Society seeks to protect courthouse graffiti

By Alex Bridges

Graffiti rarely makes history, but markings found in the old Shenandoah County courthouse in Woodstock could shed light on who stayed in the building during the Civil War.

However, the effort to preserve the historic graffiti could cost a local organization close to $50,000.

The Shenandoah County Historic Society plans to seek the Board of Supervisors’ support for efforts to search for more graffiti and preserve what they uncover. Barbara Adamson, president of the society board of directors, appeared before the supervisors at a work session earlier this month to ask for members’ endorsement.

Most supervisors voiced support for the effort, but not in favor of using county money to help. Supervisor Sharon Baroncelli questioned whether the courthouse renovation project currently underway should have included preservation of the graffiti.

The society plans to ask the board for its support in its efforts to apply for grants. Also, since the county owns the courthouse, the society needs the board’s endorsement, Adamson explained.

Why the county didn’t include the graffiti preservation in the overall renovations of the courthouse remains unclear. The county allocated funding left over from the construction of the new general district courthouse to renovate the historic structure. The project is underway by Caldwell Santmyer.

Adamson said the society understood the financial limitations of the county when it pursued the courthouse renovations.

“It was important to be able to use those funds to renovate the courthouse properly and we understood that and that’s fine,” Adamson said. “We’ll deal with this project as time goes on and we won’t be able to do it quickly but we’ll do it as we can.”

County officials knew in 2007 the graffiti existed when conservation expert Chris Mills found the markings. The society also knew that the county planned to renovate the courthouse though designs had not yet been completed. Adamson sat on the committee that worked on the design of the renovated, historic courthouse and noted that Mills’ work came at an opportune time.

“That was the nice part of our having him come in before the renovations began because then the contractor knew that there were certain walls, certain spaces they had to leave alone until we had a chance to work on the graffiti project,” Adamson said.

Plans call for the contractor to delay painting the historic courtroom to allow Mills to look for more graffiti.

“I’m sure some people will walk in there after the renovations are done and they’ll wonder why the courtroom isn’t painted and that’s the reason, because we certainly do not want to add yet another layer of paint over the historic graffiti,” Adamson said.

But without funding from the county, the graffiti project with a price tag of $50,000 falls to the society.

“I think the county feels like funds are really short at this time and they really felt like they don’t have the money for the graffiti project, at least not for the time being,” Adamson said.

For that reason, Adamson added, the society plans to use its own money and to seek grants for the project as well as support from the community. But, in order to seek grants and to move forward on preservation work, the society needs the supervisors’ blessing because the county owns the building.

The graffiti first appeared under multiple layers of paint on the walls of the upstairs rooms of the part of the courthouse built in 1795. The society paid conservation expert Christopher Mills $1,314 to conduct a survey of wall surfaces in the 1795 section of the courthouse. The survey found extensive graffiti exists on the original, historic plaster and later lime-wash surfaces, under nine to 11 layers of paint or lime-wash. Writing was done in pencil, red pencil and charcoal, according to information from Adamson.

Graffiti or vandalism would not have been allowed in a courthouse unless under extraordinary circumstances such as war. The number of layers of paint increases the likelihood that the graffiti occurred sometime during the Civil War.

In November 2011, Mills tested paint removal systems and uncovered more evidence to show the graffiti occurred during the Civil War. The society paid $835 for the services. Research is being done to determine what troops may have occupied the courthouse and when. However, Mills has advised that the amount, content and importance of the graffiti can be determined and researched only by removing all paint layers.

Christopher Mills Conservation Services provided an estimate of $48,560 to conduct the exposure and preservation in five sections of the courthouse, which could occur incrementally. The society also would work to exhibit the sections in phases, starting with the walls of the historic courtroom.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com