Tanya Lervik: This is Tanya Lervik. It’s May 12th and I’m here with Mr. Tom Birch at his home at 1240 29th street Northwest in Washington. Thank you, Mr. Birch, for agreeing to the interview for the oral history project. I’m so happy to be here.
Tom Birch: You’re welcome. I’m thrilled to be asked to be part of this project.
Tanya: Why don’t we just start with how you came to Georgetown, how you decided to live here?
Tom: Sure, sure. It goes back to really when I first came to Washington, which was to go to law school. There are a couple of things about Georgetown. I didn’t live in Georgetown then. I lived over near Logan Circle actually, before it was the hip place to live. [laughter]
Tom: This was in the late 60s, 1967 actually. But there were a couple of things that I remember from then. One is that often late in the evening, after studying at George Washington University Law School where I was a first‑year student, one of my fellow classmates and I would drive over to Wisconsin Avenue and have a couple of beers at what was then called the Le-Hi Tavern and later became Au Pied de Cochon, which was this great informal French bistro that was not while I was there in law school. Now it’s Five Guys. It’s at the corner of Wisconsin and Dumbarton. But for some reason, it just felt like a really comfortable place to relax at the end of the evening. I had been at Lehigh University, a graduate of Lehigh, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, before coming here. I don’t know if that’s what drew me to the Le-Hi Tavern but anyway that was it. Then the second memory I had, which I thought was funny, is that during my first year in law school, I went to a party and met a young woman who invited me to come to, I think it was her mother’s house in Georgetown, I don’t know, a few weeks later, a month or so later, for dinner and to play bridge. She was there and her mother was there and obviously a fourth person and I arrived. They lived, I can’t remember exactly where but I think it was somewhere on the east side of Georgetown. We had drinks in the living room before dinner and then when it came time to eat dinner, we went downstairs and I remember my reaction was, “Oh dear, the poor things, their dining room, they’re forced to have it in the basement.” I later realized that that really is the old fashioned style of houses large and small, grand and not, in Georgetown. Now, in fact, I live in a house where our dining room and kitchen are downstairs shall we say. Then I went away to the Peace Corps and came back to take up my second year of law school in 1971. Again, I wasn’t living here in Georgetown. I was back over near Logan Circle. My Peace Corps director had been Richard Holbrooke, who later went on to be the great diplomat and ambassador and state department official in numerous administrations. We became very close and he was a great mentor of mine. I hadn’t been back in Washington not more than three weeks when one Saturday afternoon, I got a call on the phone from Dick Holbrooke and he said, “Are you free this evening? Can you come out to dinner?” He said, “Mrs. Polly Wisner,” she was later Mrs. Fritchey, “Polly Wisner, is having a dinner party tonight and she needs an extra man because Joe Alsop, the reporter, has been detained in Vietnam,” this is 1971.
“And so, she has an empty spot at her table, and can you come?” And he said, “Do you have a good suit?”
I said, “Yes, I do.” So, he and his wife picked me up and we drove over to Polly Wisner’s house over on, I believe it’s on P Street. It was later where John Edwards lived when he was a senator.
That was an extraordinary introduction, not just to Georgetown, but Washington, political social life, because the other guests there included Stewart Alsop and his wife, Tish Alsop, who sat to my right at dinner, Meg Greenfield, who who was, then, I believe, the editorial page editor for the Washington Post. She was on my other side.
Tom Braden and his wife, Joan, again, media people, Congressmen Les Aspin, who was a big pal of Dick Holbrooke’s, and he was here as the Congressman from Wisconsin. And others like that. Susan Mary Alsop was there, her husband, obviously, was detained in Vietnam.
So, that was my launching. And then I went right back to law school and really didn’t see that scene again for a long, long, long, long time. If ever, because it almost is not, hasn’t been, it’s not created anymore, that is that intimate, at least, in my experience.
Then, I had no intention of staying in Washington at the end of law school, but I was attracted to politics and public policy and legislation. I got a job working on the Hill. That kept me in Washington. And I’ve been here ever since. That is almost more than 40 years, now that I’ve lived in Washington continuously.
I didn’t move to Georgetown until 1987. So, I’ve been in this house now with my partner, my spouse, Sidney Lawrence, who worked for many years as the Public Information Officer at the Hirshhorn Museum.
We first had an apartment together in Kalorama, and then, decided we wanted to buy something. We looked around in Kalorama in houses that both of us liked very much, but they cost a fortune, and we really couldn’t afford to get something there.
