Civil War markings going digital at Brandy Station's Graffiti House, Blenheim in Fairfax
Allison Brophy Champion
Culpeper Star-Exponent, Feb 18, 2023
A recently announced project involving a pair of circa 1850s homes aims to digitize and contextualize wall markings left behind during the Civil War.
The Graffiti House in Brandy Station and Historic Blenheim in Fairfax will be the focus of the work enabled by a $60,000 planning grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, according to a recent release.
Partnering in the project are the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University in Fairfax, Historic Blenheim (circa 1859) and the Civil War Interpretive Center and Brandy Station Foundation, owner of the Graffiti House (circa 1858) in Culpeper County. The grant will facilitate collaboration between the partners in preparation of a digitization project focused on Civil War-era graffiti found in historic buildings in Virginia and elsewhere, according to Bridget Bukovich, community engagement coordinator at the Roy Rosenzweig Center. The grant also intends to facilitate development of collaborative workflows between the organizations and digital preservation professionals, Bukovich said.
Project manager Mills Kelly, with the GMU center, stressed the importance of the collaborative nature of the grant.
“As a research center at a public research university we are so pleased to be collaborating with our two community partners in Fairfax and Culpeper,” Kelly said. “We see this project as a first and important step toward building stronger linkages between our three organizations that will benefit our students and the communities we serve.”
“Off the Wall: Digital Preservation of Civil War Graffiti Houses” will develop a proposal for another grant to digitize and contextualize the graffiti and associated ancillary materials held by Historic Blenheim and the Brandy Station Foundation related to the wall writings in their two historic house museums.
Brandy Station Foundation Secretary Peggy Misch helped with the grant effort.
“Digital preservation is an exciting new way to preserve the signatures, drawings, and writings on the walls of the Graffiti House,” she said.
The planned database will be physically housed at GMU, but will be accessible to all, Misch said Brandy Station Foundation has worked for many years to preserve the Civil War graffiti at the Graffiti House by physical means, including funding the stabilization of the walls and regulating the temperature in the building, she said. Digitization is another form of preservation, Misch added.
The “Off the Wall: Digital Preservation of Civil War Graffiti Houses” grant was one of only 40 of 205 eligible applications to the Humanities Collections and Reference Resources program of the National Endowment for the Humanities which received funding for the grant cycle.
R.B. Toth Associates LLC of Oakton will use a range of digital imaging technology and work processes to capture the graffiti on the walls. The firm will develop a metadata schema for the digitization and contextualization of the graffiti. This schema will serve as a model for future digitization projects of images on vertical surfaces, according to the release.
Historic Blenheim and the Civil War Interpretive Center is a 12-acre public site owned and operated by the City of Fairfax. The Greek-Revival style brick house is known for the quantity and quality of Federal soldier signatures, pictographs and thoughts preserved in the attic and other walls, the release stated. The common soldier, Willcoxon family ownership and the enslaved people of African descent owned by the family are interpreted.
The Civil War Interpretive Center Gallery extends the house and land interpretation with a replica of the house attic and additional exhibits. See fairfaxva.gov/government/historic-resources/historic-blenheim for more information on the site.
The Brandy Station Foundation is a non-profit dedicated to preserving the natural and historic resources of the area. The Foundation operates the Graffiti House at 19484 Brandy Rd. The site contains Civil War graffiti and a museum. The walls inside contain inscriptions, drawings, messages and signatures of both Union and Confederate soldiers.
The Graffiti House is a two-story frame structure built directly beside the railroad tracks, suggesting its function included some type of commercial aspect, according to brandystationfoundation.com.
Local tradition holds that the building was used as a hospital by Union and Confederate forces. Graffiti left behind could have been made by soldiers recuperating in the hospital, by other soldiers posted in Brandy or by soldiers passing through town, as Brandy Station was a strategic location and a junction of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad.
The building was apparently owned by attorney James Barbour during the Civil War, according to the foundation web site. His home was the nearby prominent structure known as Beauregard, named for a Confederate general, still standing today on a knoll just north Brandy Station.
Barbour initially argued against secession, but when President Lincoln’s inaugural address failed to include certain concessions, Barbour ardently supported the withdrawal of Virginia from the Union, according to brandystationfoundation.com.
The Graffiti House reopens for the season from noon to 4 p.m. on March 4.