A Series of Historical Vignettes by Nancy Metzger
The future ownership and use of Friendship House, once known as The Maples, is a matter of concern to Capitol Hill residents this summer. The house and surrounding grounds at 619 D Street, SE, a landmark entered on the National Register in 1974, are visible reminders of the beginning of our community over 200 years ago. When the house was built in 1795-96 by William Mayne Duncanson, a newly arrived immigrant from England, it was a very literal landmark as there were few other buildings in the vicinity. Tunnicliff’s Tavern was near present-day Ninth Street SE, on the road from the ferry (now known as Pennsylvania Avenue). Daniel Carroll’s Duddington, another late eighteenth-century manor house occupying a full square, was three blocks west between Second and First, D and E streets. By 1810, a decade after Captain Duncanson lost his home due to entanglements in real estate ventures, Christ Church at 620 G Street, the Marine Barracks, the first buildings of the Navy Yard as well as residences and shop buildings were scattered about the Navy Yard section. Two brick row houses were erected in 1802-03 just across Sixth Street from Maple Square.
Friendship House in a photo taken in 1935. Photo: Library of Congress
It appears that one of the occupations of early Washingtonians was the buying and selling of lots, as properties changed hands often and families frequently moved. James Croggon (1835 – 1916), an Evening Star reporter who was known for his newspaper accounts of the Civil War and the assassination of President Garfield, wrote a series of articles on “Old Washington,” which combined research and some observation and often noted new and old owners of buildings. In an article of July 28, 1907, he set the scene for his readers by describing the area of Capitol Hill near Christ Church, the Navy Yard and The Maples:
“…[W]hen the little knolls and undulating land west and south of the church afforded some ideal spots for cottage sites, the buildings or homes erected for nearly half a century in this section were south of G Street, others in sight being easily counted on the fingers. Nevertheless, there was gradual growth, and by the thirties there was a neighborhood south of the church in which the merchant, mechanic, musician, medical practitioner, magistrate and others passed their home life. With so many lots unenclosed, and those improved by houses being capacious, advantage was taken by some of the settlers of the conditions, and there was not a few whose cows grazed on the open fields, while others maintained flower and kitchen gardens, and, despite the laws, a few hogs ran at large. …”
At the end of the article, he turns his attention to The Maples: “The square which for years bore the name of the Maples and on which resided Mrs. Briggs, who was well known in journalistic circles, is one of more than ordinary interest. It is No 875, within the lines of 6th, 7th, and D Streets and South Carolina Avenue and though on the plan of the city it appears as a collection of twelve building lots, until recently it was kept intact. … The house was erected in 1796 and Captain Duncanson took up his residence here living in fine style. But misfortune overtook him, and his property became encumbered. Before his death in 1812 he had to move to a more humble abode, the mansion with other property becoming subject to the courts. In 1815 under decree of the court this square was sold by Francis Scott Key as trustee to William Campbell. Mayor William Gamble became the owner in 1831; the next year it passed to Robert Beale, in 1836 to W.W. Reenhart and two years later to Maj. A.A. Nicholson, long the adjutant and inspector of the Marine Corps. The property in the fifties passed through the hands of H.M. Moffatt, John M. Clayton, and Count Portalis. The mansion, a spacious, two-story building fronting south, with wide portico, has been twice enlarged since those days by the addition of wings. During its occupancy by Gen. Stewart in the twenties, Maj. Nicholson in the forties, and John M. Clayton, when Secretary of State in the early fifties, it was the scene of many notable gatherings.“
The complete column and others by Croggan can be found at www.congressionalcemetery.org). Croggan is buried at Congressional Cemetery.
School’s out! For many children on Capitol Hill, summer is a time of relaxed schedules, day camps, and playing with their friends. The same was true for past generations of Capitol Hill children. Some Capitol Hill families had places in the country where the family retreated when school was out (except for the father who stayed on Capitol Hill and came out for the weekend). The Clarence and Clara (Hurtt) Donohoe family was one such family that packed up kids, clothes, and pony for a summer away from Capitol Hill. In a 2003 interview with Beth Eck for the Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project, Mary Donohoe Murray tells about the family home at 629 East Capitol Street and summers in the country during the 1920s:
Below: Donohoe brothers and friends in 1910, 300 block of East Capitol Street
“[The house at 629 East Capitol Street] had a front porch. It was tan brick. We had a front porch, living room, paneled library, dining room, kitchen, and each floor had an enclosed glass porch. The first floor was a pantry; the second floor was a sleeping porch for the boys [Ed. note: Mary had six brothers]; and the third floor was a wonderful playroom. We had a full-sized slide, as big as a playground, and a wing that held four people. …And rainy days you would just play up there the whole time. And we had a big back yard, had a stable, had a pony in the stable, Beauty, a Shetland pony, brown and white. And we would ride her constantly.”
