soundbite of knocking)
SEABROOK: Tell me what you're doing when you tap the wall.
Ms. KIRSTEN TRAVERS (Restoration and Paint Removal Specialist): Well, I lay my left palm flat on the wall. And then with my two fingers on my right hand, I tap the wall around my left hand.
SEABROOK: What do you hear there?
Ms. TRAVERS: I hear a few different variations of thudding sounds. But what I feel is what is more important to me. I can actually feel how the vibration travels up and down the crack here. And that's really what's happening when every train goes by - the vibrations. They're just travelling all over the wall, travelling through each crack and, you know, the wall is really losing adhesion little bit by little bit every time a train goes by.
SEABROOK: Kirsten Travers, you're still uncovering graffiti in here. I mean, there are big parts of the walls where there is that old gray modeled paint that you're off?
Ms. TRAVERS: I'm working up in this corner - upper corner of this plaster wall. And there's about two square feet of white wash and paint that are still covering the graffiti though the rest of the surrounding area has already been exposed. So there's bares plaster and on top of it is graffiti paint of - drawn in charcoal and pencil. And what you can see around the area that I'm going to work on is the letters R-E-G-T, which is Regiment; N-Y-E, which is New York Engineers.
Mr. LUDDY: I think so.
Mr. TRAVERS: Pontoon train and Bob believes I'm going to find the number 50.
Mr. LUDDY: Bob hopes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LUDDY: Bob hopes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SEABROOK: Well, why do you think the number 50 is it.
Mr. LUDDY: Well, we know that the 50th New York Engineers were here in Brandy Station or the Brandy Station area during the winter of '63 to '64. And we also know they were in charge of the Federal Pontoon train. We have about a half a dozen pictures downstairs from the Library of Congress' Archive of the Civil War showing the camp site and the Pontoons of the 50th New York Engineers. So if we could actually have their signature on the wall, that would be super duper. But we will never know until Kirsten gets underneath that paint layer. And who knows? I mean, we may all get surprised if it turn out to be somebody totally different. But that's part of this venture of cleaning the walls.
SEABROOK: Kirsten Travers dragged her stepladder to the corner of the room. She takes a spray bottle and mists the walls to loosen the top layer of paint.
Ms. TRAVERS: We'll just take a straightedge razor blade. And applying a certain pressure, I'm able to get just underneath the white wash layer that's covering the graffiti. And I'm able to pop it off.
There looks like there's a number emerging.
SEABROOK: Oh, it's a five, just like we were expecting. But we haven't seen a zero so far.
Ms. TRAVERS: No. But there's something. Let's see what these marks are going to bring us to.
SEABROOK: If you could just stand here, watch this, it's like…
Ms. TRAVERS: That's what people do when (unintelligible) come to the house and I'm working. It's like I look behind me and there's this crowd of people watching. But I just get into this zone because my face is six inches away from the wall the day.
SEABROOK: I mean, I'm just standing here with my jaw open, sort of like watching this history be uncovered for the first time.
Mr. LUDDY: Yeah.
(Soundbite of paint peeling)
Ms. TRAVERS: Yes, so were all the first people to see this in one hundred and…
Mr. LUDDY: …forty-three years.
Ms. TRAVERS: Yup.
SEABROOK: One hundred forty-three years. Is it a one? Is it…
Ms. TRAVERS: It might be a one. It looks like it…
Mr. LUDDY: It could be 157.
SEABROOK: Looks like it…
Mr. TRAVERS: Oh, that's true. It could be a seven but it looks more like a oen to me.
Mr. LUDDY: Well, everyday, you learn something new.
Mr. TRAVERS: Okay. So…
Mr. LUDDY: Well, now…
SEABROOK: 15th Regiment.
Mr. LUDDY: And now, we'll look for more pictures.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SEABROOK: They expected to find the 50th Regiment and they found the 15th. But that's no disappointment for Bob Luddy. It's just the next clue in a historical treasure hunt. It's what makes working here - Travers and Luddy both say - so exciting.
It seems like as you, Kirsten Travers, are reconstructing what was written on these walls, you, Bob Luddy, are reconstructing the history.
Mr. LUDDY: Absolutely true. Absolutely true. This house has a history all by itself. And this house deserves to be more than just a museum composed of dead things of a bygone age. This house is really a living being in it of itself.
SEABROOK: A living time machine, Luddy says, that transports you into the lives and thoughts American soldiers, north and south. And the scrawls on the walls of this Graffiti House tell a different story from what you'll find in a history book, Luddy says. This is no bronze statue of a commander on a house. This house gives a glimpse of the foot soldier, the every man, the rural lady and, especially, the young men who fought against each other in America's only Civil War.
(Soundbite of music)
Seems fitting to have our parting words tonight come from Abraham Lincoln. In his deeply beautiful second inaugural address, Lincoln urged the country.
(Reading) Let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan - to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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