Elizabeth Desan

Elizabeth Desan has lived in both the East and West villages of Georgetown. Two of her three children were born in DC so she has known the public school system and how it changed through the years. During her April 18th, 2011 interview with Ingrid Beach, Elizabeth compared life in the two villages and how they, too, changed during the forty-five years she has lived here.

Interview Date:
Monday, April 18, 2011
Ingrid Beach

Ingrid Beach: It seems to be on, so I will introduce myself. I am Ingrid Beach and I am here today to interview Elizabeth Desan. And we are speaking to each other on Tuesday, April 18th, 2011.

Elizabeth Desan: Actually Monday.

Ingrid: Oh, it’s Monday. [laughter] Yeah, that’s right. Monday the 18th. And so I’ll start by asking Elizabeth how long you’ve lived in Georgetown?

Elizabeth: Well, we moved here in 1957. The summer of 1957. Because my husband taught at Georgetown University. So we bought a house one block away from Georgetown University.

Ingrid: Convenient.

Elizabeth: 1431 36th Street.

Ingrid: That’s the West side.

Elizabeth: The West side of Georgetown. And the bohemian side. [laughter] And I absolutely loved that house and that location. And it was partly because a month after we moved there, our first daughter, Suzanne, was born. And 18 months later, our second daughter, Christine.

Ingrid: Oh, they’re that close.

Elizabeth: And we already had a son, Paul. So we had the three children.

Ingrid: And what did Wilfrid teach?

Elizabeth: He taught philosophy at Georgetown. And we were a block away, so I was able to go to lectures and different events up at Georgetown. And we also saw students constantly walking by our corner. And we were on the corner of P and 36th Street.

Ingrid: And what kind of a neighborhood was it? Mainly college students?

Elizabeth: No. Then, it was kind of an upwardly mobile neighborhood. A lot of new people were moving in and I think the last black family had just moved out…

Ingrid: Oh, really?

Elizabeth: …A year before. I think this was not a very happy story, but row houses across the street were condemned. One by one, for not having adequate plumbing and so forth. And there were also certain blue collar families, whose members worked at Georgetown University.

Ingrid: Oh, you mean like janitors.

Elizabeth: Maintenance crew, right. And there were several on our block on 36th Street. I remember one of those families said, “Georgetown gave us a beautiful plaque, but nary a penny.” [laughs]

Ingrid: And instead of renovating these homes, they let them go to…

Elizabeth: Well, the people owned their own homes.

Ingrid: Oh, I see.

Elizabeth: At that time, they did not belong to the University. And when we were there, there were still families everywhere.

Ingrid: So no wonder they couldn’t keep them up.

Elizabeth: So, anyway. Our house, I understood, had been a store a few years before, and then had been remodeled in the early 1950s from a store.

Ingrid: I see. Does it have any of the store features left?

Elizabeth: Oh, no, no. I think they had completely, I think left the four corners, so that they could remodel. But no, it was a completely rebuilt house. And brand new in the 1950s.

Ingrid: So by bohemian, you also mean that more middle class family‑types were there than on the East side than on the West which may have been more glamorous?

Elizabeth: Yes, right. There were just bookish people. [laughs] People who enjoyed living near the University. So anyway, the children were born there, so I walked the streets of Georgetown. In 1960, Kennedy was elected President. So it was great fun to walk with my stroller and the children up to N Street, where Kennedy lived.

Ingrid: That’s right, he lived there as a senator, didn’t he?

Elizabeth: Yes. As the President, he left. And we and a lot of our neighbors spent a lot of time at ‑‑ I forget what corner his house was ‑‑ on N Street. And probably 33rd, maybe? And reporters were always there. And people were going in and out, his different cabinet appointees. So it was great fun. He also went to the church at the corner, Holy Trinity, and we would see him on Sunday going to church there. So, it was an exciting time.

Ingrid: Absolutely and maybe I misspoke when I said maybe it was middle class because they did have some very fashionable homes there on that side, also, like the Kennedys, for instance.

Elizabeth: Exactly.

Ingrid: And then?

Elizabeth: So, then my children went to St. John’s Church pre‑school, a cooperative nursery school. In that school were Jean Kennedy’s children and the McNamara children.

Ingrid: Where did they live?

Elizabeth: They all lived in these blocks around there. The McNamaras, Dan Rather’s children and the Rumsfeld children went there.

Ingrid: That’s quite a lead.


Ingrid: And your children?