Eck: “Where did you ride her?”
Murray: “Southeast, on the streets. And the alley was cobblestone and the streetcars were in the front of the house. So it wasn’t easy but you just went all over Southeast and you took turns… from the time you go home from school until dinnertime every day. …And in the summertime we would take the pony to the country with us. And one of the boys would ride the pony to Maine Avenue, put the pony on the Norfolk boat and the pony would come down to Rock Point, Maryland, and we would go there the next morning to church, and down to the wharf, pick up the pony and someone would ride her back to Banks O’Dee, eight miles away. And then in September we would reverse that procedure. …Banks O’Dee is the name of our summer place. And there are three Donohoe families on the 49 acres, all cousins. …
“We’d go all summer, from June. We’d leave the day after school closed and we’d come back the day school opened. … [My father] came down on weekends, and he did all the marketing and brought that with him. And they would come back on Monday morning, drive back. And one person down there would have breakfast on Monday morning – Aunt Kitty, Mother, or Aunt Mary, so you’d just go to one house – [one] had to get up early, give the men the breakfast. And my father would give us a list, and he kept a carbon copy of things he wanted done while he was away that week. And when he got back he would check the list. And one list we had was to get so many soft shell crabs, and so many hard shell crabs. So we had to crab every day to get this, fill this list for his friends. … [H]e would save all these and take them back to his friends. … So half of the ice box he had crabs with all the seaweed on them. …He had all these trays and he’d put the crabs, and he had ice and seaweed all packed. ...
“My father did all the marketing in Washington too. At the Fifth and Florida Avenue Market, [h]e would buy, you know, a stalk of bananas, a bushel of cantaloupes, everything wholesale, big quantities of cookies, stick candy that you put in an orange. That was delicious.”
The complete transcript of the interview, as well as other family photos, can be found on the website of the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project, www.capitolhillhistory.org.
This year’s house tour includes a number of adaptive-use projects: apartments carved from the Little Sisters of the Poor building on H Street, Pierce School classrooms turned into loft-style apartments, a theater that started out as an automobile showroom. The leader on the Hill in adaptive-use projects was Bob Herrema, who started his real estate career in the 1970s by turning down-at-the heels boarding houses into renovated apartment buildings. He made his mark (but perhaps not a huge fortune) on his adaptive-use condominium projects: Logan School (southeast corner of Third and G Streets, NE), Carbery School (412 Fifth Street, NE), and Grace Baptist Church (Ninth and South Carolina Avenue, SE).
The Logan School Condominiums are located in the “old” Logan School, a red-brick Romanesque building built in 1891 for African-American children (the school system was segregated until 1954) of this fast-growing northeast neighborhood. It was almost 100 years later (early 1980s) when the building came to the attention of Bob Herrema, who recounts the story in an oral history interview with Steve and Nicky Cymrot, shortly before Bob died in 2003.
“… (My) first experience with the building, you know the American Rescue Workers were long gone. Because it sat vacant … after they basically pulled out. It sat vacant; Dac [Laqui] and his wife bought it … and he’d hired Bob Schwartz, an architect up in Northwest, to do plans to convert it to condos. And all of the sudden Dac and his wife couldn’t get any banks to do business with them because (they had) ‘no track record.’ ‘What? You want to borrow all this money to spend on this piece of junk in this questionable location? You know, what have you done before that can assure us that you are going to pay us back?’ Well … he had no track record. So he and his wife wined and dined Joannie and me and we struck a deal. I said, ‘I think we can make some money on this.’ And so we started to tear it apart and put it back together again. And what was fascinating is … in working on that … the first school, was the amount of usable space up in the attics. I mean, you had a big old building, you know, with a basement that had 10 foot ceilings, some below grade, some above grade, and then … the amount of space up in the attics and with the way the rooflines were … we really took advantage of … cutting holes in the roof to create patios … using skylight windows … we wound up getting 24 units in that building. There were six per floor, even six in the attic. And we found … no resistance for people to walk up a couple of flights of stairs, even though they were long flights of stairs to get to the top floor. Because the units were bright and as I said they had patios with [them].
