“The storefront at 1610 U Street NW supposedly housed a speakeasy in Prohibition days. In the 1940s and 1950s it was Alfred’s Steak House, prominently located at the western end of the “Black Broadway” of U Street. According to Stetson’s web site, Alfred’s customers included Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey, Nat King Cole, Count Basle, and Sarah Vaughn. Stetson’s Bar and Grill opened on the site in 1980.”
I also had no idea that Stetson’s has been open since 1980!?!…
Fourteenth Street NW between Irving Street and Park Road, the commercial hub of Columbia Heights, bustles with activity today. Though it took decades for the block to bounce back from the devastation of the 1968 riots, its new vitality is not really new. One hundred years ago, this block had the same central role in the life of upper Northwest, and the Arcade, a massive multi-purpose entertainment and commercial complex located where the DC USA mall now stands, was its heart.
The Arcade began as a Capitol Traction Company streetcar garage, a spacious structure built in 1892, when streetcar lines were first being electrified and extended past the old city limits (at Florida Avenue) into the hilly countryside of upper Northwest. The building’s fanciful Romanesque Revival style, complete with arched windows and turreted corners, was in vogue at the time and was similar to that of the Metropolitan Railway car barn, completed in 1896, which still stands today as a condominium complex at 1400 East Capital Street NE.
The Park Road garage served as the terminus of the 14th Street trolley line for only about a decade. In 1906, 14th Street was extended north to Decatur Street, and streetcar tracks were quickly laid on the newly graded and paved thoroughfare. A large and attractive new car barn was built at the Decatur Street terminus (it also still stands today), rendering the old Park Road structure obsolete. (more…)
Running a fashionable supper club in the 1920s was not for the fainthearted. Certainly there was plenty of money to be made, and club owners outdid themselves to create the most exotic destinations imaginable. But these were the days of Prohibition, and the “dry” agents were always on the look-out for places where people seemed to be having a little too much fun. One such place was Le Paradis, one of the DC’s ritziest 1920s nightspots, located at 1 Thomas Circle NW.
The Le Paradis at 1 Thomas Circle, with its rooftop garden, in 1931 (Author’s collection).
Le Paradis was the creation of legendary impresario and bandleader Meyer Davis (1893-1976), who was born in nearby Ellicott City, Maryland, and moved to the District as a child with his family. Davis loved music from an early age, starting his own five-member band (which played for $25 an evening), after his high-school orchestra rejected him. In 1914, while he was a law student at George Washington University, his band was breaking new ground playing music for hot new dances like the bunny hug, the turkey trot, and the grizzly bear. Soon his group had a gig playing lunches and dinners at the Willard Hotel, and Davis quickly settled on the supper club scene as his preferred métier. Tall, slim, and balding, Davis had an urbane air that appealed to his wealthy clientele, and his energy and verve in twirling his conductor’s baton seemed to always bring the audience to their feet. In later years, he would be dubbed the “Toscanini of society band leaders.” (more…)
The Ambassador Hotel, located on the southwest corner of 14th and K Streets NW across from Franklin Square, was a showcase of modern amenities and conveniences when it opened in September 1929. It was the work of successful developer Morris Cafritz (1890-1964), who lived at the hotel for a number of years and had his offices there. An important and distinctive DC landmark, the Ambassador nevertheless didn’t aim for the heights of refinement and elegance embodied in, say, the Willard or the Mayflower. Instead it was designed for the common man, advertising itself as the “stopping place of experienced travelers.”
An early postcard view of the Ambassador. Adjoining buildings are not shown. (Author’s collection).
Born in Russia, Cafritz arrived in the U.S. as a child. His father eked out a living running a small neighborhood grocery store off of North Capitol Street. As a young man, Cafritz tried his hand at a variety of early businesses—he ran a coal company, then a saloon on 8th Street SE. He set up chairs in an empty lot and showed silent movies. He opened a bowling alley in the old Center Market, then added several more, until they called him Washington’s Bowling King. Like many businessmen of his era, his early retail successes led him to move into real estate, and it was as a speculative developer that he had his greatest success. (more…)
Just east of the hustle and bustle of Chinatown and the Verizon Center stands a great Italian Renaissance Revival pile of pressed red brick known as the Pension Building, home to the National Building Museum. The building is one of the city’s best venues for large events and has hosted inaugural balls for presidents going back to Grover Cleveland’s in 1885, before it was even finished. It’s dramatic, historic, and treasured now, but like many architectural landmarks it is ultimately a rather odd building, and it’s certainly had more than its share of detractors over its lifetime.
The Pension Building today (photo by the author).
The Pension Building as it appeared in the early 1900s (author’s collection).
