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Call Boxes for the Community

If you’ve walked the streets of Capitol Hill, you’ve probably seen a call box. Some stand at attention on street corners, wearing rusty tones that betray their age. But others have become street sculpture, drawing the eye with their newly painted, brightly colored array.

First installed in the 1860s, the boxes were used for communication by firefighters and police officers up until the early 1980s. Starting around 2000, many were converted into art pieces through the District’s Art on Call project.

But many of the so-called “silent sentinels” in our neighborhoods have not yet been revitalized and are in danger of deteriorating too far to stand much longer as a reminder of their —and our— past.

With the help of their parents, a pair of young Capitol Hill brothers are working to change that. Aged just seven and five years respectively, Henry and James Modisett have restored two call boxes at Second and E St. SE. Capitol Hill residents themselves, they frequently passed the call boxes, often referring to them as “big junky things,” as Henry put it.

Given their youth, it would be easy for the two to disregard the rusted columns, but in the summer of 2022, with the help of their parents, Cindy and Michael, they decided to begin working to clean and paint them.

Making It Beautiful

To get better insight on how to best approach the project, the Modisetts reached out to Jim Guckert at Guerilla Gardeners. The nonprofit organization has long organized the painting of Hill call boxes. “Our collaboration with the Modisetts was mostly encouragement and advice,” Guckert said. “We shared with Michael our experiences with other groups and our own restoration projects.” Equipped with Guckert’s advice and motivation, the Modisetts felt ready to begin.

They started with the former police call box that sits on the southwest corner of Second and E. As Henry and James can now tell you, the restoration process has four main steps – scraping, cleaning, priming and finally, painting. To align with the call box’s historic use as a place where police officers would check in, the Modisett’s chose to paint the exterior blue.

They painted the post holding up the box gray, with artful touches of gold and the inside white. The restoration was made more elegant when an unknown community member added a smiley face with two googly eyes.

To Each Their Own

When they aren’t restoring antique communication devices, Henry and James are also just normal kids with age-appropriate attention spans. But instead of letting their age get in the way of their project, the family has found ways to make the project work. To keep the boys productive and having fun, the family painted for short periods at a time. “It might take a month from beginning to end but really we’re only out here for an hour of scraping, and come back in a week for an hour of priming,” explained Michael.

Early this fall, the family decided to embark on their next project—painting the firefighter’s call box on the other side of the intersection of Second and E Streets. Again the Modisetts referenced the box’s historic use, painting the box red. This one differs in structure to the police call box, shaped like a house with a staff at the top that increases its height.

Henry said that painting the staff was the most difficult part of the two projects, given that neither Henry or James stand above five feet. To tackle this, they divided up the painting so that each family member was painting a part of the call box that was appropriate for their height, starting with James painting the bottom.

Tackling it individually but as a family, they completed their project by mid-fall.

History

Of course call boxes were not intended to be public art. Despite the name “call boxes”, the fire boxes weren’t actually used for calls via telephone. When a resident noted a fire, they would go to a designated station for a key to open the nearest call box, then turn the wheel inside. This would send a telegraph to the fire department, who would then send firefighters to that location.

But the police boxes did place a call. Instead of being for citizens to report an emergency, these were for communication between officers, and their precincts. Officers were to report in at designated times and places; if they did not, the station would send a car to the area to search.

A call box at 5th and Seward Sq. SE was restored by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) in 2022 and dedicated to Roberta Flack. Photo: E. O’Gorek

The use of call boxes was officially ended when the 911 emergency call line was introduced. The telephone had taken over and police and fire departments were using radio systems to communicate.

Around 2000, the city decided it was time to get rid of them. But local non-profit Cultural Tourism DC pushed the city to convert the call boxes into art pieces. In cooperation with the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT), Cultural Tourism embarked on a project that eventually painted nearly 150 boxes.

In the 2010s, call box interest again arose, this time with a Capitol Hill focus. The Capitol Hill Restoration Society (CHRS) took interest in the revitalization of the boxes, ultimately teaming up with Guerilla Gardeners.

Guerilla Gardeners has continued to lead painting of Capitol Hill call boxes. Different call boxes often have unique designs. Guerilla Gardeners encouraged the Constitution Chapter of the Daughters of the Revolution to restore a call box at Fifth St and Seward Square SE. It was dedicated to Roberta Flack. The legendary singer started her career at Capitol Hill restaurant and jazz club Mr. Henry’s.

For all the restored call boxes, many remain neglected. As DAR did with the Flack call box, Michael hopes future restoration projects will honor people who shaped neighborhoods. There has been talk of a Capitol Hill call box commemorating Elgin Baylor, the Hall of Fame basketball player who grew up on what is now Duddington Street SE, near Garfield Park.

Raising Community Leaders

The Modisett boys started with call boxes, but now they also have “adopted” three blocks, taking responsibility for cleaning public space in the area around where their restored projects are located.

“They really genuinely like it,” said their father, Michael, about the boys’ adoption of blocks, “it’s almost like little kids on an Easter Egg Hunt.” Michael sees the Adopt-a-Block program as a very valuable one. “I don’t think it’s well publicized,” he said, “but it’s another great way for neighbors to get involved.”

Michael hopes that other families will continue the effort to revitalize aging call boxes. “It’s a perfect project to do with kids,” he said, “and we see all these call boxes around. I’d love if something catches on and other neighbors want to start doing the same thing.”

Learn more about the Art on Call program by visiting www.culturaltourismdc.org/portal/art-on-call. Learn more about Guerrilla Gardeners of DC at guerrillagardenersdc.org

Theo Weller is an 11th-grade student at School Without Walls High School, as well as a lifelong Capitol Hill resident. In addition to his internship at the Hill Rag, he writes for his school newspaper, The Rookery. Reach him at Theo@hillrag.com

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