Neither of us had an urge to live in Georgetown. Actually, Sidney had lived over on N Street, before we moved into the apartment in Kalorama. It was just by chance, one Sunday afternoon, we were coming back from lunch somewhere in Georgetown and I noticed a for sale sign outside a house. And I went in and I didn’t really care for it very much.
But the woman that we worked with a little bit as a realtor said, “Here’s some other houses.” And one of them was this house. I will admit that the minute I walked into this house, I felt, boy, this place really has some great offerings. It’s not a huge house, but it’s a house with a lot of spaces.
Tanya: It’s very charming.
Tom: It’s a house that has always kept its historic character. So, it’s an old house. The man we bought it from, John Willey, told us that it was built in 1810. Again, I’ve never researched its history at the Georgetown Library Peabody Room. But it certainly is of that era, of the early 1800s. It’s four stories, I mean, you describe it a little bit. It has three working fireplaces, and things like the floorboards are those that were there from the beginning. There are open beams in the dining room that have always been there.
The house was about half the size it is now, because in 1979, John Willey and his wife put on a four story rear addition that greatly increased the size of the house.
The kitchen had been a one story affair that was about half the width that it is now. The kitchen now across the back of the ground floor of the house runs the full width. But it had a tin roof on the back of it.
There’s a closet in this second half of the living room where we’re sitting now, one wall of which is the old brick wall of the original back of the house. And a little piece of the tin roof was kept there, just as a historic fragment, so that one will always know what the house had been before.
It really is a house that has suited us very well, and we’ve lived in this house for 25 years. I laugh because people say, “Well, why did you move to Georgetown?” Actually, the truth is, it’s the place where I could afford a house that I really liked.
The interior of 1240 29th Street
And people think, “Oh well, Georgetown houses are so expensive and overpriced.” Well, we had enough money to get something that was nice, but the fact is that the housing stock in Georgetown is of such varying sizes that you can buy a smaller house that might be more affordable and not off the charts. That’s certainly how this house was for us now.
I don’t know if we could afford to buy it now.
Tom: But anyway, it’s been a good investment, let’s just say that about it.
Tanya: How’s the neighborhood changed in the time that you’ve lived here, if it has at all?
Tom: Well, right around the surrounding neighborhood there are a fair number of people who were here when we moved in or have moved in not too long after we arrived. And that’s wonderful. The great thing that I feel about Georgetown is that it’s a community where you are not just engaged with your neighbors, but always encountering your neighbors. And because so much of what one needs from day to day, whether it’s a grocery store or a restaurant or a movie theater or public transportation…
I contend that we have very good public transportation in Georgetown, at least from where we live at this Eastern end of Georgetown. The Foggy Bottom Metro is just a seven‑or‑eight‑minute walk, to the DuPont Circle is a 10‑minute walk. We’ve got great bus service out there with the 30s and the Circulator coming through.
It really is a walking community. It’s nice that we get to know our neighbors that way. It’s nice that our neighbors are long‑lived in our vicinity. Many of our primary relationships are with our neighbors. I think that’s really what one wants in life.
I should footnote this to explain that I think I said I went away after my first year of law school to the Peace Corps in Morocco. I lived in a very small village and then I came back to Washington.
In some certain ways, my life in Georgetown reminds me of my life in that Moroccan village. Those were people who had lived together really for generations, but they were very involved with each other. They saw each other on a daily basis and they knew each other well.
There were then bonds, not just of friendship but also responsibility. I know that over the years there have been occasions when neighbors have come together to take responsibility for a neighbor who’s not feeling well or a neighbor who needs some help with something or another. That’s really what a community should be and we’re lucky to have that here.
Tanya: You’ve also been very active in the ANC [Advisory Neighborhood Commission]. How did you get involved with that?
Tom: My involvement with the ANC didn’t come right away. When I first arrived here, again I guess I always have had just a sense of certainly the politics is something that interests me, whether it’s politics on Capitol Hill or just city or local politics. I was just interested in seeing what the scene was here. Not too long after we moved into this house, I began going to Citizen’s Association of Georgetown meetings and I found those quite interesting. Also, I think a bit after that, started just attending, occasionally, the ANC meetings.
At that time, this would have been‑‑we moved into this house in 1987‑‑in the late 80s or maybe the very early 90s. The CAG meetings were more like what the ANC meetings are now, which is to say, there is a lot more of community business conducted, issues aired, and rather vibrant discussions at the Citizen’s Association meetings. Votes are taken on things, people standing up and declaiming on their positions on different issues.
At the ANC, the scene was quite the same, but the politics of the ANC in those earlier years were pretty fractious. There was a time when there was such a split among the commissioners that they couldn’t even agree on whom to elect as their chairman, which I thought was like the United States Senate is today.