“… (Y)ou know, we underestimated … the value of those units. And we sold them so fast that — well, I wouldn’t say so fast, but we sold them in a lot quicker time than I thought and … when it was all said and done, we looked back and said, ‘Oh, we could have gotten ten thousand more here, ten thousand more there, whatever.’ And it didn’t bother me so much because I had … pretty much of a fixed deal with Dac and his wife. But, with all said and done, and they counted how much money they had, that they made, … they made money; they got all the money they put into it back and made some money….”
The complete transcript of this oral history interview can be found at www.capitolhillhistory.org. The Capitol Hill Community Foundation also established the Robert L. Herrema Awards, which are given to individuals, businesses and organizations for enhancements of Capitol Hill’s urban landscape, including residential and commercial development, park and public space improvements, public art and other environmental improvements.
Sidney Hoffman was born in 1913 and lived with his family at a number of locations on Capitol Hill in both the northeast and southeast quadrants. He attended Eastern High School. Some of his memories of working in the neighborhood theaters were recounted in last month’s Looking Back feature. Other excerpts from his oral history interview, conducted by Ev Barnes for the Ruth Ann Overbeck Oral History project, center on his family’s times on H Street, NE, and nearby addresses:
"We lived over the store on H Street, 1021 was the shoe store and we lived upstairs. And by the way, you did not have a toilet, you had an outhouse. … We never locked our doors. You associated—whomever you associated, regardless of race or anything else—for example I used to play baseball in the back alley where my father’s store was, with the black boys that lived on the side street there. We just played together in that period. … One day a policeman walks in and tells my father, ‘Ben, you know you didn’t lock the front door of your store last night?’ Nothing happened. …
Later, Sidney Hoffman’s father died, and his mother bought a little car for the family:
"I remember that the car was sitting out front, and we heard on the radio that the Senators had won the World Series or something. I went outside, and I was blowing the horn on the car. In the next block, there was a theater called the Empire. Next door to it was an automobile shop. They were selling over the counter. They didn’t do repair work or anything like that. They had a radio. Practically the whole area was in front of that store, listening to [that game]."
Sidney Hoffman grew up on H Street, NE, where his father had a shoe store at #1021 and his mother, after her husband died in 1924, played the piano or organ in local theatres (including the Avenue Grand on the south side of the 600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue and at the Home Theatre at 1230 C Street, NE). Starting in the early 1930s, Mr. Hoffman worked for 27 years managing theaters. In a 2004 interview with Ev Barnes for the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project, Sidney Hoffman recounts some of his experiences:
“[In 1936] I went to the Home Theater, …about a 600-seat theater. It was a good place to get acquainted. One of the … things I hadn’t had before was serials on Saturday. … The Home Theater had two stores, which were part of the property that belonged to the company. One of them was a little tailor shop, and the other was a little confectionary store. But they sold dill pickles, and the kids would all buy dill pickles and come in the store … and go into the theater.
“And then [I] went to the Apollo. The strange thing that happened there …of course I grew up attending the Apollo Theater, because it was our theater in those days. There were a couple of other theaters in Northeast. There was one called the Dixie that nobody knows about, but I have a book on it, and I know about it too. And there was one called the Princess Theater, where on Friday, if you got to the theater by 3:30, you could get in for five cents. You’d rush home to get a nickel from your parent, and run over to the theater. …
“The Apollo was the theater in that area. The thing that happened to me at the Apollo Theater was — we had a balcony, and we used to close it up because there was no reason to keep it open, but on Saturday we’d have a lot of people in there. And I wasn’t thinking; I wasn’t being smart. I’d go up there — we had a comedy, I don’t know if it was the Three Stooges, or Laurel and Hardy, or Charlie Chaplin, or whatever — Buster Keaton. They weren’t laughing. I’d go up there — they weren’t laughing — they were smooching. They were all from Gallaudet.”
