Interviewed on his birthday by Joyce Lowenstein, Billy Martin shared stories on how Martin’s Tavern was founded and has thrived throughout its almost eighty years of existence. The Tavern was founded by Martin’s great-grandfather who traveled to the United States from Ireland in the late 1890s. He purchased the property on the corner of Wisconsin and N Street in 1933 and transformed the building from a Greek delicatessen into the Tavern – it looks almost identical today as it did when it officially opened its doors in 1934. Martin’s Tavern has operated within the Martin family for four generations. Read the candid interview with the fourth Billy Martin to learn the stories of spies, famous proposals (namely JFK and Jackie), and how every American president from Truman to George W. Bush has eaten in one of the booths (the Martin children wrote a letter to Mr. Obama inviting him to dine to keep the tradition alive). A true gem, Martin’s Tavern, and the family that owns it, represents the history and neighborhood-friendly ways of Georgetown.
Joyce Lowenstein: OK, this is Joyce Lowenstein interviewing Billy Martin on July 8th, 2010, at the Billy Martin Tavern on the corner of Wisconsin and… [laughs] , what’s the address?
Billy Martin: 1264 Wisconsin.
Joyce: 1264 Wisconsin Avenue.
Billy: And today’s a special day actually.
Joyce: Oh, yes?
Billy: It’s my 50th birthday today.
Joyce: Oh, really? Happy Birthday. That’s very special.
Billy: So I picked today to do the interview. I thought it would be a good day.
Joyce: That’s good. We can talk about 50 years in Georgetown.
Billy: Yeah. [laughs]
Joyce: So, did you grow up here in Georgetown or out in Virginia? I know you lived in Virginia. Have you ever lived in Georgetown?
Billy: Not Georgetown per se, but I did live in upper Wisconsin for about five years, right outside of Georgetown. Glover Park.
Joyce: And the Tavern has been here, this Tavern, has been here since 1930 something?
Billy: Yes. My grandfather, my great‑grandfather purchased the property in early 1933. In 1933 this comer, the building was actually a Greek delicatessen owned by the Offit family. So, when the family purchased the property they took little less than a year, but they totally refurbished it into the Tavern and it pretty much remains as it was then today.
Joyce: So, it was your great‑grandfather and grandfather that first opened it?
Joyce: Can you tell me a little bit about them?
Billy: Well my great‑grandfather, he came over from Ireland. I’m not sure what year.
Joyce: I think it was 1890.
Billy: It was 18 something. Yeah. Yes, it was the late 1800s, and he actually worked for Schweppes. He drove a soda pop truck and he lived on Cambridge Place in Georgetown. My grandfather was born in Georgetown hospital, the old one, it was by the university. The old hospital, right at 36th. I think. and Prospect, is where it was. My grandfather, as I said, went to Georgetown University. Was a big athlete and ended up being inducted into the hall of fame of sports at Georgetown in 1950 or so.
He also played professional sports as well, my grandfather did. And so, he was known as a big sports celebrity in Washington D.C. actually.
It’s interesting, a gentlemen was just doing a book on baseball. A group of guys are doing some history on baseball and he happened to have the Miracle Braves, is who my grandfather played for. The Miracle Braves actually went on to play in the World Series in 1914, which my grandfather played on that team. He also played with Jim Thorpe, as well.
So, he was good friends with Jim Thorpe. After his baseball career is when he really, with my great‑grandfather, wanted to go into the restaurant business and had his eye on this corner for many years.
Back in the ’30s it was the heart of the depression. Also Georgetown back then, as we know, was a very blue collar neighborhood. Actually I think Georgetown even then was pretty much an African American neighborhood. So, with a few Irish families tucked in here and there, ours happened to be one of them.
Joyce: So, he and your grandfather opened this restaurant, and then your father?
Billy: Yeah, as I said, my great‑grandfather and my grandfather opened the Tavern in conjunction, and my understanding, as I have two versions that I will share, is that my grandfather lived in Arlington, Virginia. My great‑grandfather lived, as I said, on Cambridge Place here in upper Georgetown just a few blocks up the street.
Joyce: Do you know the address by any chance?
Billy: I don’t know the exact address unfortunately. I could look it up and get that. When they purchased the property here and began to renovate it, and apply for a liquor license, since prohibition had ended, my understanding is that there’s where the two versions come into play. Since my great‑grandfather lived in Georgetown or in Washington DC, he was able to get a liquor license. My understanding was that you had to live in the district to acquire a liquor license. However, I have been told by another gentleman, a contemporary of my father’s, Richard Burdah was his name. He was telling me, no, that was not the case at all.