Nothing got done because one side refused to work with the other side. That’s not to say that one was more to blame than the other, although maybe if you look back you could conclude that. Nonetheless, it was not a very collaborative process. It wasn’t something that I thought, “Well, I can’t wait. I sure would like to be on the ANC.”
The scene changed a bit after a while. Then in 2000, some of my neighbors asked me if I would be interested in running and I said, “No.” Then a couple of weeks later I said, “Are you still looking for someone?” They said, “Yes, we are.” I said, “Well, I might be interested in running.”
It turned out that just about that same time the incumbent died, so it was an open seat. After a while, I got in touch with “The Georgetown Current.” I told them that I was going to be filing petitions to run for the ANC. They ran a very nice story about me and that intention of mine. No one else came forward to run, so I’ve been lucky.
Tom: Because I’ve never had‑‑I guess we can knock on wood at that kind of thing‑‑anyone run against me. I’ve had a great time representing the constituency here. My first term, the terms are two years, and when I ran the second time, the person who had been chairman, whose name was Peter Pulsifer, moved away. I was elected as chairman. I loved being the chairman, but it took a lot of time.
I have now just retired at the end of 2011, but at that time I was working full time Downtown in my office. I worked for myself for over 30 years as a lobbyist for nonprofit organizations, focusing on issues in child welfare, family services, and protection of children as well as public arts funding, and federal arts and cultural policy.
Now, I took on this extra responsibility of chairing the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Georgetown, which is a very active commission. Of course, outside of Georgetown, I’m often told, “Boy, you’ve really got a busy ANC there.”
Also, nice compliments, and I had one just a week ago from Nicholas Majett, who’s the head of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. We had a meeting about some zoning issues. He said, “Boy, you’ve really got a great ANC in Georgetown,” which is nice to hear.
For my second term of two years, as I said, I was chairman. It took so much of my time that I felt I couldn’t do it anymore. I actually didn’t run then at the end of that second term. My place, that position was taken by Pamla Moore. She then moved away and someone who no longer lives here, named Gunnar Halley, took that position in the runoff race. Then he decided not to run again and so I thought, “Well, I’ll go back to it,” because I loved it and I missed it.
I have to say that one thing I liked so much about it, in addition to being involved with the community and feeling the opportunity to be of service, also I really like working with the other commissioners. Maybe I haven’t been explicit enough but the tenor of the body was so different after 2000 than it had been 10 or more years before that it really was a satisfying experience. So I was really happy to be back.
Now, I’m I guess in my fifth term and I’m planning to run again in November because we’re up again this November. That’s exciting because it’ll be the presidential term. Every four years, we’re in the presidential race and so there’ll be a turnout.
My focus on the ANC has been historic preservation. And as I think most people know, any change that one proposes to their house or to a business building, if it’s visible from public view, it has to be reviewed first by the ANC and then by the Old Georgetown board.
Then, after that, it goes to the Commission of Fine Arts to determine if what is being proposed is not only in keeping with this old compatible design of the community but also that we don’t lose historic fabric of these buildings. Because I think it’s important for all of us to recognize that we just come through here, [laughs], as homeowners or as businesses too.
This house has been here for about 200 years. And one of the great appeals to it, for Sidney and me when we bought it, was that its historic character had never been destroyed or really tampered with. The same with the businesses‑‑Wisconsin Avenue and M Street, the commercial streets‑‑I think and not an original idea but the appeal of those who come to Georgetown to shop or tourists drawn to Georgetown is that that historic look and feel of Georgetown is maintained.
That whole review process that’s required is just essential to keeping Georgetown, Georgetown, which is, I think, the reason why I am so drawn to taking on that portfolio as the ANC Commissioner with the lead on historic preservation, which especially means that every month that I go down to the Old Georgetown board meeting after we’ve reviewed these projects and offer our comments to the board members on all of that.
There are a couple of other things I wanted to mention. You asked about the change in the neighborhood.
Tom: There are two things I want to talk about. One is the social change. The other is the commercial change. I mentioned that when I came back to Washington to resume law school in 1971, here I was in Mrs. Wisner’s dining room. Even after we moved to 29th Street in 1987, she was still living there. Within just a few blocks of this house there were a number of news makers, is one way to say them, or people that to me at least, I was a history major in college and so history’s always of interest to me. I guess that goes back to my historic preservation field too.
There were people here with recognizable names, and you thought that you had a little connection just through the merest of association with these people. Right at the corner from here was Senator John Sherman Cooper. He’d been a great hero for me during the Vietnam War.
