Matthew Donohue is the scion of a Georgetown family with a rich history of real estate holdings in Georgetown and other parts of Washington. After graduating from Georgetown University in 1959, Matt worked for the Job Corps — part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty Program. For the next twenty years, his job was to find and acquire Job Corps sites all over the country. He later continued in real estate, concentrating on commercial properties and keeping tabs on family tracts, particularly in Georgetown. In this interview with Kevin Delany, Matt talks about the tightly-knit Donohue family and their properties in Georgetown — including several grocery stores, a bar, drug stores, pharmacies, physicians’ offices, and the site of the City Tavern Club.
Kevin Delany: OK, I think we’re in business. That should pick up both of our voices quite nicely. And the best thing – what do you prefer? Matthew, Matt? How do you like to be addressed?
Matthew Donahue: Matt’s fine.
Kevin: Matt’s fine. OK, good.
Matthew: You can call me anything but late for dinner. [laughter]
Kevin: And I’m Kevin. So that’s fine. Let’s start at the beginning. First let me intro it so they know the setting here. This is Kevin Delany. It’s January 19, 2010, and I’m in the home today of Matthew Donahue III, at 3616 Prospect Street NW, for an interview for the CAG Oral History Project.
Matt, can we start at the beginning? When and where were you born?
Matthew: I was born a block away at the old Georgetown Hospital at 35th and Prospect, on December 30, 1936.
Kevin: 1936, OK. Very good. Where was your family at the time, where were they living?
Matthew: We were living at 1617 35th Street.
Kevin: That’s the house we were just talking about. That four-story Victorian, which is…
Kevin: And it’s got another similar house next to it? There are two of them there.
Matthew: Actually there were three. One time, my parents owned both houses.
Kevin: OK. And how long did you live there, through your whole youth, in that area?
Matthew: No. Around seven or eight, we moved up to 3215 North Street, which is a quarter of block away from Dumbarton Oaks.
Kevin: Where did you go for your schooling?
Matthew: I went to Holy Trinity Grade School for eight years. And then I went to Belmont Abbey Prep, the Benedictine college in North Carolina. I went there for four years, and then I went to Georgetown for four years. Then I got an MBA from American University.
Kevin: OK, all right. I assume you were Georgetown ’59, because that’s part of your email.
Matthew: Right. That’s correct.
Kevin: [laughs] Just a guess. I thought that was more than likely. After your MBA at AU, what did you do then?
Matthew: I went into real estate. I spent most of my real estate life acquiring and disposing of sites for Job Corps.
Kevin: Oh, is that right? The Shriver’s Job Corps, wasn’t it.
Matthew: That’s correct. Lyndon Johnson’s.
Kevin: Part of the fight of the anti-poverty program.
Matthew: That’s right. It was for disadvantaged youth. And I think between 14 and 19, is my recollection.
Kevin: So you were acquiring the sites for the projects under the Job Corps, is that it?
Matthew: That’s correct.
Kevin: And where were they, all over the city?
Matthew: All over the country.
Kevin: All over the country, oh yes, of course. It was a national program. That would have meant a lot of travel and finding the appropriate sites?
Matthew: Frequently the local people, the local Job Corps people, would come up with several sites. I would go visit the sites. One weekend I was in Kodiak, Alaska, the next weekend I was in Maine. I couldn’t get over how close they appeared.
Kevin: You were attracted to this because of the value of the program? It was a period of the early Peace Corps, and the same motivation, I guess, existed for you in terms of doing this work?
Matthew: That’s true, but I was in commercial real estate for four years, and I had – we negotiated a lease in the Bender Building down on Connecticut Avenue with the architectural and engineering firm. And they were anxious to have me come in and help out on their real estate.
Kevin: So it was a sort of a natural for you. It was right out of your field anyway, part of it.
Kevin: How long did you do this for the Job Corps? When did it end?
Matthew: I stopped doing it about 50 or 55 years ago. Is that right? No. Probably 1980-ish I stopped doing it.
Kevin: So after the Job Corps, you still stayed in the real estate field, I presume?
Kevin: Non-governmental, commercial real estate, or residential housing?
Matthew: It was mostly commercial.
Kevin: Commercial, OK.
Matthew: My family on both my mother’s side and father’s side invested in real estate in Georgetown.
Kevin: Georgetown became more and more of an entity, more and more in the limelight, I guess. So it just kept getting better and better.
Matthew: We were having a meeting at the City Tavern, my grandfather on my mother’s side was a pharmacist. He had owned that building and he gave it to his daughter, Mary Jane Foote. She’s the one who sold it to the City Tavern. My mother had taken mantels out of the building and put them in the house at 1617 35th Street. She donated the mantels back to the City Tavern, which are there to this day.
