The Mystery is Solved: Council’s Plaque Finally Identified in Time for Memorial Day

The Mystery is Solved: Council’s Plaque Finally Identified in Time for Memorial Day

Just prior to Veterans Day in 2010, the Council held a media event seeking the help of journalists and the general public in solving a mystery. The mystery involved a massive plaque listing hundreds of names, damaged when removed for a renovation, and subsequently shunted off and forgotten in a closet. No one remembered much about the plaque, and even after the 2010 event, it remained a mystery.

At a media event today, we explained how we solved the mystery of the plaque: what the plaque signifies, when it was hung, and how we figured all of this out. The timing of this is particularly significant, given Monday’s Memorial Day holiday.

What is the plaque for?

The plaque honors 1,869 DC government employees who served in World War II. The list includes men and women who worked for all branches of the District Government (including police officers, traffic aides, and tax collectors) and who served in all branches of the military (including the WAVES, the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service program). Both those who gave their lives during the war, as well as those who survived, are listed.

Atop the plaque was an image of an eagle, as well as the term of art for this kind of plaque: “Roll of Honor.” Below that, it read: “Those who are serving our country in World War II in the Armed Forces of the United States.”

The plaque was installed at 4:30PM on Thursday, October 22, 1942. Names were continuously added to the plaque throughout and after the war. In 1959, the plaque’s header was updated to change “are serving” to “served.” At the time of the Wilson Building’s renovation in the late 1990s, the plaque was damaged during its removal from the wall, and consigned to a messy closet. In 2010, it was sent to the DC Archives for safekeeping, and only this month has it returned to the Wilson Building. It is our goal to rehang the plaque (either the restored original or a reproduction) by Veterans Day of this year.

How did we figure it out?

Back in 2010, those researching the mystery did not have access to a research tool that proved critical to the more recent effort: full text searches of the Washington Post and the Washington Evening Star. Access to both databases is available via the DC Public Libraries’ website.  Yet even with this tool, only carefully crafted searches led to the needed results. Searches for “memorial” had to be replaced by “roll of honor,” and searches for “employees” had to be replaced by “employes” (apparently the spelling that was in vogue in the 1940s). This search led to three newspaper articles that laid out the basics of their installation.

Once the exact dates of the 1942 installation and 1959 update had been ascertained, that allowed for more precise targeting of further searches. One such resource was the minutes of meetings held by the three federally-appointed Commissioners who ran the District for decades. These minutes yielded additional details about the plaques, such as the cost of the plaque ($200) and its updating ($175), the manufacturer of the plaque (Pittsburgh Plate Glass), and the makeup of the plaque itself (Carrara glass). The minutes also corroborated press accounts of what the inscription on the plaque said.

Securing visuals

We pursued a separate track to seek visuals of the original plaque. One oblique photo of the plaque was shown at the 2010 event, but no others had surfaced subsequently. In an effort to find more, we reached out the General Services Administration, the federal government’s real estate arm, and the key participant in the late 1990s renovation. They put us in touch with a photographer, Carol Highsmith, who had taken hundreds and hundreds of pre-renovation photos of the building. Sadly, none of the hoped-for straight-on photos of the plaque were found, but we did find one additional oblique photo (hence doubling the worldwide known population of such photos) that did yield some additional insights.

Sadly, not all avenues of research prove fruitful: an examination of the District/Wilson Building’s pre- and post-renovation blueprints provided no visuals, or even mentions, of the plaque. Similarly, contacts with the archives of the plaque’s manufacturer, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, also yielded no further information.

The plaque’s story is ongoing

The history of the plaque is not exclusively ancient history. In just the past month, the plaque itself returned from its recent home at the DC Archives to its original home at the Wilson Building.

And amazingly, just last week, in a search of the closet in the Wilson Building where the plaque was long stored, four additional tiny fragments were discovered. When those four pieces were re-inserted in the larger plaque panel, it added three names back to the list of those being honored on the plaque. Had those fragments not been found in a recent search, three of those who served the nation in World War II would have been forgotten.

The future of the plaque

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson has committed that by Veterans Day 2016, the plaque (either a restored version of the original plaque, or if necessary, a reproduction) will be re-hung in the Wilson Building. We are currently in conversation with art conservators to examine the feasibility of bringing  back the old plaque, which is our preferred option.

Old mystery solved, but the quest continues

While the mystery of the plaque has been solved, this does not mean that our quest is complete. Two critical elements continue to elude us. The first would be a direct, full-on photo of the original plaque in its original location.  While our research has allowed us to essentially visualize even the small details of what such a photo would look like, we would still like to have one just on principle.

The Holy Grail of the plaque search is the only piece of the original plaque that is not in the Council’s possession: the portion with the eagle, the title, and the inscription. This piece has been missing since the plaque was removed from the wall. It seemingly never went into the storage closet where the rest of the plaque was subsequently found. This leads us to speculate that perhaps a Council staffer, member of the renovation construction crew, or someone else may have salvaged the item and taken it home.

Based on what we know about the plaque, and after examining similar Roll of Honor plaques of similar styles, we have created our best guess as to what the missing piece would look like:

It would measure roughly 6.5 feet left to right and 2 feet up and down. The plaque itself would be made of heavy, thick black glass, and the graphic and writing would be in gold.

If you know of this plaque’s whereabouts, please notify us. No questions will be asked.

Expressions of thanks

Thanks for their help in this long-running process go out to Chairman Phil Mendelson, Secretary of the Council Nyasha Smith, the DC Archives/Office of Public Records, former Secretary of the Council Cynthia Brock-Smith, Mark Segraves, the Council’s Office of Support Services, the Friends of the DC Archives, Nelson Rimensnyder, Bill Rice, Carol Highsmith, Dan Tangherlini, Councilmember Grosso, Allison Brice, and Carl Bergman.