Elizabeth: Our children went there and then they went to Hyde School, which was on O Street. That, again, was a neighborhood school in those days. It was a culturally diverse school because of the Georgetown Children’s Home, which was on one of those streets up near Wisconsin.

At the Georgetown Children’s Home were children whose mothers were working, so they might be domestic mothers or they might be professional women, but it was a mixed group of children. They all went to Hyde school, so it was a very good mix of economically and socially diverse children.

Ingrid: And also racially diverse?

Elizabeth: Not so much, no. Anyway, then bussing started and children were sent from Anacostia to the Georgetown schools, or at least to Hyde. That presented ‑

Ingrid: When was that?

Elizabeth: That was in the early 1960s ‑ probably 1963 maybe or 1964. That changed the school because the bussing, like so much in the D.C. public school system, was not carefully done. The children who came were children who had problems, who didn’t read and who didn’t add or subtract. Many of them didn’t know how to behave so I started volunteering at the school.

Ingrid: Good for you.

Elizabeth: And I started a career, which lasts until this day, which is 50 years.

Ingrid: So worthwhile helping children read.

Elizabeth: My first assignment in teaching remedial reading in the district was the three Georgetown schools, so I knew them very well.

Ingrid: What’s the third one that we’ve got?

Elizabeth: There was Jackson, Fillmore and Hyde. Fillmore School on 35th Street and S was a neighborhood school which drew from Glover Park, so there were enough children there.

Jackson School was like a private African American school. The children came in carpools from other parts of the city. They were from families whose parents cared about their education, got together and carpooled. I tested the children there. They all tested very, very high. People didn’t know this.

Ingrid: These were not bussed‑in children?

Elizabeth: No, these were not bussed in.

Ingrid: Was it a private school?

Elizabeth: No, it was a public school but it was like a private school because of the fact that the black parents had gotten together to bring their children there.

Ingrid: It shows the usefulness of parents in schools.

Elizabeth: Exactly, they were very involved.

Ingrid: And in Hyde, not at all, then? There were problems.

Elizabeth: Hyde had enough local children with this Georgetown Children’s House plus the local children.

Ingrid: But you said they were bused in?

Elizabeth: But they had enough room to bus in other children.

Ingrid: What about Fillmore?

Elizabeth: Fillmore, as I said, had more local children because it was close to Glover Park. It drew from all the streets of Glover Park, which had more families. In those days, it had a great many families. Now this whole area, including 36th Street, has become student occupied. People rent to students. Georgetown owns a great many of the houses on 36th Street and rents them to students. So, the neighborhood has changed.

Ingrid: What about the schools?

Elizabeth: I don’t know because I’m not there. I was there for one year in Georgetown and then came the Skelly Wright judicial decision.  This decided that the schools had to be more integrated, so I was sent to an inner‑city school, and an inner‑city school person was sent in my place.

Ingrid: What do you think of that as a plan?

Elizabeth: It’s not relevant anymore because the school system is 97% black. I think if things were done carefully from headquarters it could have been implemented. If they sent top students from the inner city who could integrate with top students from the Northwest neighborhoods, it would have been a very good thing, but instead they sent the lowest students. You can see why, if a school had a choice ‑

Ingrid: They’d get rid of them.

Elizabeth: They’d send the ones they wanted to get rid of, and they wanted to keep their top ones. But, that’s not thinking about the children.

Ingrid: No, and is the children’s center, is that closed?

Elizabeth: I don’t know. Is it closed?

Ingrid: I don’t hear anything said about it anymore.

Elizabeth: I don’t, either.

Ingrid: I think Leslie went there in the beginning. But I haven’t heard a word about it. I think it is closed.

Elizabeth: Then in 1966, our house had really become too small with three children and a husband who needed a study. We only had two bedrooms and a basement den so, with great regret, we moved to the East Village. [laughs]

Ingrid: Because you loved that house. [laughs]

Elizabeth: I loved living up there. So, then we moved to 1620 29th Street.

Ingrid: And you lived there for how many years?

Elizabeth: I lived there from ’66 to 2002.

Ingrid: That’s a very lovely neighborhood, I say since I live next door. [laughs]

Elizabeth: It’s very different. It’s more elegant. It’s across from the Herman Hollerith house.

Ingrid: Yes, he was famous for the point system.

Elizabeth: Right, for the punch card, which he invented for the 1880 census.

Ingrid: Imagine.

Elizabeth: They wanted a quicker way to count the people, and he invented this punch card.

Ingrid: That was a forerunner to the computer, wasn’t it?

Elizabeth: Right, and he started a little company and his company with several others merged into ‑ he sold it in 1911. They merged to become IBM.