Matthew: The original woodwork.
Kevin: You mentioned that your family is involved with the City Tavern and the Riggs Bank over the phone.
Matthew: My grandfather – when they recently remodeled the Riggs Bank, they had the deed from my grandfather. He financed it for Riggs. I think he took back a 6% mortgage.
Kevin: The remodeling was done just recently by somebody else, obviously the bank had contacted.
Matthew: This all happened before I was born.
Kevin: And the City Tavern, your family was mainly in getting some of those artifacts installed, or was it more than that?
Matthew: My grandfather had a pharmacy there. He also had one on a corner of Wisconsin, where Riggs Bank is. And also the corner of Wisconsin Avenue where the Banana Republic was.
Kevin: These were all pharmacies?
Matthew: Yeah. I think the only corner that he didn’t own was where [indecipherable 09:02] property.
Kevin: Why so many pharmacies? Were they drug stores as well?
Kevin: Drug store/pharmacies.
Matthew: But they were not all at the same time. He would have the pharmacies down there.
Kevin: Close one and open another type thing. I see. OK.
Matthew: He and his brothers and sisters were all pharmacists, and they advertised together. He was a pioneer. One of the terms a “loss-leader” was created by them. They sold Gillette razors for less than they paid for them, under the theory that if you came into the store you would buy other stuff. Which they did do.
Kevin: And that was a new concept at the time, a loss-leader.
Matthew: It was never heard of. Yeah.
Kevin: And it worked, obviously.
Matthew: It did work. And to the point that Gillette couldn’t figure out what they were doing, and they accused them of stealing it.
Kevin: They were selling way to many Gillettes, huh? [laughs]
Matthew: Yeah. That’s what the bottom line was. But they had no idea what they were doing.
Kevin: Gillette didn’t, but your grandfather did, obviously. That’s interesting. Is real estate still your field, are you still involved?
Matthew: I own five parcels down at Wisconsin and O Street. But that is mainly what I have in Georgetown.
Kevin: Are they rental properties?
Kevin: I see. OK. It keeps you busy enough just tending to them and making sure everything’s running right. OK. That’s good. Do you consider yourself semi-retired or full gear still?
Matthew: Well, I’m in poor health. I’m now a diabetic, and I have cataracts, so I can’t see out one eye virtually.
Matthew: And I have arthritis. I really can’t get around much.
Kevin: I see, so you’re pacing yourself basically.
Kevin: That makes sense. Good. So your family came from the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland. About what period was that?
Matthew Donahue: My grandmother, Mary Ellen Kelleher Donahue, I’m trying to go backwards.
Kevin: Was she the first to come to America?
Matthew: No, she was born here in Georgetown.
Kevin: I see.
Matthew: Her father was Michael Kelleher. And Michael Kelleher had a grocery store at 34th and P. She was born at that site, but not the house. The house was built ‑ it was a grocery store and they lived above the grocery store. She was the only daughter, and he died in his 40s, and she was 14. So the nuns at visitation took her and they raised her. Thomas Kelleher, Michael Kelleher’s brother, married Matthew Donahue’s sister. So Dr. Kelleher, he had polio and was crippled. He and my father were double first cousins. No incest, you know.
Kevin: Michael Kelleher was the first to come from Ireland, from Dingle.
Kevin: The first of the family. Do you know what year it would have been? Just curious. Was it around the Potato Famine period?
Kevin: 1840s, 1850, whatever.
Kevin: I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt. That grocery story later became a bar, is that my recollection?
Matthew: That’s correct.
Kevin: And then it continued as a bar and a home. They lived over the bar, I guess.
Matthew: Nine children.
Kevin: Nine children, wow.
Matthew: The house is still there. The senator from ‑ I want to say Montana, but I don’t think it’s Montana.
Kevin: It’s still in use, that house. It was a bar and then a grocery store.
Matthew: That’s correct. It’s a home of a senator now.
Kevin: It’s P Street, I think you said.
Matthew: It’s 34th and P Street. On the northeast corner. All of the kids took the mother’s diamond ring and scratched their initials on the bathroom window. And it’s still there to this day.
Kevin: Really. OK. This was before you were born, all this. Quite a ways before.
Matthew: Oh, yes.
Kevin: So those were the roots. Now I also read about in some of the background material given me about the Hulse‑Gormley house, I guess the first owners of the house on 35th Street, the Victorian house. They featured, I guess, wonderful skylights and things like that as part of that period.
