Ed. Note: This was originally printed in 2011 but just came across my facebook last week, thanks to John for being kind enough to let us repost this great story here.
Mary Foote Henderson, circa 1923 (author’s collection).
The Gilded Age, from the 1870s until the 1910s, was a unique period in Washington’s history. The city attracted many nouveaux riches who were drawn by the fact that upper-class Washington society in those days was wide open to anyone with lots of money, a circumstance not found in other major Eastern cities. Of all the wealthy people who moved to Washington to exert power and influence in the Gilded Age, one of the most powerful and influential was a woman, Mary Foote Henderson (1846-1931), who turned her City Beautiful dreams into reality along upper 16th Street. (more…)
Ninth Street downtown was one of the city’s liveliest entertainment zones in the early years of the 20th century, full of theaters like the Gayety Burlesque, which we’ve previously profiled, and a colorful array of exotic restaurants, bars, and diners. “Everything that ever happened in this city happened there. When you came to town you had to strut up and down Ninth Street or you hadn’t lived,” boxing promoter Goldie Ahearn later recalled. But by the World War II years, this had all begun to change. The theaters and restaurants were still there, but they tended toward the seedy. Many of their patrons were the city’s alienated loners, the gamblers and late-night drinkers, the soldiers and sailors at loose ends who sooner or later ended up causing some kind of trouble. “There are eight million stories in the naked city…” says the narrator of the classic 1948 film noir about New York City. In the case of Washington, this sad story, as told breathlessly by the city’s newspapers, is one of them.
Greek restaurants were once commonplace on 9th Street. Some, like the Athens Restaurant at 804 9th Street were prominent and long-lived, but others, including the small storefront at 719 9th Street, were less reputable. As a Greek coffee house in 1946 it was busted by the vice squad for illegal gambling. Four years later, reincarnated as the “Acropolis Club,” it was shut down again for the same reason. By the late 1950s, the joint had been renamed the Jo Del Grill (or Jo Del Tavern), and this is the place that George P. Kaldes purchased in 1957. Kaldes, a 33-year-old World War II Army veteran of Greek descent, had cashed in a life insurance policy and put up all of his personal savings to gain full ownership of the Jo Del, and in the months after doing so he had been proud that the little place was beginning to show a modest profit. (more…)
In 1857, radical conservatives of the “Know Nothing” party in Washington, imbued with contempt for Roman Catholics, mounted an extraordinary attempt to forcibly prevent the naturalized citizens of Washington from voting in local elections. The result was the infamous Election Day Riot on June 1 at a polling station just south of Mount Vernon Square. The New York Times called it “one of the most daring insurrectionary riots of bloodshed and murder that ever disgraced a city.” Six people were killed by a Marine detachment that was called in to quell the disturbance. While the troublemakers ultimately failed in their attempt to prevent voting by Catholic immigrants, the incident was deeply embarrassing for 19th century Washingtonians and gave them a tangible sense of the tragic consequences of religious intolerance in political affairs.
Marines firing on the mob at Northern Liberties Market, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 29, 1857. (Source: Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 24, 1922).
Upheaval overseas—including the Irish potato famine and the Revolution of 1848 in Germany—led to large numbers of Irish and German immigrants to the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. These desperate people, willing to making the arduous journey to America in hopes of a better life, would enrich the country immeasurably in years to come, and many were happy to see them come. But to Anglo American “nativists,” they were foreign transgressors bent on destroying American society as the Anglos knew it. The nativists pointed to the increasing numbers of destitute and homeless immigrants crowding the nation’s cities—Washington’s notorious Swampoodle was an example—as evidence that the newcomers were bringing the country down. They began organizing themselves in secret to resist the immigrants and all they stood for, especially their predominant religion, Roman Catholicism. Supposedly if a member of this secret group were asked anything about the organization, he was supposed to reply “I know nothing,” and so they became known as the Know-Nothings. Secretly calling themselves the “Supreme Order of the Star Spangled Banner,” the group foreshadowed the growth of the Ku Klux Klan later in the 19th century. (more…)
“Washington’s first streetcars trundled down Pennsylvania Avenue during the Civil War. By the end of the century, streetcar lines crisscrossed the city, expanding it into the suburbs and defining where Washingtonians lived, worked and played. From the quaint early days of small horse-drawn cars to the modern streamliners of the twentieth century, John DeFerrari’s new book, Capital Streetcars, tells the story of the dramatic rise and equally dramatic fall of streetcars in our city. John is the author of two previous books about DC history (Lost Washington, DC. and Historic Restaurants of Washington, DC) and is a frequent contributor to PoPville with articles about DC history from his Streets of Washington blog.”