Ingrid: Goodness, the father of IBM. I think there’s a little plaque down near the canal.

Elizabeth: Yes, on 31st Street.

Ingrid: Where he had his office.

Elizabeth: Right, opposite where he had his little company.

Ingrid: Then here he lived rather grandly with ‑

Elizabeth: He had six children, three sons and three daughters. When we moved to 29th Street, two of the daughters were still living. So, we knew them quite well. Virginia and Nelly, was it?

Ingrid: I think so. Virginia’s the one I remember. None of the daughters married.

Elizabeth: The girls didn’t marry. Other people in the neighborhood said it was because the father, it was like Washington Square. The father felt that people would marry them for their money, so he discouraged suitors.

Ingrid: Gracious. [laughs] How about the sons? Do you know if they ‑

Elizabeth: The sons married.

Ingrid: They did as they pleased.

Elizabeth: Right.

Ingrid: And then opposite your house almost, on the hill a little bit, is the original old farmhouse.

Elizabeth: Right, and that was occupied by someone named Bradley. It was Thomas Bradley.

Ingrid: Uh‑huh. Yeah. When we first came.

Elizabeth: What I remember about that house was that it didn’t have central heating. It was very historic, very beautiful …

Ingrid: Yes. And, they built it on to a little addition that had been built already in the 1700s when they built the main house above it.

Elizabeth: 1820. It was a beautiful house, but very, very cold in the winter.

Ingrid: And on an enormous lot.

Elizabeth: Right. Beautiful.

Ingrid: Yes. It makes the neighborhood so green because of the big garden space there.

And then, of course, behind your house almost, also sort of behind mine, was the Graham estate.

Elizabeth: Katharine Graham. I was very friendly with the chauffeur of Katharine Graham.

Ingrid: Oh you were? How come?

Elizabeth: There was a little house behind ours and they had five children. So, we got to know the chauffeur through the children. They all played down in the alley out here.

I heard a great deal of gossip about Katharine Graham and the newspaper. And, what was the film which ran?

Ingrid: That’s right. Historical figures.

Elizabeth: The chauffeur of Katharine Graham had an original pizza recipe. He decided to leave and open a pizza parlor in California.

He had been very much nurtured by Katharine Graham and the family, taken care of. But they wanted to go off on their own, so they did.

Ingrid: And now, it’s so sad to see the Graham house unused.

Elizabeth: But that was another interesting experience, to live near Katharine Graham. When she gave parties, she’d have a big tent.

Ingrid: Yes. We just saw the lights. I was never invited. Were you?

Elizabeth: I was never invited but I always went and watched the people going in and out and so forth. That was fun.

Ingrid: And their house, which is around the corner from ours, is just across from the beautiful old graveyard, which I think is just a gem in this city.

Elizabeth: Oak Hill Cemetery.

Ingrid: Oak Hill Cemetery. We can walk through there, and isn’t that where your husband, Wilfrid, is buried. And the Grahams.

Elizabeth: And the Holloriths.

Ingrid: And many other historic figures from the past. I guess we’re lucky, I think, to have that whole row of interesting green spaces. Oak Hill Cemetery, Montrose Park and then Dumbarton Oaks, which are just walking distance from 29th street.

Elizabeth: My children have many, well they have two happy memories of places. One is the alley behind the house where everybody played.

And the other was Montrose Park. They have great and happy memories of growing up there and playing basketball and so forth.

Ingrid: And, for a while, one of our neighbors down the street had a Friends of Montrose Park organization. Do you remember that?

Elizabeth: Vaguely.

Ingrid: Yeah. The neighbors that were helping to keep it up. So, did you continue going to that same church that you started in?

Elizabeth: Yes. We did. Holy Trinity on the other side of Wisconsin.

Ingrid: Have you noticed any great changes in the downtown area, M Street, Wisconsin, and anywhere in the city, Georgetown.

Elizabeth: Oh, I think it has changed drastically.

Ingrid: Oh, yes? Tell me in what ways.

Elizabeth: I think Wisconsin… The kinds of stores are different.

Ingrid: How so?

Elizabeth: They’re more, what do you call them, the modern ones? The old antique stores and furniture stores have disappeared.

Ingrid: And the lady’s dress shop.

Elizabeth: The famous, the beautiful book store. What was the name of that?

Ingrid: Oh, yes. It was right down at the corner here.

Elizabeth: P Street. Has disappeared.

Ingrid: And also, Bordens was there.

Elizabeth: Was there an Olson’s here?

