When David Bediz heard that the city was looking for artists to transform its squadrons of defunct emergency call boxes into historically themed works of art, the Dupont Circle resident enlisted a friend and drew up a sketch commemorating New York Avenue Presbyterianthe downtown church where Abraham Lincoln prayed regularly. It was a novel tidbit that mixed national and local history, but, in the end, Bediz threw out the idea. He scrapped a tribute to Alexander Hamilton and the Department of the Treasury, too.
“I thought, How many more Lincoln and Hamilton monuments could we possibly shove down these people’s throats?” says Bediz, a 25-year-old Web designer who works for a firm near McPherson Square. For Bediz, “these people” are both tourists and residents, and neither group, he believes, knows much about downtown history that isn’t federal. With that myopia in mind, Bediz this summer joined the Art-on-Call call-box restoration project as a coordinator; he’s currently going through proposals for the rehabilitation of 27 boxes in the Pennsylvania Quarter. For his niche of the project, he laid out two primary guidelines: Tell an untold story, and keep it local.
The telegraph-equipped call boxes, some installed as early as 1870, allowed citizens to report firesuntil 1976, that is, when the city decided the frequency of false alarms made them more trouble than they were worth, according to Paul Williams of Cultural Tourism DC. (The separate police call boxes had long fallen into disrepair by then.) The roughly 600 call-box hulls still scattered around town were left to languish until three years ago, when the city decided that Art-on-Call could promote the arts and save money at the same time: Artistic restoration, it turned out, would be significantly cheaper than removing the 3,000-pound boxes, each of which is anchored to the sidewalk by intricate metal roots.
Aside from requiring both a historic and an artistic element of each restoration proposal, the project has left it to neighborhood civic and artist groups to decide what to do with the boxes. Rather than take the basic historical-plaque approach, Bediz wants to exploit all three dimensions of the call boxeach one will eventually contain a modest sculpture, smaller than a cubic footto tell a visual story about the specific locale. “Something small and digestible,” he says, “with humor and curiosity.”
Something like his own design: a caricature of the plump, mustachioed George Harvey, proprietor of a 19th-century oyster house near the site of the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The steamers Harvey and his brothers served became wildly popular after the Civil War; according to legend, the enthusiasm of their patrons sometimes left oyster shells piled 50 feet high next to the Harveys’ shucking sheds. “A story like that doesn’t show up in the history books,” says Bediz. “But it still shows a D.C. historyand a slice of life that a typical D.C. resident wouldn’t know about.”
By casting sculptures in bronze, Bediz hopes to avoid the logistical obstacles that dog some other call-box proposalsvandalism-susceptible approaches that involve paintings or even neon tubing, for instance. But he’s more concerned with staying clear of the predictable stories and personalities of Washington history. “We want to make tourists and residents realize there’s more to this place than the national capital and the monuments,” Bediz says. “There were real people who added culture to this city.” Dave Jamieson