In honor of the new Capitol Hill landmark, Old Engine House #10 at 1341 Maryland Avenue, NE, this month’s feature will look back at firefighting on Capitol Hill through the eyes of J. George Butler, author of Simpler Times: Stories of Early Twentieth Century Urban Life. Mr. Butler, who lived on the square now occupied by the Madison Building, gave this view of the work of firemen and fire horses:
“The steam engines themselves were the mechanical marvel of the day. Many feet of small tubing in their boilers enabled the fire in the firebox to convert the water to steam very rapidly. En route to a fire, the fireman on the rear platform had to continually shovel coal into the firebox. During the summer it was easier to get steam up than in the winter, when snow and ice on the ground often caused the horses to go slower. Because of the reduced speed, the draft in the chimney was not nearly as good. After their work at the fire was finished and the engines returned to the firehouse, the firemen had to clean the fireboxes of the boilers and lay a new fire to be ready for the next alarm.
“Many a time, as Dad and I went to the Eastern Market, we would stop at the firehouse [on North Carolina Avenue, where the Natatorium now stands] and pet those great gentle creatures. They stood ready in their stalls to spring into the engine’s shafts at the sound of the fire gong. A touch of a button by the fireman let the harness fall into place over their backs. With a quick snap of the belly buckles and traces, they were ready to go.”
In 1963, Bryan Cassidy, his wife, and infant daughter left Ireland for the United States and wound up on Capitol Hill (and that’s another story). Because of that emigration, thousands of children have been introduced to the sport of soccer and made new friends, while their parents have spent hours on the sidelines, chatting with other parents, encouraging the team, and also learning the finer points of the game. In this interview with Ida Prosky for the Ruth Ann Overbeck Oral History Project, Bryan recounts how he was inspired during a return trip to Ireland to try to organize a soccer league, which has since become an institution on the Hill.
“…We actually were able to chauffeur our kids over to [play] some of [the] teams in Alexandria, already established by the Alexandria Soccer Association. So the interest in that grew, and we began to gather more and more kids, and we played in whatever piece of spare ground we could play in. And we basically played for the Alexandria Soccer Team. They were very nice to us—they became the mother team that had fostered us and encouraged us. That was 1971 when the idea first came about. [The older Soccer on the Hill teams played in Alexandria while the youngest formed their own league.] By the time it got to 1983, we had enough kids in a particular age group, called the Brazilians. When we took them to Alexandria, we won the trophy from Alexandria in that age group. And that was when Alexandria said, ‘Hey, start your own club.’ We thought, hey, well, why not, you know? So from then on it just grew and grew and grew.
“So Soccer on the Hill got together kids from different schools, that went all over the city to various schools. But on weekends they came together. And, like I said, they’re still friends. They’ve made long relationships—long-lasting relationships. They met at weekends and had a great time. …Not only was this a great social occasion for the kids, but it would also be a wonderful social occasion for the parents. [One parent] always brought a flask of hot tea. We had tea and cookies, Englishstyle, at the games. And it was very civilized… What went on on the field wasn’t necessarily civilized, but we had great times. It was a wonderful time for families to get together. And neighbors cooperated in driving their kids to the practices and driving them to the games and whatever. … So when soccer got started—it was called Soccer on the Hill after Antiques on the Hill [a store formerly at the corner of Seventh Street and North Carolina, SE, opposite Eastern Market]. … So that’s how that got started. When people did find there were places for their kids to get involved in, they began to stay here.”
The complete transcript from this and other interviews can be found on the web site of the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill Oral History project, www.capitolhillhistory.org. Volunteers are needed for transcriptions and interviews; if you can help with this project; please contact Bernadette McMahon (email@example.com; 543-4544).
Present-day Capitol Hill is composed of many smaller neighborhoods. One such neighborhood is in the Barney Circle area where Rose Lovelace, born in 1911, spent part of her childhood at 1612 H Street, SE. In an interview with Linda O’Brien, conducted in 2003, Ms. Lovelace remembered lamplighters, horse troughs, hansom cabs and electric cars. She also recalled some other scenes from her childhood:
“…[N]o one ever heard of H Street SE, but it was all to itself, and it was one block and at the end of it was the man (I forget his name right now) who had made the gravestones [at Congressional Cemetery] and engraved those. And then you went a little further and there you’re facing one of the gates of Congressional Cemetery so that was part of what we did—go over into the cemetery. I remember some of the—it had a statue of a little girl who had run out in the street and been killed … I remember that in the cemetery. And then as I say, Sousa and some congressmen way back when, and that’s why it was given the name it was. …
“At one point, the house that was near the cemetery there, we had a big back yard, and they would have a watermelon plugged and then cut for the kids, had homemade ice cream. You made ice cream in one of those little freezers; you only made so much at a time but that was given over to the kids to make … the adults had hard-shell crabs and, of course, beer or whatever it was they drank at the time and that was it. It was just, you know, everything was sort of homemade; you never thought of doing anything else.”