Matthew: Yeah. I think that my father paid $11, 000 for that house. [laughs]
Kevin: And now it’s changed hands, I’m sure, a number of times. But one time it sold for $3 million or something like that.
Kevin: It’s a big house, very large.
Matthew: When my father died, he left it to my mother. And my mother gave each of her children a piece of property. That property went to my youngest brother. He died and it went to his widow, and she sold it.
Kevin: How many of your siblings are still with us?
Matthew: The four oldest.
Kevin: The four oldest are still alive. Is it a tight‑knit family, I presume?
Matthew: Pretty much so. We have our squabbles.
Kevin: Like any family. OK. I’m trying to piece together some of this history involving all these wonderful real estate properties. Let me see what happened after…. Your father was a physician, and he had several offices, doctor’s offices, in different buildings. I guess some that he owned on 35th Street.
Matthew: No, I think that there was a time that they changed the numbers on the house, but it’s still the same house.
Kevin: I see.
Matthew: This is all before I was born. I came across that myself one time; I remember asking my father about it.
Kevin: Your family seemed to have an eye for good real estate, is it sort of inbred as it’s gone along through the generations? Because you’re very much involved still with different properties.
Matthew: That’s really what got me started in real estate. My grandfather on my mother’s side, he owned the houses across the street. He didn’t own anything in commercial on the block, but he owned most of the residential block. And he paid, gross consideration, $250 for the individual houses. And he sold them for $500, thinking he made a killing.
Kevin: He’d keep them for six months or longer?
Matthew: He kept them, I think, longer than that.
Kevin: What they now call flipping, right?
Matthew: It wasn’t flipping.
Kevin: It wasn’t that concept.
Matthew: In Ireland, we’re not allowed to own property. So the Irish saw the value in owning property and they invested highly in the real estate here.
Kevin: OK, that’s good. You did a lot of commercial real estate. Are there some properties that you’re particularly glad you were involved with or contributed to the development of Washington? I know you talked about the Job Corp purchases you made, but are there others that come to mind?
Matthew: Well, Wisconsin and O. My father bought the corner property and then he bought the one next door to it on O Street. My grandfather on my mother’s side owned 1338 Wisconsin Avenue where Smith Point is and the lady’s dress shop ‑ I can’t think of the name. But my grandfather used to walk from that shop across to O Street to maintain an easement. My father saw humor in it. He could care less.
Kevin: Well, Wisconsin and O, that property was People’s Drug Store at one point. Now it’s CVS.
Kevin: That was the other corner?
Matthew: That’s almost a half a block away.
Matthew: Both of Wisconsin and O. But this is directly across from American Security Bank.
Kevin: Oh, I see. OK. Write it down. Well, real estate has been a satisfying career for you, it sounds like.
Matthew: Oh, yeah.
Kevin: You ever wish you’d gone into anything else or had any other interests?
Matthew: No. I hosted Thanksgiving this year at the University Club. There were a little over 25 people there. I had everybody, after we said grace, to go around the room and think of something to thank God for. I had an advantage, because it was my idea.
Kevin: Where did you hold Thanksgiving dinner?
Matthew: At the University Club downtown.
Kevin: Oh, OK. All right.
Matthew: But I thank God for who I am. I’m very content in who I am, and I don’t want to be anybody else.
Kevin: That’s a nice feeling, I think. Yeah, that’s very good. So how would you describe? You’ve had a pretty interesting, good life. Is that fair to say?
Matthew: Yes, I’m content.
Kevin: Now tell me about this house that you’re living in now. Can you give us a little background on that? On the address of…
Kevin: 3616 Prospect Street.
Matthew: I think this house was built in 1940. I was looking to buy a house. I had a piece of property downtown and I sold that and made quite a bit of money on it. I was looking to buy a house here in Georgetown. You have crazy reasons for buying a house, but this house had… The second floor has really very high ceilings and I had to have a chandelier on there that I’ve loved since I was a kid. It was in our dining room on R Street, and you have to have at least 10‑foot ceilings for the chandelier, because this chandelier is about 4‑feet high.
And I also had some rugs that I wanted to be able to use. So I put big rugs and the chandelier and the view made me buy this house. It’s four stories. It does have an elevator. But the view from the rear is spectacular.
Kevin: Yeah, the view, I can tell it’s very spectacular. You also, it’s four stories, and you have a deck on top that you can entertain from?
Matthew: There was a roof deck. There’s also a balcony on the fourth floor. The fourth floor is the master suite and it has a balcony off the back.
Kevin: Oh, I see. Sounds great, so it’s very comfortable and it’s just great. Now, do you spend much time looking out at the river and the activity across the way?
