Vince Gray wants your help solving a D.C. mystery

A remnant of a commemorative plaque is put back in the closet at the District Building. The plaque was broken some time after it was taken down from a wall in 1997. Because parts of it are missing, no one can remember what it commemorates.
A remnant of a commemorative plaque is put back in the closet at the District Building. The plaque was broken some time after it was taken down from a wall in 1997. Because parts of it are missing, no one can remember what it commemorates. ( (Photo by John Kelly/The Washington Post))

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By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 9:41 PM

For who knows how long (really: Who? No one knows), a large, black plaque hung on the wall of a ground-floor corridor near the 131/2 Street NW entrance to the John A. Wilson Building, a.k.a. the District Building, home to Washington's mayor, city council and other government officials.

When I say the plaque was big, I mean huge. Made of several glass panels, it was about five feet wide and four feet tall and covered with names painted in gold. That's about all anybody's sure of.

When renovation of the District Building started in 1997, the plaque was taken down. It is not easy to take down big pieces of glass, and some of them broke. Or maybe they broke after they were put in storage. In any event, the plaque was absent for more than a decade, until WTOP reporter Mark Segraves heard about it and started poking around in the basement for it.

A janitor found the pieces last year in a closet across from the council chamber, which is where they were Tuesday morning, leaning against the wall under a couple of dusty ladders. One jagged piece had been removed and propped against a lectern in the council chamber, where Chairman Vincent Gray turned to the public for help in ascertaining the plaque's purpose.

For here is the problem: No one knows what the commemorative plaque actually commemorates. Even people who walked past it every day for 30 years are scratching their heads, trying to remember.

"We think it's World War II. We think it's District employees," Nelson Rimensnyder told me on the phone over the weekend. "But we need to confirm that."

Nelson's a history buff who has been working with another, Bill Rice, to glean information about the plaque. Cynthia Brock-Smith, secretary to the council, has been typing up the names from the plaque. She's up to 1,869, from W.S. Abell to George Zuras. Some of the names are unreadable, though, because of the way the glass shattered or the gold leaf flaked away.

And the real problem is this: Still missing is a panel from the top that presumably announced what exactly the plaque was for. There was an eagle up there, too. Or maybe it was an image of the District Building. (Memories vary.)

A single indistinct photo of the plaque in place has been found, and Tuesday it was on an easel in the chamber, the curious crowding around it looking for clues.

"My old office was that way," said Venious Parker, who has worked for the city since Mayor Washington. He can't remember what the plaque was for.

"People thought it was a world war," Nelson had said. "What world war, they're not sure."

There's already a monument on the first floor to the dozen or so D.C. city employees who died in the Great War. Nelson said that 3,839 D.C. residents were killed in World War II. It seems unlikely that half of them worked for the city.

"And some of the names are repeated, which we don't understand, either," Nelson said. There are also dozens of women's names (Geraldine F. Baron, June M. Cogswell, Anna M. Yost . . . ).

Whatever the plaque is, on Tuesday, Vince Gray announced what he called the "Chairman's Challenge." He asked for help solving the mystery, with the aim of restoring the plaque by Nov. 11, 2011.

I just hope it doesn't turn out to be Employee of the Month.

If you think you know what the plaque is for, send an e-mail to dcwarmemorial@dccouncil.us. Be sure to copy me: kellyj@washpost.com. The full list of names should be available within the week at www.dccouncil.us .

Get out the vote

It was not lost on anyone in the council chamber (especially since Mayor-elect Gray brought it up) that D.C. residents have given their lives for this country in every war. It borders on the obscene that they've done so while not enjoying full representation in Congress.

A new party will soon control the House. Will its members help right this wrong?


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