The complete transcript from this and other interviews can be found on the web site of the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill Oral History project, www.capitolhillhistory.org. Volunteers are needed for transcriptions and interviews; if you can help with this project; please contact Bernadette McMahon (firstname.lastname@example.org; 543-4544).
While children often use costumes from the drug stores and favorite “dress-up” clothes for their Halloween costumes, adults sometimes resort to costume shops for their make-believe finery. Before there was Back Stage on Eighth Street, SE, for costume needs, Lola Beaver had a well-known costume shop at Eighth and A streets, NE. In this 2003 interview with Renee Braden, 93-year-old Mrs. Beaver recounted how she came to the Hill, her early days in the costume business and some of her memorable customers.
Braden: Have you had some famous people come into the shop, to rent costumes?
Beaver: … the Bobby Kennedy family… were always having something, you know, benefits and so forth. They got a lot of stuff from me. Then around that time, the Women’s Democratic Club had a big show, they did the Arena Stage, and I did costumes for that, and they had somebody representing all the Democratic Presidents’ wives, all the way back. Margaret Truman represented her family. And we made a 1940s—a very good-looking ‘40s dress for her, very good looking—the hat and the brim and so forth. She said she’d never had anything like that when she was in the White House. And it was true—she did not dress that well! The rest were senators’ wives, senators’ or congressmen’s wives, who represented the different Presidents’ wives…
The Johnson girls did a lot of—got a lot of costumes from me. They had parties a lot. They dressed up the band, they dressed up themselves, and everything, you know, a lot. And then—my main claim to fame is that I made neckties for President Johnson. … It was when blue tuxedos just came in style. They hadn’t had blue tuxedos. And, of course, he had one but he couldn’t find a bow tie. They frantically looked all over the United States, and they couldn’t find a blue bow tie. So one day a man came in my shop on K Street [just before she moved to Capitol Hill in 1972] and said, “Do you make bow ties?” And I said, ‘Yeah, I guess so.’ And he said, ‘Could you make about four or five of them?’ And I said, ‘What is it, a singing group?’ And he said [whispering], ‘No, it’s for the President.’ And I said [loudly], ‘The President of what?’ And he said [whispering], ‘The President of the United States.’ So I almost had a nervous breakdown, you know, making those ties, but I made them. He brought a tie like the one he liked, it was black, a wide tie, like a butterfly thing. It was in style then, in black. I took it apart and used it for a pattern. I got plenty of material because I was going to have it perfect or not at all. I worked one whole weekend, and I was exhausted. He came to pick them up, asked me how much, and I said, ‘There isn’t enough money in the world to pay for this, so I’m not going to charge him.’ And I said it was an honor, anyway, to make something for the president. So then, a little while later, he comes back with a signed picture. And then, later on in the fall, he sends me a pen, one of the pens he signed treaties with. I thought it was very nice.”
The complete transcript of this and other interviews can be read on the Ruth Ann Overbeck Oral History website, www.capitolhillhistory.org/.
Claire and Laurence Davis came to Capitol Hill in 1968, as part of what might be described as the first wave of the restoration movement. At least it was the first time their house near Seventh and A Streets, NE, had been renovated, because they found that their “livable” house had the furnace in the middle of the kitchen. That got moved in short order. For Laurence, a lawyer with a specialty in Indian affairs, the important part of the house was the garden. His interest in gardening led to a watershed moment in the history of the Capitol Hill Garden Club, recounted below.
Laurence died not long after he and Claire talked with Elizabeth Stein for the Ruth Ann Overbeck Oral History Project. In the interview, Claire talks about her husband’s garden and its part in their life here on Capitol Hill:
“Larry said, ‘I’m going to join a garden club. I’ve got to find out about one.’ So he went over to the garden club meeting one night, and there were all women, and he said, ‘I want to be a member.’ And they said, ‘Oh, but we don’t take men.’ [laugh] He said, ‘Well, I’d like to be a member.’ So they had a little meeting, and they said, ‘Well, all right. I guess it’s OK.’ He ended up being the president later on.