The building was the brainchild of Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs (1816-1892). By 1881, the brilliant, vainglorious, 65-year-old Meigs was rounding out a remarkable career of engineering accomplishments. Meigs was a man of exceptional drive, intellect, irascibility, and arrogance, who had been fascinated by engineering from an early age. When he was just six years old, his mother described him as “high-tempered, unyielding, tyrannical toward his brothers, and very persevering in pursuit of anything he wishes.” As a young man he designed Washington’s first effective water supply system, a complex reservoir and aqueduct complex that included the magnificent Cabin John Bridge in Maryland—the longest single-span masonry bridge at the time—as well as the graceful Georgetown aqueduct bridge over Rock Creek. He went on to become supervising engineer for the expansion of the U.S. Capitol, where he worked, often contentiously, with architect Thomas U. Walter to create the lavish, elegantly decorated building we know today. An accomplished logistician, he served during the Civil War as Quartermaster General of the Army and is perhaps best known as the man who decided to build a cemetery around Robert E. Lee’s mansion in Arlington so that it would never be usable again as a home. (more…)
The recent closing of Famous Luigi’s after 70 years in business at 1132 19th Street NW brings to mind fond recollections of the many old-style Italian restaurants known as “red sauce joints” that used to offer Washingtonians pizza, pasta, and warm-hearted service in great abundance. DC has been home to Italian restaurants since at least the 1870s, but a handful from the first half of the 20th century stand out as pioneers. One of those was the place where Luigi Tito Calvi (1889-1963), the founder of Famous Luigi’s, got his start. It was Ciro’s Italian Village, at 1304 G Street NW downtown.
Circa 1932 postcard from Ciro’s Italian Village (author’s collection).
Ciro’s was creation of Ciro (pronounced “Cheero”) Gallotti (1883-1948), a feisty immigrant from Naples who had a lasting impact on the Italian restaurant scene in DC. Gallotti was an effusively outgoing individual (“one high-strung and ever exciting chum,” according to the Washington Post) who was well-suited to the role of restaurateur. He began not in the restaurant business but as a musician, a french horn player for the Italian Navy Band, according to a family history prepared by his nephew Marty Gallotti (1927-2013). Ciro loved music and played the horn since he was a boy. With his future wife Guilia, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1911, and the couple were married in New York City, where he got his first job with the Victor Herbert Orchestra before moving to Washington to live at the fashionable Raleigh Hotel (previously profiled here).
Undated photo of Ciro Gallotti (courtesy of Peggy Coyle).
In Washington, Gallotti played in the orchestra at the popular Knickerbocker Theater at 18th Street and Columbia Road NW in Adams Morgan. On January 28, 1922, a massive snowstorm dumped two feet of snow on DC roads and brought traffic to a standstill. As Gallotti tried to get to work that evening, he got stuck on 16th Street and decided he had no choice but to turn back home. That same night the Knickerbocker suffered one of the greatest disasters in the city’s history when the huge snowfall caused its roof to collapse onto a full house of moviegoers. Many of Gallotti’s fellow musicians were injured, and a few died. Gallotti took this as a sign that he should get out of the music business, and in October of that same year he opened his first restaurant, Gallotti’s Italian-American Restaurant, across the street from the Raleigh on Pennsylvania Avenue.
1201 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in 1919. Gallotti’s first restaurant would open here 3 years later (Source: Library of Congress).
We’ve previously profiled the little two-story building where he rented space, a shop that hosted many businesses over the years. Modestly advertising his new eatery as “a good place to eat where prices are moderate,” Gallotti struggled at first. For the first two years, in summer months Guilia would supplement the family’s income by running a concession stand in North Beach, Maryland. But Gallotti’s eventually caught on, and Ciro stayed in business at this location for at least 6 years. (more…)
Though it receives little attention in the media, competitive canoeing ranks high among the city’s sports achievements. Washington has participated in competitive flatwater canoeing at the Olympics ever since the sport was first introduced in 1924, and much of America’s success has been due to the athletes of the venerable Washington Canoe Club, headquartered in one of the Georgetown waterfront’s most historic and picturesque structures, a 1905 boathouse at 3700 Water Street NW. The green wooden-shingled structure, perched on the edge of the flood-prone Potomac river, has deteriorated over the years and gradually fallen into disrepair. Its future is now largely in the hands of the National Park Service.
Washington Canoe Club (photo by the author).
