Leaving a Mark
In honor of May as Preservation Month, this post is about a preservation issue inside a building that is iconic for all of North Carolina as well as its capital city. Since its completion in 1840 many visitors to the Old State Capitol Building in Raleigh have left their marks. The large hand-cut stone blocks bear the chisel indentations of various stone cutters; the worn stone steps attest to many footfalls and heavy loads dragged upwards; and wooden banisters in the house and senate chambers boast carvings of names/ initials and dates. Is it a sense of the structure’s significance that has compelled some of those passing through to carve their names into the wood? These marks of creation, use, and commemoration (however subversive) are visible to all who visit the Old Sate Capitol for one of its free tours.
Recently I took advantage of an opportunity for NC Department of Cultural Resources staff to take a behind-the-scenes tour of the building. We snuck peeks at staff offices, attic storage areas, and views near the rotunda. The marks individuals had left behind continued, and perhaps became even more pronounced, as we climbed and pressed our way into non-public areas. This wall (left) near a roof access door exhibits over a hundred years’ worth of visitors proclaiming “I was here!” Earlier marks from the 1900s or so have been carved into the wood, whereas modern graffiti artists chose markers to commemorate their visits.
Additionally, several of the more hidden corridors bear the marks of hands which have accomplished the difficult and often dangerous work of building maintenance duties. These marks on the right are from electricians who have squeezed into tight spaces and balanced themselves on ledges to change light bulbs around the senate chamber rotunda.
When do preservationists view marks like fingerprints and graffiti as defacement in need of correction and when do we view them as interesting testaments to a building’s (or object’s) use and significance? This is a question object conservators must ask themselves before each treatment, and sometimes the answer is different. Cleaning is irreversible and permanently strips away evidence of human interaction with the material. The Old State Capital staff has taken two different approaches to this quandary. For some of the wooden railings bearing carved letters and numbers from visitors (dating from the building’s period of use, 1840-1963), the marks remain. For others, staff has in-filled the carvings and painted over the rails.
Which approach (or combination) has your site taken?
–Adrienne Berney, C2C Collections Care Trainer