“…Then my husband had beautiful flowers. He grew mums, and they were just spectacular, they just filled the whole yard. And every year we would have, on I think it was Teddy Roosevelt’s birthday, we had a party. … Someone had a truck that took him down to Maryland and he brought 10 bushels of oysters back, and we had about 150 people coming in and out, neighbors and friends. All the neighbors came. And they had oysters on—you know—the shell. We had two shuckers, and of course the idea was to come to see the plants.
And the place was just covered with mums. Different colored mums, it was just really, in fact we had a person from the Post [Phil Casey of the Washington Post newspaper, November 4, 1974 article] and a person from the Washington Star [newspaper]. I forget her name now but she had the one page—she was a neighbor of ours [Ann Crutcher, the food editor, lived at 700 East Capitol Street]. And I remember she had headlines, ‘Mums the Word’.”
This entire interview and many others can be read at www.capitolhillhistory.org.
One of the unexpected joys of community projects is making friends with people one might never have met otherwise. One such person is Frank Taylor, who died recently at the age of 104. I met him over eight years ago, after the late Peter Powers, a former president of CHRS, told me that Frank had grown up on Capitol Hill and had many stories to tell of the neighborhood.
When I began recording his oral history in 1999, I understood why he had risen to the top ranks of the Smithsonian Institution administration. He was a gentle man, soft spoken, with an appreciation of the absurdities and humor that fills life. His stories were quite often of his father’s pharmacy and the neighborhood near Second and C, NE, and Ninth and Massachusetts. It was obvious that his observations, even as a child, were acute and the details were sharp. He delighted in remembering his old neighborhood—not only people and their activities but the sights, sounds, and even smells of the place he called home for twenty-some years.
His oral histories can be found on the website of the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project (capitolhillhistory.org). Take some time to read them and you will find that you have a far better understanding of Capitol Hill in the early 1900s—and of the special gift that Frank Taylor gave the Capitol Hill community with his recollections.
In an interview with John Franzen about the house at 908 Massachusetts Avenue, which was built by Frank Taylor’s uncle, Ernest Kubel, the conversation veered to the great influenza epidemic of 1918 and the time when Frank was sent by his father to Baltimore to procure a supply of whisky. In those days, whisky was often prescribed for heart conditions that were a result of influenza. For Frank’s father, the problem, as the epidemic continued, was that DC was under prohibition, which gave rise to “medicinal bootlegging.”
TAYLOR: “… So my father gave me these two empty suitcases and a long list of medicines and told me where I’d find it, places in Baltimore. And I walked down Second Street to the inter-urban line, which was a very nice interurban line. It ran into the Treasury, along H Street and then you could take it right at the foot of this long hill, and the drugstore there sold tickets. … so I bought tickets and I walked out when the train came. I started to get on the car, and a conductor, holding onto two handrails, put his foot up in my face, and he says, ‘There’s a train out in the terminal for you.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about but he wasn’t going to let me get on that. And so I finally got on a streetcar and I got out there, and when I walked into the station a big policeman said, ‘There’s a train over there for you.’ And I didn’t know what this was all about. I got over there and it was a bootlegger train. And there were two sections, you know, one going and one coming. And I got aboard this train and, boy, I was welcomed by the bootleggers. They were playing dice over on the floor. They invited me to play dice with them. They thought I was the most enterprising ... sixteen-year-old that they’d ever seen. So I went to Baltimore on a bootleg special.
But while we were waiting there, the other section of that bootleg train came in. And the bootleggers, you know, if you let them bring in one, they’re going to bring in two, or they wouldn’t be bootleggers. And so they were jumping off the train, and all of them in my car were hanging out the windows and getting a good view of this because they’d be coming back. And they were passing their suitcase-full over to a confederate on the outside, and the police had their patrol wagons all lined up along the fence. And they’d watch and when one of the bootleggers had gotten the second suitcase- full over the fence, they’d just go up to him and take it away from him. They’d just take away one and let him keep the other—take away one and throw it into the patrol wagon and it would crash and the liquor was running in the gutter and everything else. …”
Fifty years ago, Capitol Hill faced a number of threats, including proposed freeways, a mall extension along East Capitol Street, and wide-spread urban renewal like that inflicted on Southwest. The first tour sponsored by the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, then a newly-formed civic organization, was part a “how-to” view of how others were renovating or restoring their homes and part a statement to Congress that a stable neighborhood was located east of the Capitol.
