Silver Spring's Penguin Mural Waddling Off for Restoration
By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 25, 2004; Page B01
Summers around here can be just brutal if you're a penguin. All that heat, that sun, that humidity. Your color fades completely. Your wings start curling and peeling and flaking. After about 15 years, hardly anything's left of you. You've gone from larger-than-life prominence to disintegrating disaster.
But this morning, Silver Spring will begin to rally around the bird that it considers a community icon and unofficial downtown mascot. Local officials will kick off a major, multiphase restoration of the "Penguin Rush Hour" mural that decorates the exterior of their Metro station, a 100-foot-long painting that shows hundreds of briefcase-carrying commuters heading for their trains -- hundreds of feathered and web-footed commuters, that is.
They're calling the campaign "Pennies for Penguins" and putting select scenes of them on T-shirts, mugs and prints, which will be sold to help raise the needed $30,000. Next month, officials will pass not a hat but a penguin bank among the crowds at Silver Spring's summer concert series. The goal is to preserve an artwork that in the late '80s was intended as a year's temporary exhibit but survived by virtue of the public's affection.
"It was a huge hit right off. . . . It was a destination when you came to Silver Spring -- you'd see the mural," said Susan Hoffmann, special events manager for the county's Silver Spring Regional Center. No surprise, given the whimsy of characters, like her favorite. "He's checking his watch, and he's just so cute," she said. "You can't help but chuckle."
For nearly two years, the center, its citizens advisory board and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority have discussed how to save artist Sally Callmer's creation. The 8-foot-high piece comprises 25 continuous panels of penguins doing what their human counterparts do every weekday morning. Buy their Farecards. Board the train. Read their newspaper. Finish a crossword puzzle.
The first several panels, the ones that have deteriorated so severely, once showed penguin couples kissing and riding, "or whatever penguins do, beaking," Callmer said, laughing.
The work was commissioned back when Metro was still relatively new -- a system map in one panel shows Silver Spring as the terminus of the Red Line, and there's not a cell phone in sight. Callmer remembers wanting do something to encourage ridership. Given the mural's unplanned longevity, "it's a good thing I didn't paint what the fares were."
Yet its expected short existence is what has caused the problem. Not for the 21 panels that directly front Colesville Road -- they are well protected by the Metro bridge overhead and, although in need of cleaning and brightening, in remarkably decent shape. Excepting a few marks and gouges, they've even been spared graffiti.
The rest of the mural, around a corner and totally exposed to the elements of summer and winter, cannot be salvaged. Callmer used exterior house paints on plywood; this time, she'll work with a new composite concrete-and-wood material with a life span of half a century.
These four panels, at one point at risk of being put permanently "into storage," will cost nearly as much to redo as to spiff up the other 21. Callmer hopes to begin replicating the originals in her Bethesda studio this summer. The location will avert the distractions that interrupted one previous cleaning, with seemingly every passerby wanting "to stop and tell me their penguin story."
The rescue effort starts this morning on a corner just beyond the station. Nearly 25,000 people travel from and to the Silver Spring Metro every weekday, leading County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) to contemplate how, if everyone on a single day gave a single dollar, the fundraising would almost be an instant success.
The transit authority has pledged a donation, as has Foulger-Pratt Cos., the developer in the lead role on downtown Silver Spring's revitalization. Art in public spaces like this "introduces an important human element to the environment," said Michael McBride, who heads Metro's Art in Transit Program.
But something else is at play with the penguins, he believes. "Anything the community has embraced and enjoyed needs to stick around."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company