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Why that light from the Watergate went out

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For most of the 40-some years I have been a resident, there was a neon sculpture visible on the river side of the Watergate building. It was an upright rectangle of yellow and blue tubes. I never got close to it, but the colorful tubes were a cheerful sight when I drove on Rock Creek Parkway. Within the last couple of years, it disappeared. What was it? Where did it go?

— Bruce Miller, Alexandria

Isn’t it interesting how some of the most memorable features of our daily commutes aren’t buildings or monuments or official signposts but more evanescent things, things such as Josephine Thornton’s neon sculpture?

Josephine Thornton (nee Cockrell) was born in Dallas in 1922. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Wellesley and spent a decade in New York, where she worked for Vogue. She earned an MBA from Columbia, then came to Washington and got a law degree from Georgetown. She was admitted to the D.C. bar in 1971 and went to work for the National Labor Relations Board.

In 1969, Josephine became the first person to purchase an apartment in the Watergate. It was on the third floor of the west building, near the Exxon (then Esso) station, facing the river.

Josephine was always interested in art. She herself painted, and she collected works by disparate artists. At some point she became enamored with the work of Ben Berns.

Berns was born in the Netherlands in 1936. He went to art school in Amsterdam and later lived in Paris. In 1963, he immigrated to the United States to teach at the Pratt Graphic Arts Center in New York. A grant from the Ford Foundation helped pay his way here; the idea was that he would help improve the quality of lithographic printing in this country. In 1971, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.

During his career, Berns exhibited in galleries and museums around the world, including the Henri Gallery in Alexandria and the Corcoran. Perhaps Josephine met him during one of those exhibitions. Berns seems to have done his light sculptures in the late ’60s and early ’70s. (He died in 2007.)

Josephine commissioned the untitled work in 1969. She paid $2,500 for it, plus $74.90 to have it shipped from New York City. At more than six feet tall, it must have seemed perfect for the Water­gate’s floor-to-ceiling windows.

Josephine died Nov. 23, 2009, at age 87.

She had no children, and it was up to her niece to handle her art collection. The niece asked that she not be named but was happy to talk about her aunt — and the sculpture. “I used to drive by it all the time,” she said. “It was like this little welcoming light. It was on all the time.”

Alas, it was balky and was often in the shop for electrical repairs. On the day Josephine died, it had started to make a funny noise.

The niece said no one in the family was interested in Berns’s neon rectangles. Nor were any auction houses. “I called lots of galleries,” she said. “They said it didn’t have any value at all, but art schools might be interested in having it.

“It’s a difficult thing to get rid of.”

As the niece tried to figure out what to do with the sculpture, work was going on to prepare Josephine’s condo for sale. (Still on the market for $595,000, by the way.) When contractors were working on the floors, the niece arrived to find the 40-year-old neon sculpture on the balcony, in the rain.

“I went out, it’s raining, and the thing is shattered into a million different pieces,” she said. “I just felt terrible.”

The shards were hauled away. “It was rough,” said the niece. “It was like a childhood friend.”

It’s hard to estimate the value of the work. Berns is better known for the hyper-realistic landscape paintings he did later in his career. They sell in the neighborhood of $2,500 to $3,750. Answer Man could find no auction results for his light sculptures. Perhaps few survive.

“She loved that piece,” the niece said of Josephine. “I think what she loved more than anything was that it drew a lot of attention.”

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