C. Dudley Brown, an interior designer noted for his historic restorations, came to Capitol Hill in 1957 and lived and worked here until a few years ago, when he moved to Southwest. He recorded his impressions of those early years (and an early tour) in the following excerpts from an interview with Megan Rosenfeld for the Ruth Ann Overbeck Oral History project.
One year, when his house was on the tour, Brown recalls:
“…once when we had a house and garden tour and I had two houses on the tour that year, I decided just to join the group that was going through this house [his home]. Like a tourist, I stood right by the fire place, listening to what the interpreters were saying. One woman said to another, “It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to dust it.”
This year’s tour featured several houses on East Capitol Street, and Brown recalls a different era:
“The magnificence of East Capitol Street is an example, which now looks so pretentious, and all the million dollar houses and what have you. There were great big houses, and when I look back on how that street looked when we came here, it’s as though every other house had a “rooming house/tourist” sign on it. That’s what they did with all those big houses…”
Rosenfeld: The people who used these rooming houses were temporary people? Or were they…before they found places of their own?
Brown: I was always amazed they were sort of like my grandmother’s rooming house, but my grandmother never had a sign out in front of her house [231 Massachusetts Avenue, NE]. It was all done by word of mouth.
Rosenfeld: And they were like the cops and the…
Brown: Oh sure. And people who worked for the government. Government was big and all kinds of jobs and everything. Clerks and whatever. …In our case, with our family, it was the FBI, it sure was.”
Six years ago, shortly after Kris Swanson and Roy Mustelier bought the old store building on the northeast corner of 9th Street and South Carolina Avenue, SE, they interviewed the former owner, Tony Cuozzo. Tony’s mother and father bought the store in 1917, and the family ran it until 1968. Kris now has her art studio in the front room of the store, and Kris and Roy live in the rest of the house, just like the Cuozzos did for over 50 years. The Corner Store will be one of the buildings featured on the CHRS House and Garden Tour on May 12–13. The following excerpt from the interview indicates that it’s not just present-day Capitol Hill residents who think about additions and renovations.
Tony Cuozzo: “We moved over to that store in September of 1917. My dad was a huckster [editor’s note—using a wagon to sell goods] and he still had his horse and wagon. He opened the store and parked the horse and wagon in front of the store all day long. Later on, after he got rid of the horse, he got a Model T Ford. He was driving that and going to the market in that. …
“By the way, where that kitchen is today, there was nothing but a frame shack. There was no bathroom there. The kids had to take a bath in the kitchen. Of course they had the coal range in the kitchen, and then they had Latrobe heat in the dining room.”
Roy: The outhouse? Was it always there?
Tony: “It was always there. It was the only thing we had. …”
Roy: Since you moved into the house, what changes were made to the house?
Tony: “The original building is just like it always has been. It was back in the kitchen where this frame shack—that’s all it was, a shack. We wanted to knock it down and rebuild it. We went through a hassle with the government. They said that we couldn’t rebuild it, we could remodel it. So we got this contractor and got a permit to remodel it. What the contractor did was build a new one on the inside and then tore the old one out. As I told Kris, that kitchen has a sub-floor on it in case we could ever build on top of it. We wanted to build an addition there, but they wouldn’t let us because they said it interfered with the air in the neighborhood. I don’t know where they ever got that idea. … Of course, while Dad was in the store, he put hardwood floors—maple floor in the store and throughout the house he had hardwood floors. … Of course, they need to be refinished. Dad always said that every May he had to do something to fix the house up. … Then Dad put that little bathroom in. That back room was one big bedroom. He cut that down and put the bathroom in.”
Roy: The garage? Was that always there?
Tony: “No, that was wood shed back there. It was the same height as the one next door to it. Dad had that taken out and the garage built. We had two cars in that garage because I had a ’31 Ford I used to keep in there. Of course, later on Dad bought a Dodge from some salesman he used to know when he was huckstering.”