When he, as a Republican, teamed up with Senator Frank Church from Idaho, the Democrat, and offered a resolution that really was the first congressional vote on questioning our being in Vietnam. So, here was a name, a man who I had great respect for and a name that I’d known for a long time and now I’m just living two doors away from him.
Then, up at the next corner, when we moved here, right across from Scheele’s Market, which is a real anchor for this community and is almost our public square, because we have that market. Again, we’re all walking up there and running into each other where you’re going out to get some fixings for dinner. Scheele’s Market which has changed hands a couple of times since we’ve moved here. The Scheele brothers were still running the store when we moved in. It’s our crossroads in a lot of ways and it’s been sort of threatened a few times in the last four, five years but we’ve pulled through. The neighborhood has really rallied around keeping Scheele’s as its market. At any rate, right across from Scheele’s was Luvie Pearson, who was widow of Drew Pearson. She was just a great sort of woman to run into and have a little chat with.
Sometimes her friend from the other side of Georgetown, Evangeline Bruce who was the widow of David Bruce who’d been our ambassador in China and I think maybe France or England, would come over and see her.
Two blocks away was Averell Harriman who at that time was already married to Pamela Harriman and after he died and she became so engaged with resurrecting the Democratic Party after the election of Ronald Reagan, was a place where I went a few times for fund raisers. That was always exciting; for one thing she had a great collection of paintings including the famous Monet “White Roses,” which she gave to the National Gallery.
Then Mrs. Dean Acheson was up on P Street in the 2800 block. There was just that sort of feeling of being connected to a lot of history.
Those people have almost all gone now, I guess all of them have that I just mentioned. I don’t quite have the feel that that sort of public figure is among us so much anymore. Although maybe they’re here, but they just haven’t gotten public enough yet ‑‑ we’ll hear more of them in the future.
The point is, those are interesting figures and there continues to be, a lot of journalists live around here and some of them are well known as well, just interesting people that you see at a party or again, just run into on the street. It often takes me a long time just to come back and forth to the grocery store because we have conversations on the way.
The other big change I would say that is in the time from when we first moved here and now is that there have been many young families with small children who have moved into the neighborhood. That’s a lot of fun, that’s kind of changed in certain ways the character of the neighborhood, which is great.
The commercial streets used to be much more small business kind of specialty shops, sort of sole proprietorship.
There also used to be a number of top line art galleries in Washington that located in Georgetown. I collect contemporary photography or vintage photography, art photography and I was doing that before moving to Georgetown. This is where I would come, because Harry Lunn, who was a great and very important dealer of Ansel Adams, William Eggleston and others of that caliber, his gallery was at 3243 P Street. I bought things from him.
Kathleen Ewing, who remains an important figure in photography dealerships in Washington had a place down at 3020 K Street. This was before Washington Harbor had been built. Barbara Fendrick had a gallery on P Street, where she really represented a lot of high end contemporary artists, not just from Washington, but from all over.
That scene has changed. The gallery scene in Washington jumps around anyway and I think that’s not unusual, one sees that in New York. Has a lot to do with rental rates, and what one can afford.
That’s changed, but where Brooks Brothers is now, used to be the Pottery Barn, when we moved here was really our prime grocery store. It was called Food Mart. It was bigger than Scheele’s and had a bigger selection of things. We just fed ourselves out of Food Mart.
The places that are now what I call catalog stores, like Benetton or Banana Republic…When I first came to Washington, Banana Republic was a restaurant called Rive Gauche that sort of got put on the map during the Kennedy administration as a fancy place to go and have dinner.
That’s true of a lot of these other stores that are chain stores that exist all over the country. It doesn’t mean that the commercial shopping experience has been diluted at all. I mean, crowds still come to Georgetown to shop. But we always talk, you know, Menehan’s hardware store used to be on M street and now I go to a hardware store over in the West End because there’s not one right nearby.
So, that’s a change that makes it a little less than a neighborhood commercial community.
There were three movie theaters that I can think of, the Biograph Movie Theater used to be where CVS is now in the 2800 block of M Street. The Key Theater was over on Wisconsin Avenue between M and Potomac. The Georgetown Theater, which just closed up as a jewelry mall, was a movie theater. At least in terms of The Key and The Biograph, they were great resources that showed foreign films, classic films as well and independent films.
Now we’ve got a great movie theater experience down on K Street with The Georgetown Cineplex, whatever it is, but still the feeling is different in terms of the loss of those theaters.
There are a couple of things I need to say about my involvement with the ANC and with the Citizen’s Association. I really, in addition to attending the meetings, kind of got recruited to be part of a neighborhood project in the late 80s, not long after we moved here in 1987. That was to organize Neighborhood Watch.
