UPDATE: In Silver Spring, Metro Penguins Will Rise Again

Sunday, March 5, 2006

Long before the rest of the world enjoyed "March of the Penguins," Silver Spring and the legions of riders who board at its downtown Metro station delighted in their own commute of the penguins, so to speak.

The larger-than-life mural, showing hundreds of the tuxedoed birds heading for their trains and day jobs, has embellished 100 feet of the station's perimeter since the early 1990s. Since 2005, though, some of its 25 panels have been missing, and the rest soon will disappear -- to be ceremoniously returned later this year.

"I don't want them to be gone too long," artist Sally Callmer said, "or people may decide they want something else there."

There's really no chance of that.

Although "Penguin Rush Hour" was initially intended as a temporary installation, the whimsy of its characters long ago ensured its permanence. But sun and rain ravaged a section directly exposed to the elements, and in 2004 that extreme deterioration forced Silver Spring officials into a decision. They could either risk losing a community landmark or commission Callmer to do a major restoration.

They chose the latter, raising $30,000 by putting penguin scenes on T-shirts and mugs and appealing for pennies and more from Metro riders and audiences at summer concerts. One woman made an anonymous $15,000 donation. And Callmer got to work.

She took down the first four panels last year and took them to her Bethesda studio, trying to be as true to the originals as possible. She used a highly durable concrete-and-fiber composite that she expects will weather time far better than the earlier plywood, especially with the regular maintenance to which officials have committed.

After months of tedious painting -- much of it spent on one rung or another of an eight-foot ladder -- Callmer said Friday that she's finally finished with Phase 1. Phase 2, which will involve cleaning and repairing the remaining 84 feet of mural, should go faster.

She is resisting any urge to update the scenes with modern technology. No feathered commuters will suddenly appear with cell phones or BlackBerrys in their flippers.

"I'd like to think penguins wouldn't need those devices," she said, laughing.

-- Susan Levine

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