Today Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez of Cuba once again raises the Cuban flag over the country’s venerable embassy building at 2630 16th Street NW, in the Meridian Hill neighborhood that was once home to many of the city’s finest embassies. Close by are the former Italian, Mexican, and Spanish embassies as well as the current embassies of Poland and Lithuania. For decades the building has quietly served as the Cuban Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy, but before that it had a long social career, hosting many of the city’s classiest balls and receptions.
Photo by the author.
The Republic of Cuba had a diplomatic outpost in Washington even before the country existed as an independent nation. In the 1890s, as Cubans mounted their war for independence from Spain, Gonzalo de Quesada (1868-1915) established a legation at the fashionable Raleigh Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. A graduate of Columbia University, Quesada had met revolutionary hero José Martí in New York at a rally of Cuban exiles; he quickly became an important figure in the struggle for independence. The movement had the sympathy of many Americans, and on President William McKinley’s inauguration day in March 1897, its flag flew proudly atop the Raleigh. “All sympathizers with the struggling patriots could not suppress a yell of patriotism as they observed the flag of the little would-be republic floating as proudly to the breeze as that of the big, powerful country the strong protection of which is sought,” wrote The Evening Star. (more…)
One of the oldest continuously-operating restaurants in D.C. is German, the venerable Old Europe on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park, which opened in 1948. Beyond it, Washington boasts relatively few German eateries these days. That wasn’t always the case. In the late 19th century, after a wave of German immigrants settled in the area, German restaurants were common and among the city’s best. The thriving local beer industry, also dominated by Germans, went hand in glove with the restaurant business. Here are the stories of four of the most successful German eateries from the turn of the last century, all located on or near Pennsylvania Avenue downtown.
Postcard from Engel’s Hotel and Restaurant, circa 1900 (author’s collection).
One of the best known was Fritz Reuter’s. Reuter (1862-1906) had been born in Hanover and came to the U.S. when he was 21 years old. After spending a year in Baltimore, he moved to Washington to work in a saloon. He opened up his own gasthaus (inn and restaurant) in 1889 on the northwest corner of 4½ Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. The building he took over had been a boardinghouse for many years in the early part of the century. Run by a Mrs. Elizabeth Peyton, it had catered to congressmen, Supreme Court justices, and other statesmen, including John Marshall, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. (more…)
The iconic Masonic Temple building on the northwest corner of 9th and F Streets NW was the first major private building to be constructed downtown after the Civil War, and it was an extraordinary achievement. Richly decorated inside and out and with a grand ballroom on the second floor, it was one of the city’s important cultural centers when it first opened its doors in 1869. The building had many lives, including as a bastion of the temperance movement in the early years of the 20th century and later as a furniture store. It would also become the first major building to be successfully protected by the District’s Historic Landmark and Historic District Protection Act of 1978.
The old Masonic Temple on the northwest corner of 9th and F Streets NW (photo by the author).