The citizens’ association was kind of getting around to doing some organizing around neighborhood watch. I think that we may have had a slightly higher level of crime then than we do now.
We had a friend before moving here to Georgetown who lived right behind us on 30th Street, Polly Krakora, she and her husband Joe Krakora lived on 30th Street. There was a meeting one evening at the home of Louise and Arnold Sagalyn, who used to live at the corner of 30th and N, neighbors from that sort of block of 30th Street to talk about organizing themselves as a neighborhood watch.
Polly Krakora called us up to see if we’d come over, I think so that we’d sort of bite the bait and then hear what it was all about and then organize a watch on our block. Which is exactly, then, what we did.
Then two other people who were involved at that time in that effort were Joan Shorey, who she and her husband live up on West Lane Keys, and Steve Kurzman, who lives with his wife on Q Street.
They sort of took me up and gave me assignments. Steve kind of gave me the talking points. Joanne and I began contacting individuals that we knew in various blocks who would be willing to have a little neighborhood meeting of the people in their block to come together for an hour some evening and hear a little spiel about Neighborhood Watch, how it works, and how they might organize themselves.
I was the one that was then sent out to give these talks about Neighborhood Watch, which is a lot about just getting to know each other and keeping an eye out on one another and on one another’s houses. If you see something suspicious, call the cops.
Encourage people to keep their doors locked, keep the porch lights on and just be aware of what’s happening in your neighborhood, which is a sort of front line of crime prevention.
A lot of the same things police tell us to do we were encouraging people to do through Neighborhood Watch. That was really my first community activity that I guess then led to those two neighbors, who were Cynthia Anthony, who’d been on the ANC before, and Austin Graff who is a very involved, active community leader, asked me if I would run for the ANC when I first did.
Another little piece that was an early involvement with community action was what really has led to what we now call Trees of Georgetown. We had a neighbor two doors down, in front of whose house is a tree box and it had a dead tree in it.
She and I and some others in this block, went to the CAG meetings and started talking about what we could do as a community to get the city to plant trees where there weren’t any. It took awhile, but after The Citizen’s Association exerted some muscle with the city agency responsible for trees. At that time, I think the city had more money itself to plant trees, they just weren’t paying attention to us where they needed to be done.
So, it is my solid recollection that the first tree to have been planted, what has now become this very successful effort, was right here, two doors down from us on 29th street. So, that was another nice little memory of all of that.
One other thing I need to tell you about the changes in terms of the commercial life. We have a great farmers’ market now, going over on Rose Park that runs from early May until late October. But long before that, and long before we came to Georgetown, but every Saturday morning, Landon Dysart drove in from Woodstock, Virginia, which is in the Shenandoah Valley. He was a chicken farmer.
He had a truck, the sides of which opened up and he parked his truck on the Wisconsin Bridge where it goes over the canal, just up from Grace Church. And he arrived there, early, I guess he arrived at six or seven in the morning every Saturday. He was gone by noontime.
He sold chickens, and he sold eggs. His wife baked bread and cookies and delicious cakes. And maybe his daughter Debbie baked the cakes.
He also sold fruit and vegetables. Again, it was a farmer’s market of one, so whatever was in season was what he sold. So, it’d be apples or it’d be pears or it’d be peaches or watercress and radishes and tomatoes later and corn in the season.
We, Sidney and I went there every Saturday morning with our dog, Blackie, at that time, with our dog, another stray. We’d get chicken and we’d get our eggs. I said, we fed ourselves out of Food Mart but we pretty much fed ourselves from Mr. Dysart’s truck.
He said that he began coming to Georgetown when he was a teenager, I guess. His father, from Woodstock, Virginia, had a business of delivering eggs and chickens to residents of Georgetown. The very young Landon Dysart would drive in from the Shenandoah Valley and make the rounds of his deliveries in Georgetown.
Then as years went on, he shifted to coming in once a week and stationing himself there on Wisconsin Avenue. I have to observe that when I first was in Washington, this was either the very last 60s or maybe back in the early 70s, there was a little farmer’s market at the corner of Wisconsin and Grace Street.
There’s a parking lot there now and the building right next to it might have been Hudson Brothers. Hudson Brothers was a green grocer. I remember I wasn’t living in Georgetown then, but going to that location to buy nice fresh vegetables.
After some years, what is now Dean & DeLuca, over there on the East end of M Street, and had always been a city market, but had been closed for some number of years, opened up again as a kind of farmer’s market, sort of like the Eastern Market over on Capitol Hill. Hudson Brothers, I remember distinctly, was kind of an anchor for that. But it didn’t catch on and only lasted for a few years.