The case was that your great‑grandfather couldn’t get a liquor license, oh, my grandfather couldn’t get a liquor license because he also had a little bootlegging in this background. So that’s how my great‑grandfather was able to get a liquor license. There’s an interesting story that goes along with that as well.
When they opened the Tavern, and that’s kind of how we put the four generations together because my great‑grandfather did have a liquor license. Now my great‑grandfather was in his 80s when the Tavern was opened.
My great‑grandfather did work here, as a matter of fact. He worked as a host and a maître d as he would come in the door; he was dressed to the nines. I understand he would wear a nice Swallow Tail coat and had his watch in his watch‑pocket. Very clean and would greet everybody to come in.
My grandfather worked the bar. As time went on, there was a strain in the relationship between my grandfather and my great‑grandfather. They had an argument one day and my grandfather actually kicked my great‑grandfather out of the Tavern.
In doing so, my great‑grandfather decided that, since his son wanted to act that way, he came down after the close of business, and actually chained the place up and locked it up and took the key with him.
So, Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson and many of the people up on the hill were great friends of my grandfathers. Sam Rayburn and my grandfather were very, very good friends. And they would come down pretty much every afternoon to the Tavern.
So, this particular day when they showed up and they found the place was padlocked; actually Sam Rayburn had summoned the police chief and asked him did he know what was going on. The police chief didn’t know, so he said, they needed to get my grandfather, get Billy Martin and bring him down, until they find out what was going on.
As embarrassed as he was, he had to tell them that he had a fight with his father and that his father had the liquor license and he ended up padlocking the place and he couldn’t get in. So Sam had questioned my grandfather as to why he didn’t have the liquor license. I don’t know if it was said in all those words that he was a bootlegger and couldn’t get one. I think he just said he wasn’t able to get one.
So with that, they immediately went downtown and with the help of Sam Rayburn they were able to get a liquor license for my grandfather. At that point in time, he came back with some bolt cutters and he cut the lock off, and the chain, and unfortunately the relationship between my grandfather and my great grandfather never fixed itself.
My understanding is that when my great‑grandfather did finally pass away, it wasn’t on good terms. So, kind of a sad story but, here we are. So, my father was born in 1922 and he grew up in the Tavern as well.
Joyce: Now, he lived though, in Virginia?
Billy: Yes. Because my grandfather was living in Arlington off of Glebe Road and Chesterbrook. Back then it was sort of farm area. So they had a big piece of property there. As my father grew up, he went to school. He went to Georgetown Prep, and he also went to Georgetown. However, my father was in World War II, and he had to go to war. He was a pharmacist’s mate in the Navy. My grandfather did not want my dad to go into the restaurant business. He wanted him to become a doctor and go on to be some type of a medical profession. When my father came back from the war, he wanted to go into the restaurant business.
Kind of interesting, my father, as he grew up, as a young man, he was a small stature of a person. And, being in Georgetown, again, Georgetown being sort of the blue collar neighborhood, I guess our family had some money. When my father was going to school, he had on his little Buster Browns and his knee socks and his little shorts.
Most of the other kids couldn’t afford the kind of clothing my dad had. So, my dad would get picked on. Being that we’re kind of the old Irish background, my grandfather was like, “Son, you’ve got to stand up for yourself. You can’t be picked on.”
But my father grew later in life as far as physically. I’ve also followed that same path as far as developing. I’m 6′ 2″ now but, when I graduated high school, I was only 5′ 7.”
My father took boxing lessons when he was he was a young man. He also played golf, and he was an excellent golfer too. But my father actually went on to become a golden glove boxer in Georgetown. He had 44 fights, and he never lost a fight. So, he was able to protect himself from the bullies in the neighborhood. I know my grandfather was pretty proud of him for that.
As I said, my father also played golf. He started at the age of six. They were members of Washington Golf and Country Club, which is in Arlington. My father was the longest living member of Washington Golf, and I think, even though he’s passed away now, he still holds that longevity there.
But my father played golf and was a very good golfer. He travelled on the pro‑am circuit and played a lot of golf as well as running the Tavern even though my grandfather didn’t want him to.
My grandfather died in 1949. So, the Tavern had been open since ’34 actually, we were established in 1933. That’s when they took a year to refurbish it from the old delicatessen it was into the tavern and opened in 1934. My grandfather’s birthday was February 17th, and I believe they opened on February 17th, 1934 in conjunction with my grandfather’s birthday.