Ingrid: Olson’s. Olson’s. That was it. Yes. Not Bordens. Olson’s.

Elizabeth: And then, what was that famous?

Ingrid: Little Caledonia.

Elizabeth: Little Caledonia. That was a Georgetown landmark. [chuckles]

Ingrid: Yes.

Elizabeth: And that left.

Ingrid: And the French Market left.

Elizabeth: The French Market, right. So…

Ingrid: So, you think it is more now directed towards young people instead of…older folks?

Elizabeth: Yes, right.

Ingrid: There’s a big Apple store down there now. And then we have shops like Gap.

Elizabeth: Right.

Ingrid: …and Banana Republic…

Elizabeth: Right.

Ingrid: …and Urban Outfitters.

Elizabeth: Yes, it’s changed a lot.

Elizabeth: Actually, the University was never as apparent, was it, in the streets of Georgetown? Like, stores were more up on the campus, within the University.

Ingrid: Oh, really?

Elizabeth: Yes.

Ingrid: Oh, I didn’t realize that.

Elizabeth: There was a bookstore…the college bookstore.

Ingrid: So, do you think the students…stuck to the campus more…

Elizabeth: I think so.

Ingrid: …and that they’re now out in town more?

Elizabeth: I think so.

Ingrid: Because now we have several neighbors complaining about the noise from the nearby housing of the students.

Elizabeth: Right. Of the students. [laughs] They make their noise.

Ingrid: Yes, yes. And of course, the…

Elizabeth: They have spilled over into the streets around the University, including 36th Street.

Ingrid: Oh, yes.

Elizabeth: There are very few people who have moved in houses there. It’s mostly University owned…

Ingrid: Yes.

Elizabeth: …or landlords and landladies renting to students.

Ingrid: Yes.

Elizabeth: So it’s mostly student housing…

Ingrid: Yes.

Elizabeth: …on 35th and 36th Street.

Ingrid: And then, the campus itself has enlarged, hasn’t it, since you were there, on that side?

Elizabeth: Mm‑hm, right, mm‑hm. Well, they’ve bought more and more houses and…

Ingrid: Yes, and now they want to enlarge even more.

Elizabeth: Mm‑hm.

Ingrid: But do you like kind of the atmosphere of living in Georgetown? Did you enjoy that dynamic?

Elizabeth: Oh, I always did, yes.

Ingrid: Yes.

Elizabeth: [chuckles] Georgetown is very, very special. I think, whether you’re in the‑‑what do they call it‑‑West Village or the East Village…

Ingrid: Yeah.

Elizabeth: …it’s a very special area.

Ingrid: Absolutely.

Elizabeth: I think, either side of Wisconsin, it makes the neighborhood.

Ingrid: Yes, yes. It does have a sense of neighborhood.

Elizabeth: Mm‑hm.

Ingrid: There are many little separate neighborhoods of course.

Elizabeth: Right. I remember, on 36th Street… My husband was more proper and elegant than I am…

Ingrid: [laughs] Oh, really?

Elizabeth: …and I used to sit out on the steps in front, and he didn’t like that. There was more of that up on the other [laughs] …

Ingrid: [chuckles]

Elizabeth: When I said bohemian…

Ingrid: Yeah?

Elizabeth: …that’s part of what I mean. We would sit out and talk to the people who went by…

Ingrid: Yes.

Elizabeth: …talk to one another, and…

Ingrid: [laughs]

Elizabeth: …that’s not done in the East Village. You don’t…

Ingrid: No, I guess not, no. But we all meet up in Montrose Park, with dogs or children.

Elizabeth: Well that’s true. Right, right.

Ingrid: It’s a gathering place, and I think the closeness of the museums and the Kennedy Center and so on is another…

Elizabeth: Mm‑hm.

Ingrid: …great plus, don’t you?

Elizabeth: Oh, absolutely. Right. Shall we pause for a minute. I…

Ingrid: Yes.


Ingrid: I was thinking that you might give us some insight about what you’ve noticed about the churches in Georgetown?

Elizabeth: Well, Holy Trinity used to‑‑as our country did‑‑black people had to sit in the back of the church.

Ingrid: Mm.

Elizabeth: Or in the balcony maybe? Anyway, in 1926 they [clears throat] protested, and they started their own parish, which was Epiphany.

Ingrid: You don’t say.

Elizabeth: But Epiphany is on the east side of Georgetown on Dumbarton Street, Dumbarton and 28th maybe.

Ingrid: Mm.

