For nearly 50 years, the bridge that carries trains over the Capital Beltway near the Mormon Temple has been a blank canvas for area vandals. It all started in the 1970s when someone daubed it with the wonderfully evocative “SURRENDER DOROTHY.” It was a delightful prank, harmonizing with the Emerald City-like spires of the temple just beyond.
Late last month, a new message went up: “HUNTER HIDEN.” I’ll get to what that means in a bit. But first, here’s a roundup of all the messages I’ve been able to gather and authenticate. We’ll begin with the one that started them all — and it wasn’t even on the railroad bridge.
A schoolgirl prank
Catholic school girls, of all people, get credit for forever linking the Mormon Temple with Oz. The white marble building — officially the Washington D.C. Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — opened in September of 1974. That year, the school play at Holy Child in Potomac was “The Wizard of Oz.” During a sleepover that October, a group of Holy Child students took wadded up newspaper pages and stuck them in the chain-link fence on Linden Lane, spelling out “SURRENDER DOROTHY.”
“It was very well orchestrated,” Ann Cassidy Principe, one of the Holy Child girls, told me in 2011.
The newspapers only lasted a few days. What came next would last longer.
From paper to paint
The earliest reference I could find in print to a painted version of “SURRENDER DOROTHY” was a brief item in the Washington Star on April 16, 1981. Those two words were there for years in various incarnations. As far as I can tell, no one has publicly taken credit.
I’ve only been able to find one photograph of any of the versions. It’s an uncharacteristic one, with small letters bunched to the left. Old-timers will remember larger letters spread out over the right-hand side of the bridge. The graffito was painted over regularly, only to magically reappear. It was a meme before there was an internet.
At some point, “SURRENDER DOROTHY” was painted over for good. Perhaps the cohort who grew up with it had gotten too old to scramble onto a railroad overpass. Those who knew to look could still make out the skeletal outlines of the letters under the peeling green paint.
On a December day in 2014, motorists were confronted with a new message, not from the world of movies, but from the world of music: “FUGAZI.” That’s the name of a seminal D.C. punk band that played its last live show in 2002.
(Don’t) Build the wall
The election of Donald Trump was to provide grist for the next few messages. A month after Trump’s inauguration in 2017, someone painted a rebuke on the bridge: “BRIDGES NOT WALLS.” It was a reference to the new president’s unfriendly immigration policies.
Though the medium had changed, the next message was also aimed at Trump. On Aug. 24, 2018, two men crept onto the bridge and affixed magnetized letters to its surface. The orange and blue letters spelled out “SURRENDER DONALD.”
The work was the brainchild of Claude Taylor, founder of a left-leaning, anti-GOP political action committee formed to needle the president.
A brush with fame
The magnetic letters eventually fell by the wayside — quite literally. Two years later, in early November 2020, someone re-created the message, but in white paint this time. This “SURRENDER DONALD” seemed especially timely, as Trump refused to accept his election loss.
Which brings us to the latest graffiti: “HUNTER HIDEN.”
Surely it’s a reference to the president’s son Hunter Biden and the controversy he’s found himself in. Some Americans, especially some of those on the right, think he is at the center of a corrupt nexus that has benefited Joe Biden. Republicans in the House of Representatives have said they will hold hearings on Hunter Biden’s business deals.
What can we make of this particular message? Well, the brushstrokes are strong and confident, but the first N is backward, as if written by a child or a not particularly bright adult. (Of course, it’s probably not easy to write something when you’re leaning over a precipice.)
There’s no space between the two words. Whoever painted it opted for “HIDEN,” which I suppose is a mash-up of “Biden” and “hiding.” The I is dotted with what looks like a star. Or perhaps it’s meant to evoke the burning fuse on a firecracker.
I should point out here that it is illegal to paint your sentiments on someone else’s property. And in this case, it’s dangerous. Trains are big and hard. People are small and soft. We’re fortunate no one has been injured out on that bridge.
Pondering the last 50 years, I think I discern a message in the succession of proclamations the bridge has borne. What was once the home of a nonpolitical message poking gentle fun at a local landmark has become a place where our fractured politics are on view. I think I liked it better when the bridge reminded me there’s no place like home.