Who are the figures on the terra-cotta medallions on the top of the Hotel Washington? Every time I drive or walk by, I try to determine who the people are. One looks like Lincoln, one looks like Dante, one looks like Washington and then my neck starts to ache.
Dinah Davis, Springfield
You would think this would be pretty easy for Answer Man. All he'd have to do is stroll the five blocks from his bunker at The Washington Post to the Hotel Washington, gaze up at the portraits, jot down some details, then call the hotel for anything he was unclear about.
But noooooooooo. Unraveling the mystery involved fruitless trips to archives, a crash course in art history and a conversation with a heavily accented man of Russian-German extraction. Why, it was like something from "The Da Vinci Code," except without the dead body, the close escapes, the self-flagellating monk and the hot French babe.
(So, actually, it was nothing like "The Da Vinci Code.")
Downtown Washington's Hotel Washington was designed by New York architects John Carrere and Thomas Hastings in an Italian Renaissance-revival style. When the hotel opened in 1917, it not only had an ice skating rink on the roof but also boasted a telephone in every guest room and in every guest bathroom.
But we don't care about the inside. We care about the outside, which is decorated with a profusion of flora and fauna, crests and curlicues. Topping it all off and ringing an upper story are 29 circular or octagonal portrait medallions, in three groups. There are five portraits on the hotel's Pennsylvania Avenue side; 13 on the 15th Street side; and 11 on the F Street side. Only six figures are depicted, so they are repeated.
But who are the six?
The Hotel Washington's Web site says they are: "Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Franklin and other famous Americans."
The District's Office of Historic Preservation lists those four famous Americans but says the other two figures aren't American at all; they are the English poets William Shakespeare and John Milton.
That just didn't look right to me. Although the "Shakespeare" figure does have one of those funky Elizabethan collars, the face doesn't look like Shakespeare's. For a start, he doesn't have that big, bald head we've come to associate with the Bard of Avon. And the "Milton" figure simply doesn't look English to me. He lacks Milton's stern expression, and he wears a floppy hat that I've always associated with Dante (as reader Dinah pointed out).
Even the "Franklin" is suspect. Why would Ben be included along with U.S. presidents? Plus, he just doesn't look Franklinesque. No spectacles, for a start. With his hairless pate and flowing beard, the figure reminded me of an elderly Charles Darwin. (For some reason, the "Franklin/Darwin" figure has a mortarboard on his head in one of the medallions.)
Very curious, indeed.
It might have remained a mystery had I not been able to find Ivan Valtchev, a half-German, half-Russian artist based in New York. In 1986, Ivan was hired to lead the restoration of the artwork on the outside of the Hotel Washington.
I asked Ivan if he had had any original sketches to work with, anything labeled with who exactly the figures were meant to represent.
"No sketches," he said. "No nothing. No works or preparatory tracings or stencils have survived."
Some of the figures were obvious, though. "There is Lincoln," he said. "And then of course there is Washington." Thomas Jefferson is also up there, his face shown in three-quarter profile.
But in Ivan's expert opinion, the person thought to be Milton/Dante is actually Raphael, taken from a famous self-portrait by the Renaissance artist.
What about Shakespeare? No, said Ivan. "I believe this is Galileo."
And the balding old man? Not Benjamin Franklin, said Ivan, but either the Greek philosopher Plato or the Greek philosopher-scientist Aristotle.
The key to understanding the mystery men, said Ivan, is to put yourself in the position of the original artists who created the works nearly 90 years ago. They were Italians, working on an Italian Renaissance-style building.
"We're talking about a fraternity," Ivan said. That's why they would have chosen to honor fellow Italians Raphael and Galileo.
The figures aren't terra cotta at all, but are a form of sgraffito. In traditional sgraffito, white mortar is laid down, then covered over with a thin layer of red mortar. The red is scraped away to reveal the white underneath.
Ivan said the Hotel Washington craftsmen actually employed a faux sgraffito technique, simply painting white oil paint over the red mortar. The portraits were incised into the building, though, giving Ivan a guide when he restored them by laying down a special white paint that is guaranteed to last 100 years.
So in case the question comes up again in the next century, here is Answer Man's official roll call of the Hotel Washington: The figures facing 15th Street NW, from south to north, are Raphael, Plato (or Aristotle), Jefferson, Galileo, Lincoln and Washington. The six figures are then repeated, with a third Raphael at the end.
Researcher Alex MacCallum contributed to this report.
Do you have a question for Answer Man? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, or John Kelly, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071. Answer Man regrets that he is not able to answer every question posed to him.