Elizabeth: Dumbarton and 28th. Anyway, Epiphany was a black church, and, when we moved to Georgetown, there were still some black families who went to Epiphany who lived at the bottom of 28th, 27th Street and P and O.

Ingrid: Mm‑hm.

Elizabeth: These were professional black families. I know there was a doctor. And they sent their children to Jackson School. So, that may have been the origin of its becoming a kind of elite black school with high achieving children.

Ingrid: Yeah.

Elizabeth: That may have been the origin of this carpooling of families coming in. And I think all that kind of ended in 1968 with the riots that took place in Washington.

Ingrid: Oh, yeah and the fires.

Elizabeth: And I can remember in Georgetown the National Guard was on some of our corners.

Ingrid: Goodness, yes, I think maybe so.

Elizabeth: I remember they were protecting, so‑called protecting, the citizens of Georgetown, who didn’t really need protecting at that point.

Ingrid: Yeah.

Elizabeth: But also, I was teaching remedial reading in the three Georgetown schools.

Ingrid: All simultaneously?

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Ingrid: My!

Elizabeth: A couple of days at each one.

Ingrid: Wonderful.

Elizabeth: At Jackson, the children came in afterwards and talked about the looting in other parts of the town and stuff they had gotten and so forth.

Ingrid: Oh dear, they were among the looters?

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Ingrid: Oh dear. [phone rings] I guess I’ll put this on pause for a second.

So, we’re back. And back to the riots that you were aware of, living here.

Elizabeth: I was aware because of the National Guard being on our corners and also because of some of the children in the schools where I taught.

Ingrid: Yes. And they were proud of having looted?

Elizabeth: No, they just mentioned it. [laughs] It brought it closer to me.

Ingrid: Yes. Probably the things were thrown out, kind of, and they brought them.

Elizabeth: Well, I wasn’t there. But they showed different sweaters and things that they had gotten.

Ingrid: [laughs]

Elizabeth: Anyway, after, I think I said before, after a year of teaching in Georgetown, I was exchanged with a teacher from a black school and she was brought in to a predominantly white residential area.

Ingrid: Hmm, I wonder how that worked out?

Elizabeth: Well, I mean she only lasted two months.

Ingrid: Oh.

Elizabeth: And I lasted for 10 more years.

Ingrid: [laughs]

Elizabeth: I continued going in. And I enjoyed teaching these children very, very much. It was such a big part of my life and it still is.

Ingrid: Yes. I think it’s so, so worthwhile, to know that you have, you know, at least the level.

Elizabeth: I don’t know what has happened to the schools. Well, I do know. The Jackson is now an art gallery. And so is Fillmore. The Corcoran has taken over Fillmore School.

Ingrid: I see.

Elizabeth: So, I think maybe Hyde School drew from all of Georgetown and maybe part of Glover Park also and was able to keep being a neighborhood school maybe.

Ingrid: So, that’s our only neighborhood school now?

Elizabeth: As far as I know. But I’m not as up on it since my children are grown and I’m still working in another part of the city. But I do know that Hyde School had a very popular principal who seemed to be doing a very good job and then he was transferred somewhere.

Ingrid: Oh.

Elizabeth: And there was great local protest. I don’t know what the school is like now.

Ingrid: Yes, but it’s still open and functioning, right?

Elizabeth: Yes.

Ingrid: Goodness. Did you read the other day about this elder program? We’re supposed to have a little village. There will be little villages in Georgetown that help each other.

Elizabeth: No.

Ingrid: I guess I shouldn’t tell about it because I’ll tell about it when I’m interviewed. [laughs]

Elizabeth: [laughs] Where is this village?

Ingrid: Well, we’re going to meet down at a church on P Street.

Elizabeth: Oh.

Ingrid: On the 23rd. And we will have to pay $500 per year to be founding members, but then I’ll find out details after this meeting.

Elizabeth: Well, maybe I’ll move back to Georgetown. [laughs]

Ingrid: [laughs]

Elizabeth: I moved to the Westchester…

Ingrid: It’s fairly close.

Elizabeth: …Apartments after my husband died and children had grown up because I had a four floor house, the house on 29th Street.

Ingrid: Right.

Elizabeth: And I was alone and it didn’t make sense for me to stay any longer, so.

Ingrid: Well, you are missed.

Elizabeth: Anyway, I’m still a Georgetowner at heart, always will be.

Ingrid: I think you are and I thank you so much for having shared your reminiscences with us, for the Citizens’ Association of Georgetown.

Elizabeth: Well, it’s been a great pleasure. I love to talk about Georgetown.

Ingrid: [laughs] Thank you