Joyce: It was fitting that we’re doing this interview on your birthday. [laughs]
Billy: Absolutely, absolutely. After my grandfather passed, my dad was only 27. The interesting thing was the Depression was, for the most part, over at this point. My father was very gregarious and very outgoing. He went to Georgetown, graduated Georgetown. So, he in himself was sort of a celebrity as well. A lot of people thought my father, until his death even, was very self‑centered, kind of cocky and arrogant. When my grandfather passed away, there were a lot of people that bet my father would either sell the property and the tavern or he would try to run it and wouldn’t be able to do it or be an absentee owner and still not run it. But my father took over the tavern and he ran it very well and very successfully for many, many years.
In 1954, we had another building on the corner of Prospect and Wisconsin.
Joyce: The Carriage.
Billy: The Carriage House.
Joyce: Now, when did you start that? When did that get started?
Billy: My father opened that in 1954. However, the building was called the West End Hotel. It was an old hotel that my grandfather had purchased in the late 1800s.
Joyce: And, remind me, at the corner of?
Billy: Prospect and Wisconsin. It’s actually where Zara, the women’s clothing store is.
Joyce: I sort of remember it, but I [inaudible 14:35]
Billy: Yeah, if you stand back and look at it from across the street, you can kind of remember. It had the wrought iron out front. It had a big sign that said “Billy Martin’s Carriage House.” I know there were articles written about it. It was called the White House of restaurants in Washington, D.C. So, it was a very, very upscale restaurant, white tablecloth. As a matter of fact, I know that a lot of people, a lot of celebrities went to the Carriage House. I know my father told me the story that Marlon Brando and Jackie Kennedy stood in line for 45 minutes to get a table there at one point. So it’s very well‑known.
That operated for 30 plus years. In 1978 or so, the building itself needed a lot of work. It had deteriorated to a point to where some engineers had come in, and they had said that that building really needed to be totally refurbished.
It had to be gutted to the bare walls, all new plumbing, all new electrical, and everything. At that point, President Carter had the interest rate so high that my father decided that he was not going to invest in having that building refurbished.
My dad was 60. I was just graduating high school. I have four older sisters and a younger brother. My dad was from the old school so; it was like the boys have to take over the business, not the girls.
My father, I think, felt that the age difference and not really knowing what I was going to do or my younger brother swayed his decision on selling that building, which is unfortunate. I wish we still owned that building. But, anyway, he did sell it, and that was the end of the Carriage House back then.
Now, during that time, Michael O’Hara, who came from California, was a big promoter, and he was from the Hollywood area. He came to work for my father. He opened up a discotheque called Tramps which was in the Carriage House restaurant.
Let me go back and just say now we’re talking about the Carriage House, it had themed dining rooms in it. One of the dining rooms was called the Horse Parlor, which was dark paneling with horse theme in it and very nice, little small piano in there. It was a very cozy little room.
Then there was another room called the Snuggery. A lot of people still call today; want to know if it’s still there. That also had a piano bar in it. It was one of the premier piano bars in the country. Mel Torme played there for many, many years and was a good friend of the family’s.
As a matter of fact, I think he played at my father’s 80th birthday party in his home. That a very famous dining room in itself and that’s where a lot of celebrities and people wanted to go to.
Another room we had was called the Georgetown Room, which was just a big formal dining room. Then we also had the Sam Rayburn Room. One other room, which was more for private parties, was called the Cognac Room. Now, the Sam Rayburn Room was a little bit off to the side of the whole restaurant. In essence, as you’d walk in the front entrance, it was to the right. The other dining rooms were all to the left.
So, when Michael O’Hara came from California and pitched my father on having the first discotheque on the East Coast, they said they would do that. So the red Sam Rayburn Room was transformed into Tramps, which was a huge success, was well‑known all up and down the East Coast.
Actually, it well‑known all the way to the West Coast as being one of the top and first discotheques on the East Coast, way before New York even had discotheques. That lasted, as I said, until the building itself started to fall apart and my father sold that building.
Joyce: Well, you can take a break any time you want.
Billy: That’s fine. Yeah. So anyway, so there’s some history on the Carriage House and we’ll get back to the Tavern.
Joyce: Well now, you just turned 50, so you would have been born in 1960. So, the Carriage house, you don’t really remember?
Billy: Oh, I remember the Carriage house. Oh, I do, yeah.
Joyce: It probably ended in 1970.