So, there have been these markets, and farmers’ markets and places to buy fresh produce that have sort of come through and now we have our farmers’ market in Rose Park. But another nice thing about having Mr. Dysart here was that it, again, was a gathering place for the community. All sorts showed up there.
Oh, here’s another newsman, Richard Helms, who’d been with the CIA and was our ambassador in Iran when the Shah was still there, he’d show up on Saturday morning to get a chicken. Other people that we just became friends with and really developed friendships with people because we were all there together Saturday morning, talking to Mr. Dysart and getting our food.
It was one of those shopping experiences where you didn’t just buy your stuff and leave. You took some time and hung around for awhile and chatted with people. Again, that’s that wonderful aspect of living in a community where people are engaged with each other, which I think is really the heart of Georgetown.
Tanya: Do you have any other favorite Georgetown stories?
Tom: Another change I’ve seen is the change in the eating scene. There used to be more gas stations on M Street. Now I think most of them are banks. One of them, and this would have been in the mid 70s, was a defunct gas station that for a few years became something called Hot Diggity Dog. It was a sort of gourmet hot dog stand that had picnic tables and umbrellas out on the pavement. It was either at the corner of 29th and M or 30th and M, I can’t remember which, but it was right out there. It was a fun place to come and have something to eat. It was kind of special because it was a little high‑end in terms of a hot dog.
There were a couple of great places that were casual, I mentioned Rive Gauche which was fancy, but there was a wonderful old restaurant on M Street, it was in the 3000 block. It’s where there’s a makeup store now called Sephora. That was a restaurant called Chez Odette. It was that kind of bistro food that was just French comfort food.
One of the nice memories I have of that was, after an opening of the Hirshhorn, Sidney had the responsibility as curator of organizing an exhibition of the work of Red Grooms, a New York artist. After the opening of the exhibition, Red and his wife Mimi, and Paul Richard the art critic for the Washington Post and his wife, and all of us ‑‑ I guess that was six of us ‑‑ went out to dinner at Chez Odette. It was a wonderful place to be but also just the kind of fun comfortable place you would take a slightly, not necessarily wacky but certainly highly inventive artist from New York, for dinner and an evening out.
That was a nice memory, and I mentioned earlier Au Pied De Cochon, and it’s probably where I just ate all the time. The inside of that place, now Five Guys, it’s almost double height ceiling in there so you have that great sort of French bistro feeling in there. You’d go there for coq au vin and they’d always have sort of a ratatouille on the side and a big splash of French fries, and we were always getting carafes of wine, you don’t see carafes anymore ‑‑ no one’s getting a carafe of wine.
Those were fun places. Then there was a Roy Rogers where Restoration Hardware is now at the corner of Wisconsin and Potomac that was just like a standby to go and get just a tasty sandwich to eat.
There was another place called Blimpy’s that was on Wisconsin, it’s a woman’s clothing store now, and it was on Wisconsin right behind what used to be the Riggs Bank, I guess it’s PNC Bank parking lot now.
That was a place where you go real late at night for a submarine sandwich or something. Where Paolo’s is, the little building is still there was a White Tavern and that was another place to go and get burgers by the bag.
That was another crossroads because all levels of population were in there at two in the morning buying hamburgers. Those were fun memories of stuff going back like that.
Tanya: I had read that, thanks to Google, you had donated some artwork to the newly refurnished library. I was wondering if you’d maybe talk about the library a little bit. We had the tragic fire and then it’s beautifully rebuilt.
Tom: Yeah, we’re really lucky that we’ve had this great sort of rebirth of the Georgetown Public Library because it’s another one of those crossroads for the community. When we had the fire, obviously it was a terrible event. We were lucky that for example, in terms of the Peabody collection, the historic material, very little of that was lost or damaged even, so that’s intact.
The building now and the facilities that it offers are highly improved over what we had there before. The ANC and old Georgetown board, because here was building being done and architectural design decisions to be made, all of the plans for what the new library would be, were reviewed by us when I was a commissioner and then by the boards downtown.
I remember we spent a lot of time on looking at ways in which the ground floor, the basement you might say, although it doesn’t feel as a basement anymore, because I think some of the back elevation was dug out so that you can walk out now from there, but to have much more attractive and usable space down there with a community meeting room and places for children’s activities.
I remember in the early part of this century, at least, before the fire happened, a few years before the fire happened, we would have kind of small meetings of commissioners in a room on the ground floor. It really was the basement of the library. There were, the whole place needed painting, you felt kind of creepy being down there. There were pipes overhead. And all of that’s gone now. We have just this beautiful, beautiful facility.