Matthew: If you’re recuperating, this is a wonderful house to be in, because you can just sit here and watch the birds soar. I have a hard time, I can’t really read and there are times I don’t even want to watch television. So just to look at this view is spectacular.
Kevin: I can see that. That’s wonderful. Well, good. I think I’ve covered most of the ground. Any areas that we haven’t touched on that you’d like to talk about that?
Matthew: My great grandpa on my other side was named Anthony Hanlow, and he had three of the houses, built three of the houses near Visitation Convent on 35th Street. He had a grocery store at Wisconsin and P Street. It’s an antiques store now. We, as kids, always would be amused because I have an uncle, Bill Foot, and his grandfather was William Dyer, and he would go to mass on Sunday at Holy Trinity. And they had pew doors ‑ doors about like this.
Matthew: And they had the name on the pew doors and the pew door numbers. And when they were remodeling the chapel, they found all these doors upstairs, up in the attic. And you could have one, have them, by donating them. So I got Michael Kelleher’s doors, Thomas Kelleher’s doors.
Matthew: And I got two more.
Kevin: A great memento.
Kevin: I don’t remember seeing doors on pews. That really does date back to a period.
Matthew: Yeah, well, they only had one mass on Sunday.
Kevin: I see.
Matthew: And they didn’t take up a collection. You had to rent your pew.
Kevin: I see, OK. I see, yeah, a little different approach to it than you’d see nowadays.
Matthew: Well, Holy Trinity was founded by John Carroll two years before he founded Georgetown University.
Kevin: Ah, OK, I guess I didn’t realize that the Trinity came first.
Matthew: Yeah, and the land for Holy Trinity was donated by a parishioner, an Episcopal parishioner at St. John’s, on Potomac and O Street.
Kevin: You’ve seen a lot of changes in Georgetown over your years. How would you describe…? Has it been all for the good, progress in Georgetown or change in Georgetown?
Matthew: I don’t think so.
Matthew: To tear down that building ‑ not that it’s an old or historic building. But it had more old flavor than this new Apple store ‑ an historical…
Kevin: Which building are you talking about?
Matthew: At the end of Prospect and Wisconsin, across Wisconsin.
Kevin: Oh, I see.
Matthew: With the new Apple.
Kevin: Oh, yeah.
Matthew: That is under construction now. But just looking at the wood renderings, I think it was a mistake. And there used to be a ‑ called Claire Fleur Florist, before Britches came. And they gave this woman a fit with her remodeling.
Kevin: Well, that’s interesting, because that’s why they have the restrictions on changes in the architecture.
Matthew: They don’t follow it, though.
Kevin: But they don’t always.
Matthew: They don’t. On Wisconsin Avenue, they have the stainless steel and the new glass. And this is in the 1400 block. And they never had any permits or showed any permits, or anything. It’s just…
Kevin: So you think they’re going to have to be more stringent on allowing these people to not, to find loopholes or not observe the regulations, the zoning code.
Matthew: Oh, 10, 15 or 20 years ago, I went and took a picture of every building, facade on Wisconsin Avenue, from L Street up to R Street.
Kevin: What was your thought in doing that? Just to make sure to try…?
Matthew: Because they weren’t complying then.
Kevin: Oh, I see.
Matthew: You don’t have any continuity. They give one person a hell of a time. Then later on, somebody else can come in and just rip it out and put in something real modern.
Kevin: I see what you mean.
Matthew: Let me just change the subject for one second.
Matthew: I remember, as a kid, Evelyn Walsh McLean. They said that she was…
Kevin: The Hope Diamond woman, yeah.
Matthew: Yes. They said that she lived in the center house in the 3300 block of R Street.
Kevin: R Street, I remember that, yes.
Matthew: I can remember as a child, in the car, going past the house, with all my siblings and whatnot. And as a matter of fact, actually, it was on a Sunday; we were going to church. And my father was the physician for the Jesuit community. The Father Walsh, the founder of the School of Foreign Service, was coming down the stairs, from the house. And my father said, “What are you up to?”
And he said that Evelyn Walsh McLean just died. He said, “It never occurred to me. Are you related?”
And he said, “No, but I’ve known her a long time.”
He said, “Did you give back to any of the churches?”
He said, “I don’t want to talk about that.”
He said, “Did you get your snake eyes on any of her money?
Matthew: Father Walsh said, “Oh, please. Please, don’t talk that way in front of your children.” [laughter]
Matthew: At any rate, the truth of the matter is, her house ‑ she owned the entire block.
Kevin: Oh, she did.
Matthew: From 33rd to 34th, and from R Street down to Reservoir, and over to 34th, over to Wisconsin Avenue.