Billy: It was 1978. So I was 18 years old. The interesting thing was when we were very young, my father, again, there were six of us: four older sisters and a younger brother. I just would remember after church, on Sundays, and at different times, that we would all get dressed up in our little blazers and ties, and my sisters in their very formal dresses, and we’d all go into the Carriage house and have dinner and or brunch.
Unfortunately, I can’t think of the lady’s name right at the moment. It’s not Phyllis Richmond. But there was a writer. And I’m not so sure if she was for the Washington Post, as it might have been for one of the very fancy magazines at that time.
But, this lady apparently was very impressed because my brother and I were only like six or seven, four, five, and six, somewhere around that age, and we would eat lobster. She was just amazed at how well mannered we all were and that we would eat such high‑end food. Most kids today only want macaroni and cheese and hamburgers, as my son is kind of like that.
I do remember the Carriage House; it was very nice and I remember the Tavern too. The Tavern is interesting because my mother and father did divorce when I was only nine years old. At that point I moved to Florida with my mother. My two older sisters were already married and off with their husbands and living their own lives.
So, there were four of us that went with my mother to Florida. So, from the time I was nine years old, until I was actually 22, I pretty much lived in Florida and I didn’t come back to Georgetown until 1982.
I left around 1969 and came back in ’82. However, during that time, we spent a lot of time with our father. So, we were here. When we were here, we’d come to the Carriage house or we would come to the Tavern. That’s a piece of time that I miss that I wasn’t here.
However, since I’ve been back I have made up for those lost years and have been very involved with the community.
Joyce: When did you decide you would want to take over the Tavern?
Billy: Well, it’s kind of an interesting story in itself. Being that I had grown up with my mother and living in Florida, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. My mother actually did kind of try to shield us somewhat from my father. My brother went to Florida State University and I didn’t go to college. I finished high school. I was kind of not rebellious but I was in that very independent state of mind. I just thought that I was going to tackle the world on my own. I didn’t need any help from anybody.
So I kind of went out and I traveled Florida a little bit. Not a lot. I went out and I tried different things that I wanted to do. I actually worked for a really good company called Electron Machine Corporation. They’re in a little small town in central Florida.
I worked for them for almost three years. That was during the time my brother was getting his education at Florida State. My brother and I were very different people.
My father would say that my brother is very book smart, where I was very streetwise, which is very true. My brother and I love each other dearly. We get along great. But we are two kind of different people.
As my brother graduated from school, from college, he had to come to Washington to see my father. At that point, my dad wanted me to come as well. I hadn’t actually seen my father for a couple of years at that time. I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to and my brother talked me into it.
We came to Virginia to see my dad, and it was a very tearful reunion with my dad. He wanted my brother and I to come work for him here in the Tavern.
The Carriage house was long gone at that time. My brother said, well, dad, I just graduated college, and spent four years busting my hump; I’m really not just going right into the restaurant business.
So, I was kind of taking a look at my own life and seeing where I was. I thought working for this machine corporation was great. I was given a lot of opportunity. Because I had moved up very quickly in the company because I was pretty smart, if I say so myself.
There was a lot of jealousy within the company because there were a lot of the guys that had many years there that I had surpassed. They didn’t understand why, especially given that I had only been there almost three years.
But I did make the decision to come work for my father. Interestingly enough, at that time I really didn’t have my whole head wrapped around Georgetown, it’s history, and what Georgetown meant to this whole country much less Washington D.C. I’m glad I made that move.
Joyce: So, did you run it with your dad? What happened?
Billy: Well, I came to work for my father, as I said in 1982. My father inherited the business from my grandfather. My father wanted my brother and I to come work for him. He said that if we come to work for him, and learn the business, and run the business; we would inherit the business as well. So, as I said, I did. My brother decided to go out into the real world first and do what he was doing there which is what he’s still doing today. My brother, his name is Michael; he did come to work for the restaurant. I talked him into it for about a year and a half.
However, his personality clashed too much with my stepmother, my father’s wife. That created a lot of stress on the relationship between my brother and my dad. My brother decided that that was too stressful and he decided to go back out into the real world and he left. I stayed in the business.
In 2001, I negotiated a deal with my father to buy him out of the business because my dad was getting too cantankerous and too old as far as I’m concerned. He just wasn’t willing to make some much needed changes that the Tavern needed internally to keep up.
The restaurant industry itself has gone through some major changes in the last 20 years. About competition, my father always said, we are the competition. I still sort of buy in to that.
However, there’s a lot more restaurants. You have to vie for patronage, and so to do that, we had to do some restructuring internally, and my father didn’t want to do that. I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to just say, dad, look, here’s a check. You need to go away, and he did.