Well, walking in there after it opened, there are two reading rooms at either end of the library on the first floor, and also, on the second floor. They’re beautiful rooms and big windows and great light coming in, and fireplaces in the middle at the end of each of those rooms.
Above each fireplace is molding that just cries out for having a picture put in it. So, here I am living here with an artist who does a lot of different work, does oils and works in multimedia, but also has concentrated in the last several years on pen and ink drawings of cityscapes.
He did a fairly sizable drawing ‑‑ I’d say about five feet long and a couple, three feet high ‑‑ of the mall downtown, basically, from the Washington Monument to the Capitol Building, and then the rest of Washington sort of stretching behind that so that the towers of Georgetown University are off there on one end of it.
After the library opened and saw these spaces there, we just thought, I thought, that’s the place for the Washington drawing, and that has proven to be a popular image, so Sidney has had prints made up of the original drawing, but it was sold out of an art gallery. So, I asked him if he’d make a print that I could get framed and then just give it to the library.
So, that has just happened, just this year, I guess, in April 2012. So, it’s hanging there now and in about or week or two, no, next week, there’s going to be a little celebration up there for his drawing, which is the print which is hanging on one fireplace. Then, there’s a painting by another local artist, hanging at another end. So, that’s just a nice thing to have happen and an opportunity to give something, I guess, to the community.
Tanya: Very good.
Tom: I also fully believe in borrowing books from the public library. I mean, there are a lot of books in this house, but we could use with borrowing, as well. When I was a kid, my mother took us to the library and we had our own library cards. So, I’m a big user of the library. But that particular library is just such a pleasant place to be, and to sit there and read and see the artwork on the walls.
Tanya: Yes, it turned out beautifully.
Tom: Yeah, yeah.
Tanya: Well, I think we’ve come to half an hour now, and I think I’ve got all my questions.
Tom: OK, OK.
Tanya: Yeah, my closing question was going to be what it is that keeps you here in Georgetown? I think you talked a lot about the community ties…
Tom: What keeps us here is really a couple of things. One is the people, absolutely the people. We don’t even leave Georgetown very much. We gave up our car about a year and a half ago. Between bicycle, Zipcar and public transportation there are no problems in getting around. Then walking, as I mentioned, so much is within walking distance. It’s easy for that reason.
Also, having lived in this house, in this location for so many years and the stability of the neighborhood means that we have many, many, many of our close friendships are our neighbors and our friends here in Georgetown. They really are what keep us.
Both Sidney and I are natives of California, although we’ve both lived in the east for most of our lives, and we love California. We go there maybe once a year.
When I retired, people said, “Will you stay here?” I guess you’re supposed to move when you retire? I don’t see any reason to move, because this is where our lives are, and it really is because of the people who are here.
Tom: We never really intended to live in Georgetown. In fact, when we started looking for houses, when we were still in our apartment in Kalarama, we looked in different places and then, it was just by chance, as I’ve already said, that we moved here. Actually, I thought it might be kind of stuffy over there in Georgetown. I don’t know. Would people be that friendly? I think we knew a few people here. We had friends who lived in Georgetown. But at the same time, I guess Georgetown has a reputation that some people, including me at the time, felt it might be a little off putting.
I have to tell you, I just think some of the greatest people I know live in this community. I’m just so happy that we landed here.
Tanya: Now let’s talk about our recent earthquake. You say you were over in Scheele’s.
Tom Birch: Yeah. Well, the afternoon that the earthquake happened, we were actually getting ready to go out to Dulles and take a plane to Denmark, where we go on and off in the summer sort of every other year to the northern tip of Denmark and stay on the ocean, which is great. We took our dog that time. Anyway, I needed to get some things from the grocery store, so I walked up to Scheele’s. I wasn’t in there for more than a minute, and the floor started to shake and the Perrier bottles on the shelves started to click together. There were two or three other people in the store. Mr. Lee, who was the owner, he’s just retired but he was the owner, we all looked at each other and I said, “This is an earthquake!”
I felt confident in saying that because I grew up in Los Angeles. Other people said, “Oh, really, do you think so? An earthquake‑‑we don’t have them here.” I said, “That was an earthquake!” Then it stopped, like they do. I walked outside, and already people had come out of their houses. Again, Schelee’s is kind of that gathering point, so there were a number of people there.
I guess someone had heard some validation on a quick radio blast that, yes indeed, it was an earthquake. Actually, I came home, Sidney was still here, he’d been on the top floor. He’s from San Francisco. We both missed the earthquake ethos [laughter] being transplants from California.