Matthew: And the houses, if you look at the houses to the left, were all part of her house. They were made into separate houses. There was another balance on the other side and there was a ballroom there. And that house, the ballroom was made into another house, with the entrance on 34th Street. And they built the other houses on R Street, and down 34th, and over on Reservoir. But at the time she owned the whole block. And if you look at that, if you drive in the alley behind the house, there is a magnificent stairway. And the stairway, when you come down the stairs ‑ you’re in your car. But that used to be where the swimming pool was.
Kevin: Oh, really? Gee. Now this is the whole period when she owned the Hope Diamond, I presume. Right?
Kevin: Was there a lot of fuss made over that? Or people just knew the situation? Did she ever wear it to…?
Matthew: Oh, it was supposed to be a bad luck legend.
Kevin: Yeah, I remember there was some belief in that. But did that scare her away from wearing it very much?
Matthew: I really would be too young at the time to know whether she wore it to the grocery store.
Kevin: Well, that would be some appearance at the local grocery store, I’m sure.
Matthew: With your history, you might consider doing something on the grocery stores in Georgetown, because there was a ‑‑ If you came down 34th Street, you would run into grocery stores. At 34th and Reservoir, there was a grocery store. Then down at 34th and Dent Place, you had two grocery stores. Rosen’s is still existing, but diagonally across the street was a Covart’s Grocery Store. Then if you went down…
Kevin: These are all family‑owned?
Matthew: Oh, yeah.
Kevin: Yeah, right.
Matthew: Then if you went down to 34th and P, there were ‑‑ not counting the Donahue/Kelleher Grocery Store ‑‑ there were two additional grocery stores on the corner there. And then down at 34th and O, there was a grocery store. And then over here on P and 36th Street was a grocery store.
Kevin: Gee. So the residents didn’t have to walk very far to find a grocery store in those days.
Matthew: Yeah, but they also did not have the refrigeration. They probably went every day.
Kevin: Yeah, I see. Plan their menus each day.
Matthew: But the people that might be in competition, a lot of them knew each other. They must have trusted each other, because they were… As I say, my grandfather was a witness to the will of my great‑grandfather, on my father’s side to my mother’s side.
Kevin: Yeah, those were different days. Well, it’s a by‑gone era, but Georgetown is still thriving in many ways. Are you still very close to Georgetown University? You’re a loyal alumnus, I’m sure.
Matthew: Well, I’m not happy with them right now, I’ll tell you.
Matthew: They have not been treating the citizens decently about this 2010 plan, to the 2020 plan.
Kevin: You mean an expansion plan?
Matthew: Well, apparently they’re required to file a plan.
Kevin: Right, for their future years, right?
Kevin: And you don’t like the plan, particularly?
Matthew: Well, they purport that they are not ‑‑ that they don’t have to comply. They said that the university campus is defined by the National Capital and Park and Planning Commission. So I’ve called them, and I’ve emailed them to get a copy of this. They claim they don’t have one, but …
Kevin: So you’d like to see…
Matthew: But they just cause a lot of anxiety with the people who have their homes. One particular woman was very offensive that these people have anxieties about their homes.
Kevin: You mean they’re afraid that their home may disappear in the name of progress for the university?
Matthew: Well, for example, they want to build an interior across the street. A building the size of the Walsh Building, which is four or five stories high. It would be a mess. But this one particular woman, she kept lecturing people that they weren’t listening to her. She was being pedantic and treating these concerned homeowners like they were kindergarten students.
Kevin: Interesting. I can see where homeowners could get very concerned on those issues.
Matthew: Yeah, yeah. And the other thing is that you have a Jesuit community down there, but I don’t think that the Jesuit community gets involved or knows what’s going on. There are quite a few geriatrics.
Kevin: I understand, interesting.
Matthew: They’re very good men, but…
Kevin: Any other issues, Matt, before we wrap this up, that we haven’t covered that you’d like to comment on?
Matthew: Well, when people get zoning exceptions, they don’t follow through. For example, this gas station below me. First of all, they described it as an extremely small station, and it’s actually the largest one within a couple of miles around. They were going to paint the roof of the buildings dark green to appear as grass or a forest. They painted the roof white. They don’t pay any attention to signs, they change the signs and get away with murder with the signs, and nobody in the D.C. government enforces the zoning changes. It’s really frustrating.
Kevin: Lack in maintaining the regulations, enforcing them.
Kevin: Interesting, very good. Well, thank you very much for giving us this time today, Matt.
Kevin: And sharing some of your memories and thoughts on a range of issues. I thank you, indeed.
Matthew: You’re very welcome.
Kevin: Appreciate it. Thank you.