Joyce: I guess you didn’t want the same situation that happened between your grandfather and great grandfather to occur.
Billy: No, well, the interesting thing was that my father and my grandfather had a good relationship. My grandfather was very hard on my dad and my dad was sort of the same way. Unfortunately, looking back my dad was not so much of a dad. He didn’t really know how to be a father really, and it was unfortunate. I worked for him for 18 years before taking over on my own and trying to rekindle the relationship was very difficult. We had some very good times. But there was still a lot of, I don’t know.
My father just didn’t know how quite to be a dad. I think he probably had some remorse and some guilt about how he raised his children. So, it’s unfortunate. But, I love my dad.
I have a son today, he’s 12 years old and his name is Billy Martin, too. Maybe I’m quite the opposite. I think I smother my son more now. I’m much more involved in his life, in his childhood, coaching Little League, and helping him with school. I have a daughter who turns 15 this month, and her name’s Lauren and same with Lauren, too.
They’ve both loved the restaurant. They’ve come in and they’ve done different things in the restaurant. So, hopefully, they’ll want to take over the tavern and fill in for us, for me.
Joyce: Would you hope that they would continue the restaurant?
Billy: I would hope so. The Washington Post just did an article recently where they did the research. We are the oldest family‑owned restaurant, same location, same owner, in Washington, D.C. Four generations, I’d like to see it go on to a fifth generation.
Joyce: And, on and beyond that.
Billy: And on, yeah, absolutely. Whether that’s my son or my daughter or both together, that’d be great. But, if they decide that that’s not what they want to do, then they can make their own decisions as well.
Joyce: What kinds of changes did you make in the restaurant?
Billy: Well, as far the physical layout, none.
Joyce: None. So, the dugout has been here since your…
Billy: Yeah, the dugout has always been here. As a matter of fact, we’re sitting in this booth right now. This is booth number 23 and it’s always been 23. But, this is the actual booth that Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson and my grandfather, and even my father who was young, would sit in. The history in this place is pretty amazing. I know a lot of the New Deal was formed and formulated and talked over in this room itself, in the dugout. Lyndon Johnson, obviously, was not president at the time that Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson would come into the Tavern with my grandfather.
My father told me the story at one point that, when they were sitting at this booth here, I think my father was only about 13 or 14, and Sam Rayburn and my grandfather were talking politics. My father didn’t recall the exact conversation, but it was a pretty important conversation.
Lyndon Johnson would try to interject into the conversation and, at one point; Sam Rayburn turned and just said, “Johnson, if you would just shut up for a moment, you might learn something!” My father didn’t think much of that at the time. Then, when Lyndon Johnson went on to become president; he thought that was a pretty interesting conversation at that time. So kind of a funny story there.
So, as I said, we’ve had every president from Truman to George W. Bush in the Tavern. I had my children write a letter I guess a couple months ago to President Obama, inviting him to the Tavern. We didn’t just mail that through the mail, we have a little connection. Hopefully that’s made its way to his desk.
We haven’t heard back yet, but we would like to keep that tradition going. To this day, we have a lot of the congressmen and senators. We have a lot of the very powerful people, celebrities, and then just plain people to tourists.
We have a booth out front, in the front dining room that is known as the proposal booth, and that’s where John Kennedy proposed to Jackie Bouvier, in that booth. A lot of people go, “Oh, that didn’t happen here! That didn’t happen here.”
We had a wonderful lady named Chrissie Gardner who worked for me for quite a few years. She came to work for me, asked her to do some word processing. She loves history. When she started digging into the history of Martin’s Tavern, she actually turned from word processing to start putting all these stories together and doing some history herself on the Tavern. So, she started digging in.
I had told her that my father had said to me that they got engaged in that booth. They lived up the street, and they were in here all the time. So, Chrissie, as she did the research on this, found that there’s a hotel I guess in Hyannis Port that says that that’s where they were engaged.
So, there’s three stories, and one is Martin’s Tavern, as I’ve mentioned. One is this hotel in Hyannis Port. Then another story is that he asked Jackie to marry him over the phone.
Well, I think we can take out the asking her to marry him over the phone, I can’t see that happening. I just don’t think that that is realistic.
At the time of when he’d asked Jackie to marry him, I’d have to look, my memory’s not serving me right now. There was something really going on in the country that would have had JFK here in Washington, D.C. Again, I’d have to go back and take a look exactly what was happening at that point. It was very important that he would not have been up in Hyannis Port, that he would have been here, and they were living up the street.