Capitol Hill lost another active community member in February when Linda Barnes died. Linda moved to the Hill with her husband Bart in 1965, after being introduced to the Hill through CHRS’s House and Garden Tour. Over the years, Linda became a real estate agent, was active in raising funds for Friendship House, and filled leadership positions at St. Marks Episcopal Church, Capitol Hill Association of Merchants and Professionals, and the Capitol Hill Community Foundation (to name just a few).
In 2002, when she received the Capitol Hill Community Foundation Award, Linda was interviewed by Stephanie Deutsch. Following are some of Linda’s remembrances of Capitol Hill in the 1960s and 1970s, taken from that interview:
Barnes: “Well, Tenth and D (Southeast where Bart and Linda bought their first house in 1965) was pretty fringy. We had a house of ill repute on the block. We had an after-hours bar on the block, in somebody’s basement. But we also had wonderful block parties, so all these people were our best buddies. And we would close off the street and just have parties all night long. It was fabulous. We didn’t have bars on the windows. … so that was our first house on the Hill.
But it was quite small … and we bought a house at Ninth and G Streets [Southeast]. … I remember buffing the floors, practically every day, with one kid on each hip. We sold that house and bought the house we’re currently in, 640 East Capitol, in 1969 and moved in when the boys were about six months old. This house was a rooming house when we bought it.
Deutsch: The house came with its own roomer?
Barnes: Yes. The owner at the time had not wanted to let her roomers know ahead of time that she had sold the house because she didn’t want them to leave too soon. And this one fellow went off on vacation to Florida and so she never did tell him. He came back to discover that there were no people living here. I mean she hadn’t told him anything. This was back in the pre-rent control days. So we had this very elderly man who was a printer at the Washington Star, the Evening Star, who did not want to move. … so I would get the kids and put them into the stroller and take him around, or put them in the car and take him around and show him other places that he might live. He was here for probably close to a month, but we finally did find him another place across the street actually, as it happens.”
The entire interview can be read at www.capitolhillhistory.org.
Many years ago I read an account by Michael Shiner of the British entering Washington in 1814. What made this account so extraordinary, apart from the very descriptive language, was that it was the remembrance of a man who had been a young slave at the time, working in the Navy Yard. The Library of Congress now has the Diary of Michael Shiner, 1813—1865 in its collection. Unfortunately, a typescript of the document has never been published, so reading it takes time and effort, given the fact that spelling and grammar were not standardized at that time.
Since this is Black History Month, it is encouraging to learn that Ms. Leslie Morales of the Alexandria Public Library has made a transcription of the document which she has submitted to an academic press. After learning of her efforts, both Paul Cromwell and Stephen Ackerman, Capitol Hill residents, gave Ms. Morales information that they had found during their research efforts.
There are many subjects covered in the diary (fires, the changes in Navy Yard technology, daily life in Washington, sightings of presidents and dignitaries), but as with many such diaries, the weather plays a big role in the remembrances. Shiner and his fellow workers had to contend with cold, snowy winters and the frozen waters of the Eastern Branch (Anacostia) and the Potomac River. On December 16 and 17, 1831, strong northwest winds shattered six or seven 12-by-18-foot windows at the Navy Yard, leading Commodore Isaac Hull to close the Yard. In the days before strong interior lights, an eclipse on February 12, 1831, lasting from 11:30 am to 3:30 p.m., also stopped work. Then there was the drought of 1838:
“ We had a smart of rain in May and in June there were but little rain. And in July it [was] hot and dry and everything on the earth [was] suffering for vegetation and no rain in August. The ground [was] so hot that the heat would extend through the soles of your shoes, particularly thin soles, and we hadn’t any until the middle of September 1838.”
Note: Until there is a published version of Michael Shiner’s diary, a microfilm copy is located in the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress. Also, John Sharp, a former employee of the Naval Historic Center, wrote The History of the Washington Navy Yard Civilian Workforce, 1799—1962, published in 2005. Most of the Shiner material can be found on pages 16–19 and Appendix B. Copies of the book should be at the Library of Congress, the Washingtoniana Room of the Martin Luther King Library, and the Washington Historical Society Library.
UPDATE: The Naval Historical Center has posted a transcription of this important record of early 1800s Capitol Hill. Click here to read the transcript.
Looking Back on Capitol Hill
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