On H Street NW, near Second Street and Massachusetts Avenue, there is an odd-looking building that is very skinny and tall. On one side is painted the Capitol dome. Everyone I ask says it is a missile silo. What is it really?

— Miriam Hauss, Washington

The strange structure is actually an air shaft, built in 1975 to vent vehicle exhaust from Interstate 395, which runs underneath the city there.

The monolithic edifice got its unconventional look in 1988, after the city had a contest asking artists for proposals on how to decorate it.

“To my surprise, I actually won,” said local artist Val Lewton.

Lewton calls his 60-by-100-foot work “The Airshaft Mural.” It’s a trompe l’oeil design that looks as if the concrete pylon is pierced by windows through which the U.S Capitol peeps.

“I sort of wanted to emphasize the concrete,” Lewton said. “I thought if it looked like it had been penetrated, it would make it look even more solid than it was.”

Lewton painted a one-third scale mock-up of his design on foam core panels in his studio, carefully matching the concrete’s color. When it was time to paint the beast, Lewton hired a window-washing company in lieu of building a scaffold so the painters could go up and down the face of the shaft freely.

One day, Lewton said, a homeless man announced that he could help. It turned out that Victor Korenev was an artist from Bulgaria.

“The guy could do anything,” Lewton said. “I had amateurs working on it, but he was able to take a look at what I wanted and hit just the right notes.”

The whole painting job took a month and cost $20,000.

As for the missile silo, it’s hidden in the Washington Monument, naturally.

from Feb. 15, 2004

What’s the story on the Virginia state seal? What did the guy lying on the ground do to deserve a woman standing over him with spear in hand? And what part of Virginia are they from?

— Mike Walsh, Virginia

Why, Mike, they’re from Vienna, where kinky, gladiator-style sex is rampant, as you well know.

But seriously, folks, the dumbing down of our culture isn’t illustrated by the fact that we adorn government documents with a half-naked woman and a man in a skirt; it’s that we fail to recognize that these are classical images dripping with symbolism.

Allow us to quote from the description of the seal included in the Code of Virginia:

“On the obverse, Virtus, the genius of the Commonwealth, dressed as an Amazon, resting on a spear in her right hand, point downward, touching the earth; and holding in her left hand, a sheathed sword, or parazonium, pointing upward; her head erect and face upturned; her left foot on the form of Tyranny represented by the prostrate body of a man, with his head to her left, his fallen crown nearby, a broken chain in his left hand, and a scourge in his right.”

Now let’s meet the, uh, characters: Virtus symbolizes Virginia itself. She’s often pictured on Roman coins and denotes bravery and valor (and virtue, duh). Dressed as a mythical Amazon warrior, she also denotes power and military skill.

The man on the ground is a deposed king. And not just any king — a nasty old tyrant. The seal’s motto, “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” means “Thus always to tyrants.” (It’s what John Wilkes Booth shouted after assassinating Abraham Lincoln.)

The seal was designed principally by George Wythe, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and adopted in 1776. Why does it look the way it does? Well, what was going on in 1776?

Now, has anyone seen Answer Man’s parazonium?

from Dec. 21, 2003