We actually have talked to the Kennedy family about it. They said that they’re not certain as to really where he asked Jackie to marry him. However, they do agree, that given the circumstance around what was taking place in the country, that it was most likely practical that he had to be here in Washington, D.C.
They are fine with us saying that it took place here. We love that and that is interesting because it’s amazing how many people come into the Tavern for that.
Now I know, Joyce, you were taking pictures earlier of the little plaques here that we have on the wall. And I had just actually had these put up. I just had these made and put up, and they’ve just been put up within the last three weeks.
Joyce: Oh, I didn’t remember them here! It’s interesting. Now I noticed them yesterday.
Billy: Well, for the last 25 years, my father had talked about for many years having little plaques.
Joyce: It’s a great idea.
Billy: Little plaques made, and he never did. So, I finally said, “I need to do that.” Interestingly enough, the plaques, especially the one that says “The Proposal Booth that JFK proposed to Jackie,” that had been up for one day. I know I saw at least seven different people taking pictures of that with their cameras. So, very interesting how many people come to the Tavern for that aspect in itself. Now, I think we provide wonderful service and good quality food and have been very consistent for many years. We have a great relationship with all the hotels throughout Washington, and they send us a lot of business. The Four Seasons in Georgetown especially, we have a great relationship with them, and they send us a lot of business too. They have their own restaurants.
But it’s kind of interesting. I think you find a lot of people, when they go on their vacations or they’re going to another part of the country or another part of the world, for me, if I do that, what do I want to do? I want to ask somebody, “Where’s the quaint, quintessential place that everybody goes to or has a lot of history?” Fortunately, Martin’s has that, and they come here.
Joyce: It’s wonderful. You have good reason to be really proud of what your family has established here and what you’ve continued. It’s really quite impressive.
Billy: Well, Martin’s in itself plays a key role in Georgetown.
Joyce: I wonder if you can talk about that.
Billy: I want to get into that some. I did want to just say a couple other things. One other big thing I think is, especially right now with what’s going on, we’re looking at this trade between an American spy and a Russian spy and kind of trying to rekindle that relationship. Back in the 40s, Elizabeth Bentley and Alger Hiss, who were very well‑known spies for the country and Elizabeth Bentley was actually a double agent; it was known they spent a lot of time here.
Elizabeth Bentley spent a lot of time here because of the politicians and the people that would come here, eavesdropping and spying on conversations. Interestingly enough, a good friend of mine who works for the government, I’m not sure exactly in what capacity because he won’t tell me and his business card is very vague.
He told me not too long ago, he said that he just laughs when he comes in here, even on a Saturday. He looks around the dining room and he sees how many people in here are perhaps operatives, I’m not sure.
But he looks around and it’s just funny to him to see how many people are in here that work for the government in some secret level or capacity. They’re all in here today. It’s just fun to hear a little comment like that.
Getting back to the Georgetown community, which I’m very passionate about. I’d love to live in Georgetown, but I can’t afford it. Quiet frankly, I can’t, having two children.
As we know they’re working on the school systems. The public schools still aren’t that great as I talk to many people here in the Georgetown community, or even in some of the Foggy Bottom, or Burleith or Hillandale or wherever.
A lot of these people they send their children to private schools. The private schools are a little pricey, too. That’s why I live out in Virginia, in Loudoun County.
The public schools are great. They’re not quiet getting the education they could in a private school but they’re still getting a great education. Again, that’s one of the reasons that I still live in Virginia and I haven’t looked to move closer in. I’d love to be closer to my business.
Going back, Georgetown is very important to me, to my family, and to the history of everything. I’m passionate about Georgetown. I was the president of the Georgetown Business Association for almost three years. I could go on.
Joyce: You were just awarded a CAG Award from …
Billy: I did, we did. We just received an award from the Citizens Association of Georgetown, AKA The CAG. It’s a new award that they’ve come up with called the Martin Davidson Award. I felt very honored to be the first recipient of that award. Plus having our name attached to that because the Davidson’s who own [inaudible 41:41] Corporation, a restaurant down on M Street, have played a very big role in the community. I know Martin’s has as well. When we look at Georgetown, Georgetown has got so much history.
I think if we can get the whole community together, which I like to look at it as the leadership group which makes up the BID, which is the Business Improvement District, the Georgetown Business Association, the Citizens Association, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, Georgetown University, as well as the Metropolitan Police Department.