The building was constructed as the headquarters for the local Grand Lodge of Masons. Freemasonry is a centuries-old tradition descended from medieval stone masons’ guilds that evolved into a strictly fraternal order dedicated to benevolent acts. Masons organize themselves into lodges, which are chartered by regional Grand Lodges. Masons were first active in Washington in the late 18th century and formed a Grand Lodge here in 1811. By the mid 19th century they were using a hall at 9th and D Streets NW and needed a larger, more prestigious building to house their meeting hall and headquarters. In 1864, as the Civil War raged, Congress gave them a charter to acquire and develop a site for a new hall. The association purchased the 9th and F Streets lot in 1865 and began raising funds to construct the building. The project was run strictly as a for-profit business, with funds raised by the sale of stock. Stockholders would earn income from rental of the building’s public spaces on the first and second floors. (more…)
Although the snowstorm that just struck the east coast was not as bad as forecasters feared, it’s worth looking back at one of the most devastating storms from the past. The great blizzard of March 11, 1888 wasn’t even predicted at all in Washington. The weather forecast that day was just for wind and rain, with clear skies to follow. Sure enough, the day began with heavy rains, but by late afternoon it turned suddenly to heavy snow. About a foot of snow fell through the night, followed by fierce winds. It turned out to be a cataclysmic storm, walloping the entire northeastern U.S. and dumping two to three feet of snow in New York and New England. Though Washington was not the worst hit, the storm’s effects had a lasting impact on the city.
A street-side snow hut made after the massive snow storm of March 1888 (Source: Library of Congress).
“The storm that visited Washington yesterday was one of the most remarkable known for years, The Evening Star reported on Monday, “In fact, the capital seemed to have dropped into the very center of a cyclone that brought with it a blinding succession of rain, snow, wind, and cold…. [T]he city was sheeted in a mantle of white that grew thicker every minute. As the night fell the heavily-laden telegraph wires began to come down, and in many places the streets were blockaded so that street cars had to turn around and make partial trips. The police wires were out of order, and to add to the discomforts of the night the electric lights began to fail. By midnight the city was almost in darkness, save for a few feeble gas jets that had flickered through the storm.” (more…)
Washington Circle is the westernmost of the many public spaces laid out in L’Enfant’s plan for Washington City, and it was designed as a circle from the start. To the south in the early days was the low-lying area known as Foggy Bottom, a desolate, semi-industrial neighborhood. Little of the land to the north was developed. While many Washingtonians passed through the circle as they traveled along Pennsylvania Avenue between Georgetown and Washington, few stopped here. Known as the “Round Tops” for the high cupolas on a pair of houses located just to the northwest, the neighborhood around the circle had a reputation for being dangerous. It is usually mentioned in early newspapers in connection with petty crimes. The circle itself was simply a large open area in the middle of the street.
The statue of George Washington in Washington Circle (photo by the author).
Meanwhile, sculptor Clark Mills created a sensation with his tour-de-force statue of Andrew Jackson on a rearing steed, which was unveiled in Lafayette Square in 1853. Proud of this American-made monument, Congress responded by immediately commissioning Mills to create another statue to honor George Washington. Everyone expected the new memorial to be even more stunning than the Jackson statue. The princely sum of $50,000 was authorized to pay for it.
It’s unclear when or how the decision was made that the new Washington statue would be placed in the circle at Pennsylvania Avenue and K Street NW. Perhaps that decision led to the sprucing up of the circle in 1855, when a wooden fence was built around the central part of the circle, thus forming the city’s first traffic circle. But by all accounts the improvements were minimal; the circle remained a wasteland until the arrival of the Washington statue. (more…)
The Prohibition era in Washington saw the rise of speakeasys and glitzy nightclubs, like Le Paradis on Thomas Circle, which we profiled last March. But the end of Prohibition in March 1934 did not bring an end to the supper club era. On the contrary, supper clubs flourished across the country, and Washington had plenty of them. Silken-voiced singers and lush orchestras continued to offer people an escape from the hard economic realities of the Depression. Exotic décor heightened the sense that one was fleeing to another place and time, to somewhere simpler and more romantic. These were the golden years of the supper clubs, a unique era when dining and entertainment were more closely linked than ever before or since.
Postcard view of the interior of the Mayfair, circa 1935 (author’s collection).
Fourteenth Street downtown hosted some of the biggest supper clubs, including the Casino Royal and Lotus Restaurant, but there were many others, including popular night spots at most of the city’s major hotels. One club that opened in 1935, the year after Prohibition ended, was the Mayfair Restaurant, nicknamed the “Café of All Nations.” It was located in a new office building at 13th and F Streets NW, in the heart of Washington’s theatre district. Within a block or two were the National and Warner theaters as well as the Palace and Capitol movie theaters. The restaurant quickly became one of the city’s most popular after-theater spots. (more…)