He said our house swayed just a little, he felt it more. The higher up you do, because the shock has more of an impact the farther away you get from the ground. The only evidence, though, in our house, was that you could…there are a lot of pictures hanging on the wall here, because we have a lot of artwork, and the picture frames were all askew as a result of that earthquake.
Then, we had to get out to Dulles to take our planes, this was about three or 3:30 in the afternoon. The man who always drives us to the airport came to pick us up, and as soon as we got on route 66 we were just deadlocked in traffic. Because the federal government, Californians would never suggest this, had sent everybody home.
So every federal worker had left their workplace at the same moment, which doesn’t happen during the course of a regular day. We weren’t late in getting out to the airport, but the crew of our plane was late in getting there, so we were about half an hour in leaving Dulles because of the earthquake. That was our experience with the earthquake.
Tanya: Wow. I feel we were lucky not to have too much damage. I think that’s probably because of the height restriction, maybe.
Tom: Yes. Yes. I think that’s true. If you consider that the two places that seem to have suffered the most significant damage were very tall structures ‑‑ the National Cathedral and the Washington Monument. There has been on the National Park Service website, a little video tape of the inside of the top of the Washington Monument when the earthquake struck, and frantic, terrified tourists are racing down the stairs while bits of plaster are falling off on their heads. But, I mean, nobody was hurt and no one was unsafe, really. But it certainly is an experience that most people are unprepared for.
Tanya: Yeah. Interesting.
Tanya Lervik: OK, so you’re talking about how quiet it is here in the neighborhood with the moratorium on liquor licenses.
Tom Birch: Yeah, it is, well, we’re here on a Saturday afternoon and there’s a lot of stuff going on on M Street right now. But it is very quiet in this house. When we first moved here in the mid‑’80s, late, mid‑’80s, it was usual that on late Friday night and late Saturday night, which is to say, early Saturday morning and early Sunday morning, we’d be awakened by drunks, [laughs] people coming back to their cars from a night of being out on M Street, usually. We’re only a block and a half from M Street and there are a couple of bars, not very far from where we live. Garrett’s is one that has since closed, and The Guards is another, which has, for a long time, had a late late night venue there. It would just be disruptive. You’d hear a lot of cursing, there were some terrible fist fights, screaming at people, not just singing and carousing, although that was more the usual.
Then, you’d go out in the morning to get the paper on Saturday or Sunday morning, and there’d be just litter all over the place, beer cans, beer bottles. Which suggested what I would see too, is people would, they’d drive to Georgetown, park on the street here, park on 29th Street, for example, sit in the car and have a beer or two, I guess that was saving some money. Then go off [laughs] to a bar on M Street and finish off the evening and then come back at three in the morning when the bars close, so this was all between three, three thirty, quarter to four that we’d hear the ruckus.
Then drive away and leave their beer cans and bottles behind. Some of our friends, my friends, who were involved in the ANC then were proposing a moratorium on the number of liquor licenses that could be issued in Georgetown. Basically, capping them at then number that there were at that time, which was something under 200.
200 licenses and those are licenses for restaurants, for taverns…which have no requirement for serving food, and then for the corner grocery stores that sell beer and wine, but capping the total number of those licenses. I guess because I lived that was a place that was close to a lot of what was happening out there, I got asked if I would document my experiences, and so I did that in two ways. One was for a while there, going out and before I picked up the beer cans and the bottles, taking photos of them then submitting them in evidence to the Alcohol Beverage Regulatory Administration, which was to decide whether or not we could get a moratorium.
I also wrote up testimony that was submitted as well. Our moratorium, which I think was the first in the city was granted. It was for just a period of years, I don’t know for then if it was three years, it might have just been for three years, but then I’ve been actively involved each time after that because I’ve been on the ANC since then. When the moratorium would expire and needed to be extended, we would prepare really a legal brief to justify the extension of the moratorium.
I have to say, it certainly worked well. I don’t think it has any negative effect on businesses in Georgetown, on those liquor licensed businesses in Georgetown. There have always been at least a handful of licenses that are unused and available out there.
The last time we renewed the moratorium the business community urged the ANC to add seven more new licenses to the mix, which we agreed to. In part that was when we were much deeper into the recession than we are now in 2012. The thought was, some of these vacant stores that had closed because the economy had gone bad might open as restaurants if a liquor license were available.
That has happened in a few of those instances. The Georgetown moratorium on licenses I think has become a model for other communities. We’re no longer the only community that has such a moratorium. It’s been a good leadership role that Georgetown has played in the way things can happen in a community in the District of Columbia.
Tanya: Thank you, Tom.