Those six entities together, which have been working closely together in the last few years, to come together with a vision of marketing Georgetown, and making Georgetown a destination spot. There’s some very big hurdles that Georgetown has to overcome to remain this wonderful quaint little area.
This is all maybe my perception, but I know when I talk to people about it a lot of people agree with me. Parking is a big issue for Georgetown. Parking is always going to be a big issue for Georgetown. However, there needs to be some forward thinking.
We’ve lost out on some areas that could have had some good forward thinking as having some parking available to many in the community. Whether it be residents or people visiting the Washington Georgetown area. It’s unfortunate that we’ve missed out on these opportunities.
There’s been parking garages that we’ve had in Georgetown that have become buildings now. That’s a hurdle in itself.
Washington is going through and has gone through some wonderful transformations. With the new convention center, with the Verizon Center, the U Street Corridor, and Washington Harbor. The waterfront where the new baseball stadium is. Even some of downtown, New York Avenue is up and coming.
When you take a look at that, Georgetown used to be the destination spot and now it’s one of several destination spots. I guess it depends on where you take place in the community as how you look at that.
I guess if I was a resident here and I lived here for a long time I’d be glad that all these other places opened up. It’s taking away from Georgetown, in essence, because now I may get a parking space in front of my house. However, the fabric of Georgetown is that that’s what makes Georgetown pretty unique.
It’s so tightly knit with businesses, residential and the University. That’s what is so key about Georgetown. We don’t want to lose the flavor of Georgetown. I’ve seen some of that change over the last 15 or 20 years.
A lot of the big real estate moguls in Georgetown, Anthony Lanier, Richard Levy, the Snider’s perhaps. I think they have a vision of the direction they want Georgetown going.
They’re pro big business, which is fine. But there also needs to be advocates, which the Georgetown Business Association does, for the small business. The small businesses are what really are unique to Georgetown.
We have some really great quaint little shops in the Georgetown that are so unique. People that have been working here their whole lives, and have such great stories, want to see a lot of preservation in those areas.
Joyce: I would think that most of the people who live here, too, really value the old places and the unique places rather than the chain stores.
Billy: They do. Absolutely, I agree. That’s where their voice is so important to the business community, and some of those people that tend to listen with some deaf ears.
Joyce: So, that’s one of the changes you’ve seen in Georgetown. There has been more of a loss of the small private stores in favor of the chains. That’s been a change in the last, what, 30 years, 20 years?
Billy: Yes, over the last 20 years or so. Anthony Lanier has spent probably well over $700 million in refurbishing the whole south end of M Street from Key Bridge down to Wisconsin Avenue. Wonderful, it looks great. It’s really nice. What he’s done with Cady’s Alley is really, really nice. However, if you take a look he and his company, I think, look for the really high end shops to take up residence in his spaces. That’s wonderful. But a lot of those businesses have come and they’ve gone because they’re not generating the type of income that they had looked for, which is unfortunate.
Then we have some of the big box stores, like the Gap, being one, and several others, that you can find in the suburbs. As I said I live in Loudoun County. When I talk to people in Loudoun County about Georgetown, a lot of them say why do I want to go to Georgetown and fight for parking or have to look around for parking or pay astronomical fees to pay to park, when I can get out here what I can get there?”
That’s sad because there’s so much more to Georgetown than just a shopping mall. I’ve heard Georgetown being referred to as an open air mall which we don’t like that either, we don’t want that either.
But again, I see where the BID is taking and the Georgetown Business Association as well as the Citizens Association is really brainstorming to try to market Georgetown as a place to go.
I can look back and again, we used to get a lot of convention business in the tavern. Convention business is virtually non‑existent. There’s several reasons for that. I guess back when we did get a lot of convention business it was when we had the old Convention Center and then the whole downtown corridor was not refurbished yet and Adams Morgan wasn’t much. U Street wasn’t even a thought at that time.
So, when people would come out of their conventions at the end of the day, they kind of looked around and it didn’t look like a very welcoming neighborhood and they would get in a taxi. Where do I want to go? The taxi would just say right off, immediately Georgetown. And they would bring them to Georgetown. Where now, you walk out of the Convention Center and you look ahead of you and you’ve got plenty of opportunities and places to go.
So, again, the marketing of Georgetown has to be a quintessential little village with unique shops, restaurants and places to go. Hospitality as well as architecture, wonderful homes, the University has to all come together.
We don’t have a Metro stop. Again, you know back when gas prices were as high as they could be, it was well over $3, ridership on Metro broke records. Again, people have many other destination spots that they can go to than Georgetown.
