The creators of the GW tag on the Roosevelt Memorial Bridge reflect on its 10th anniversary, and how the sign almost never happened.
By Menachem Wecker
Any GW students who have spent time on the Georgetown Waterfront and looked southeast toward the Kennedy Center can be proud of the ‘tag’ painted on the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge with the letters “GW.”
What they might not know is that the GW sign celebrated its 10th anniversary over spring break this year, and perhaps no one is more surprised that the letters still exist than the two alumni and former GW Crew teammates who “co-authored” them.
GW Today: Can we use your real names, or is there no statute of limitations on this sort of thing in the District?
Jay: Though there do not seem to be legal repercussions to worry about at this point, Justin and I feel just our first names should be used.
Justin: Following receipt of some detailed advice from a former teammate who is now a D.C. lawyer, we’re satisfied that the statute of limitations has expired, but please let’s stick to first names only.
GW Today: What first inspired you to create the sign?
Jay: All credit goes to Justin for this one. I remember the first sketch I saw of his brainchild, with massive letters filling each sectioned portion of the bridge. It was relatively late in the planning that I came to believe we could actually pull it off. Up to that point I think I was humoring Justin.
Justin: That particular bridge begs to be painted. I’d never ever consider painting Memorial Bridge or the Key Bridge, but the steel of the Roosevelt Bridge just kind of calls out. It’s even divided into sections. In my grandest daydream, we would have spelled out George Washington with one letter per section.
Once we got up there, though, we realized just how big the bridge actually is! We painted it over spring break, which can be a tough time for the crew team. The rest of the student body leaves campus, but rowing season is just around the corner, so the team stays in D.C. and trains two or three times per day. I think the idea for the sign was a product of a lot of downtime and a sense that maybe we were missing some adventures elsewhere.
There is also a real tradition of sign painting among crew teams. If you row on the Charles River in Boston, for example, you’ll see all sorts of signs painted on the railway bridge at the start of the Head of the Charles course. I suppose there’s a sense of ownership of the river and its surroundings that comes with spending so much time on the water.
GW Today: How complicated was it to gain access to the spot and to create it? What was the process?
Justin: Our original idea was that we could hang off the side of the bridge to do the painting. Closer inspection revealed that there is actually a sizeable overhang, and we’d have been left dangling some distance from the painting surface, so that was ruled out. The only other way is to climb up an abutment—the massive steel girders that support the bridge.
Fortunately, there is an abutment on Roosevelt Island, so we were able to test our strategy on dry land. Of course, on the day we required a boat and some improvisation, but we eventually found a way. We also took some care in selecting the paint. I remember spending time comparing color swatches for the perfect buff and blue, and Jay utilized familial connections to get advice on which type of paint binds well to metal and weathers best outdoors.
Jay: We procured a car somehow (neither of us remembers how or from whom), drove to a shop in Arlington and purchased enough paint to put several coats over the girders. I’m the first male in my family not to go into the paint and wallpaper business, so I knew the basics about paint and what questions to ask if we were to hypothetically want to paint a steel surface outdoors.
The night we went out, we tried to start around midnight only to find that our launch site was also an access point to the Metro tunnel that runs under the river from Foggy Bottom. There were about 30 workers going up and down from the subway track exactly where we needed to be, so we were forced to postpone for a few hours, return home, watch late-night television and wonder if we have to abort altogether.
At 3 a.m., we returned to check. The Metro trucks and crew were gone, and we set out. When we reached the bridge, however, there was a whole new set of problems we had not anticipated. For one, the water line is much lower than the ground in respect to the bridge abutments, so the climb to get up from the boat was much higher than we expected. There was a great deal of pushing, pulling and tenacity to get up there in the end.
Justin is about 6’5”, and though the letters don’t look it, they’re about twice his size. Reaching up with a telescopic roller, he was able to create the ‘GW’ pretty quickly. There’s actually only one thick coat of each color, since we couldn’t wait around for the paint to dry, but it seems to have held up pretty well. We had requested a late practice for the next morning in exchange for a “surprise,” and we came down to the boathouse expecting everyone to be impressed by our work. Instead, our coach was disappointed we hadn’t brought him coffee and a bagel.
GW Today: Were you at all concerned about the danger involved?
Justin: I didn’t perceive much physical danger, but in retrospect I’m surprised we weren’t more worried about the consequences of being caught. It was also pre-9/11. I expect the authorities would be a bit more alert to clandestine operations around the city’s infrastructure these days.
Jay: I’m sure we had fleeting thoughts about what might happen if we were caught, but I don’t remember even thinking about the physical danger. Getting caught wasn’t even a very strong deterrent (obviously). We aren’t exactly the reckless sort, but I suppose everyone has his moments.
GW Today: Now that the sign is celebrating its 10th anniversary, do you have any message for GW crew and the larger GW community?
Jay: I have very fond memories of my time at GW, and in particular as part of the crew team. I made my best friends in Foggy Bottom, and I look back on that time now and realize just how much fun it was. Though I doubt I have to tell any GW student to enjoy himself!
GW Today: How surprised are you that the sign hasn’t been removed or covered over?
Jay: Even though painting a sign like that is an action that will clearly have some longevity, I never thought about what would happen to it over time. Whatever would happen to the sign would happen. We did our part.
GW Today: What did you study at GW?
Justin: I received my B.A. in international affairs from the Elliott School.
Jay: My degree is in history and art history. Justin is sure there’s some clever connection to be made between my art history background and painting the sign, but I’ll let you decide.
GW Today: You clearly seem to have kept in touch. Do you think co-authoring the sign has anything to do with that?
Jay: Having painted the sign together was a result of our friendship, not the other way around. Justin and I met our freshman year, lived together a couple years at GW and then for a couple more afterward. This past summer, I was best man at his wedding along with another mutual friend, who certainly would have been in on this had he not graduated the year before.
Justin: As outgoing captains of the team, we wanted to establish some continuity with the remaining guys, so we invited one of the younger guys (and future captain) to join us. He did, but we haven’t managed to stay in touch with him.
We understand that D.C. has a law that makes it unlawful to “willfully and wantonly … write, mark, draw or paint,” without permission, any public property (the definition of which includes bridges). The penalty is a fine not less than $250 or more than $1,000. Although the statute of limitations – three years from the date of the offense – has run, we’d like to mark the 10th anniversary of the sign by each donating $1,000 to the GW crew team.
Comments? Criticism? The conversation continues. We welcome reactions, commentary and story recommendations on our Facebook page.
To return to the George Washington Today homepage, click here.