A hundred years ago, the Potomac river was the center of attention for summer sports and recreation, a place where refreshing breezes off the water could ease the swelter of un-air-conditioned city living. Many people would set up summer camps along either side of the Potomac from Georgetown to Great Falls and beyond, and hundreds would line the shores of the river or the railings of the Aqueduct Bridge to watch hotly-contested boat races. A June 1904 article in The Washington Post rhapsodized that “The beautiful stretch of water from the Analostan [Theodore Roosevelt Island] Boat House up to within a dozen furlongs of the Chain Bridge is the one most utilized by the oarsmen and canoeists, and the ever-passing throng makes the stream take on the appearance of the Grand Canal at Venice, with the gondolas left out.” (more…)
The early 20th century was in many ways a golden era for casual restaurants. The rules of the business were changing rapidly, and those who could tell which way the wind was blowing had the opportunity for tremendous success. Lunchrooms had been proliferating since the 1890s, offering fast, inexpensive meals to working folk who could no longer easily go home for lunch and who didn’t feel comfortable patronizing saloons. Then Prohibition killed off the saloons altogether, and the demand only increased for simple, homestyle cooking served quickly and inexpensively. Cafeterias were one solution. The first American eatery to be called a cafeteria had opened in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and it was an instant hit. As cafeterias gained in popularity over the coming decades, they nearly always sold the same basic, no-frills “comfort” fare—breakfast dishes, sandwiches, meatloaf, salads, cakes, pies, and the like.
Postcard from 1932 (Author’s collection).
Perhaps the best known in Washington was Sholl’s Cafeteria and Dining Room, opened by Evan A. Sholl (1899-1983) in 1928 at Connecticut Avenue and L Street NW. Sholl, the second-youngest of 13 children born to a Pottsville, Pennsylvania farmer, had started out in life with little to his name. He earned a hardscrabble living at an assortment of odd jobs—busboy, window washer, shoe factory hand—just as J. W. Marriott was doing at about the same time. At age 20 he opened his first restaurant, which quickly bankrupted him. After that he went to work for the Kresge retail chain, which transferred him to its Washington store at 7th and E Streets NW in 1927. He regained his financial footing there and, with more experience under his belt, set out on his own again with Sholl’s Cafeteria. This time it worked. (more…)
One of the country’s most sophisticated scientific laboratory complexes, the National Bureau of Standards, once stood on a hill off of Connecticut Avenue at Upton Street, in the serene, semi-rural upper Northwest section of the city. Through much of the 20th century, this secluded and unassuming enclave quietly made countless important contributions to the safety and quality of the manufactured goods we take for granted today, including everything from airplane engines to kitchen crockery.
Connecticut Avenue runs along the top of this circa 1930 view of the Bureau’s campus (Author’s collection).
The Bureau was founded in 1901, during a period of burgeoning industrial production and dramatic technological change. Telephones, automobiles, light bulbs, electrical machinery—it all needed practical, reliable standards based on methodical scientific testing. The new Bureau filled this need, greatly expanding on the mission of its predecessor, the Office of Weights and Measures, which had been set up in the Treasury Department in the early 19th century to ensure that standard measures were used when calculating customs duties on imported goods.
First housed temporarily in the old Office of Weights and Measures building on Capitol Hill, the fledgling Bureau in 1901 urgently needed space to build its own laboratory. The requirements were exacting. The laboratory had to be well outside the city proper, somewhere completely free from vibration, traffic disturbances, and the electrical interference caused by streetcar lines. It had to be solidly built, using twice the construction materials of an ordinary office building, heating and plumbing lines that were twice as complicated as an average building’s, and four or five times the usual amount of wiring. Some labs were to be fitted out with both running salt water and fresh water as well as dispensed crushed ice. Ancillary buildings would also be needed for engines, pumps, heavy machinery, and the fabrication of sensitive scientific instruments. (more…)
One of the stateliest private buildings in Washington is the old Masonic Temple at 13th Street and New York Avenue NW, completed in 1908 and now home to the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Like other Masonic temples, the imposing structure was built with unique cross purposes; it was meant to be both a public forum for lectures and performances as well as a private place for the fraternal order’s meetings and rituals. Since the 1980s, this distinctive Renaissance Revival palace has had a remarkably fitting second life as a museum, and now the NMWA is looking to preserve the building for many more years with much-needed roof repairs. As a participant in the Partners in Preservation program, the museum will be hosting a festive open house this Sunday, May 5, from 12 to 5, offering a great, free opportunity to see this extraordinary building up close and appreciate the art it now displays.
Photo by the author.
The sharp-eyed visitor will notice decorative touches denoting the building’s original use as a Masonic Temple. Freemasonry is a centuries-old tradition descended from medieval stone masons’ guilds, although modern masons are a strictly fraternal order dedicated to benevolent acts. Masons organize themselves into lodges, which are chartered by regional Grand Lodges. DC got its own Grand Lodge in the mid 19th century. In 1870 it built a temple, still standing, at 9th and F Streets NW, but by the 1890s, with 49 Masonic lodges chartered throughout the city, the old hall was no longer adequate. The Masons resolved to build a magnificent new temple at a suitably prestigious location.
The site selection committee received some 20 offers for sites all around the city, and in 1899 they chose the distinctive trapezoidal corner lot formed by New York Avenue, 13th Street, and H Street NW, a prominent location that would allow unobstructed vistas of the new temple on three sides. The lot, once a knoll with a clump of trees known as “Seven Oaks,” cost $115,000.