I mean who wants to get off at Foggy Bottom and have to catch a shuttle bus over or walk across the bridge when they could go down to Downtown or Adams Morgan and just pop out of a Metro station and they’re there. So that’s a tough one.
Now, for me personally I was all in favor of taking the Whitehurst Freeway coming down. I know a lot of people aren’t. However, I think if you look at that aspect of Georgetown, M Street. We had a wonderful police officer, reserve officer Joe Pozel a dear friend of mine unfortunately killed in the intersection of Wisconsin and M. Just recently a homeless fellow, who actually I knew him and would take care of him in certain ways as well, was also killed in the intersection.
The traffic on that M Street, as we all know, is gridlocked. It drives everybody crazy. What do they say, 250,000 cars a day pass through M Street? Getting from the suburbs, from out of town and into town. Again, I think that people talked about widening the sidewalks, making more room for people to come to Georgetown. More beautification.
But you can’t do that with M Street. K Street has some wonderful appeal, the park is beautiful now and Washington Harbor is a wonderful place. Some of the development that has been done down there is wonderful.
But again, they have some parking garages down there. But I talk to people and it’s kind of dark, it’s underneath the freeway, it’s scary. People don’t want to park down there especially in the evenings. A walk up the hill, they talked about a little shuttle bus. Well that’s the last thing we need is more congestion on the roads for a shuttle bus.
I look at it as if you were to take the Whitehurst Freeway down and extend K Street out. Tie it into Canal Road as well as into Key Bridge and coming up to M Street. You would alleviate much of the traffic off of M Street to be able to widen the village a little bit more to give it a little more appeal.
You’re still going to have traffic on M Street. I think that the traffic that’s coming through trying to get down to Canal Road would go on K street if it would go through. It’s off the page now. I saw several designs for that and I thought a couple of them could have worked, I think there were over 13 different designs for it. It’s unfortunate that there’s a few in the community, whether it’s the Citizen’s Association whether it’s the Business Association, that just can’t come together to make that happen.
Now, the Mayor was not in favor of taking the Whitehurst Freeway down. They just refurbished it like nine years ago and he said as much money as it cost to refurbish it, it has a life of another 10 to 15 years and didn’t want to see it torn down. I can appreciate that. However, we’re going to cross that bridge, pardon my pun, again at some point, to have to have it done.
I hope at that time they will revisit that again and take a look and see how it would alleviate congestion in the neighborhoods.
Again, just in a nutshell, I think Georgetown has so many unique things. Two of the oldest African‑American cemeteries are here in Georgetown. I don’t think people realize that.
The history that Georgetown University brings. Again, the history with the row houses and the homes that are here. The garden tours are wonderful, the house tours are great and I just hope that we can all come together with some good forward thinking.
Joyce: Ways of sustaining Georgetown as a special place?
Billy: Absolutely, absolutely. In promoting it in certain ways that is beneficial to all that live here, work here and visit here.
Joyce: Great! Anything else that you want to add? You’ve really done a wonderful job of just going on and telling the historical view of the tavern, restaurants and forward thinking in terms of what you’d like to see in Georgetown.
Billy: Well, my father said at one point that Georgetown is like a pendulum. It swings up and it swings down. I think that, whether it’s just Georgetown or whether it’s the economy or any of that. I just think that I see Georgetown; it has been on the upswing for a while. I’ve seen a lot better communications between the organizations and people willing to work together to come to resolve some of these things.
In the last 80 years Georgetown has transformed quite a bit, a lot for the better and I just hope we continue that way. One thing I didn’t touch on was the uniqueness of the Trolley Tracks on P Street and L Street. I know Ray Kukulskii, he was president of the CAG for many years and I know he’s a big proponent of preserving those tracks. Those are all part of history that I’d like to see not just disappear and I think some people just don’t give enough attention. I never knew the infrastructure underground of how those Trolley Tracks really work and it’s very unique and very interesting. So, little parts of things like that are those pieces that we don’t want to lose.
We want to explore gateways to Georgetown, I think they are important. A lot of little communities have gateways. I can’t tell you how many people come into my tavern here and go, “Is Georgetown part of?”
Number one, “Am I in Georgetown?” Well, how do you not know? And number two, “Is Georgetown part of Washington D.C.?” They don’t know that either. It amazes me how many people ask me that. So anyway, I’m looking forward to continuing working on, my family working on; being here for a long time and helping the community get better.
Joyce: Billy, thank you so much! This has been really great! I didn’t even have to ask you questions, you just knew exactly where to go. Thank you.
Billy: My pleasure.