Judy Davis shares stories of growing up on P Street including running around with neighborhood children, spinster neighbor ladies, shops and restaurants she and her family frequented and what life in Georgetown was like before the war. Judy grew up on P Street in the same house her mother was born in and that had been in her family for over 100 years. She says she never had a key to her house until after she was married. She recalls Georgetown as a quiet, safe, and marvelous place to live. Judy attended Jackson School and then Potomac School and always walked to school with other neighborhood children and often back home for lunch. During the winters she sledded down 31st street and skated on Rock Creek. Judy shares a colorful memories of life in Georgetown with interview Tom Birch.
Tom Birch: I’m here interviewing Judy Davis in her house on 48th Street. Judy, I think you were born in Georgetown. Were you?
Judy Davis: Right, Columbia Hospital and then went to 3022 P Street, a house that my mother also was actually born in. It had been in our family for, I was told, about 100 years.
My grandfather, Albion Parris, who I really don’t remember, came down from Maine at the age of 16. His great grandfather had been the second governor of Maine and then a senator. I was told that he came at 16 alone. I don’t know exactly why, but he was a very smart young man. He founded a bank called Crane Parris. He was the president of that bank for years. I don’t know what happened to it.
Tom: Was it in Georgetown, the bank?
Judy: I honestly don’t know where it was.
Tom: He didn’t build the house on P Street?
Judy: No, the house was already built, 1810 or something. That and the house next door that the Bowles used to live in, Katherine and Dick Bowles, had a very bad fire. Then it was rebuilt. I don’t have the date of the fire, but very early in the 19th century. The front of those two houses, which is about two thirds of the houses, of the space of the house, is quite a bit newer than the back, because of the fire. As you know, in those days, there were so many fires.
Tom: Then you grew up, all of your childhood and teen years, in Georgetown?
Judy: My whole childhood until I was married.
I was married in that house. The Korean War was going on and my husband, or he was my fiancé, had to go back in the Air Force. We had a very short time to get married, a very speedy decision. [laughter] Anyway, the actual wedding, the marriage ceremony was in the drawing room in front of a beautiful long, gold mirror. The reception was there and then we rushed off to San Antonio, Texas, his being in the Air Force.
Tom: Who were some of your neighbors then when you were a kid on P Street?
Judy: Oh, wonderful. It was such a quiet, safe, friendly, marvelous place to live. I hate to say, it’s changed a great deal. Lovely as it is, it is very different. Marguerite Ames lived next door for heaven knows how many years, probably 50 or 60, a spinster lady. There seemed to be a lot of spinster ladies in those days. My grandmother had her sister living with her until she was 92 and died in her sleep. Many single ladies seemed to be around the neighborhood.
Tom: When you were growing up in your house was your grandmother…
Judy: No, no. They had long gone. I didn’t even know either of the grandmothers. It was just my own family. Marguerite Ames, I think, had very little money, so different people rented rooms in her house. But they were charming people that would stay for years and years, so it was quite a lively scene. So the house right next door. Oh, that had been part of our garden for many, many years.
Tom: This is just to the east of your house.
Judy: To the left where the Owens lived, Georgina Horseys’ parents. Georgina, we knew her family so well for many years. At some point, before I was born, I guess my grandfather made a little cash because he sold off a big slice, like half the garden, which is such a shame. It’s such a nice garden. Anyway, there was a family that lived there that I don’t think we had anything to do with at all. Then next to them was Eva Gilbert, and she was the one that ran the Peabody Room at the library for years and years. All the children called her E, and we loved Eva Gilbert. Again, she always looked as though she had no money. The wallpaper was hanging off the walls, but she was extremely smart and had this interesting job at the Peabody Room for years. I was often popping in and out of both of those houses with these lovely, neighborly ladies. Let’s see. What else shall I share?
Tom: Now were there other young children living on the block?
Judy: Well, there was Frank Harman. Did you ever know him years ago? Known as Winky in his days, unfortunately. He was an only child and lived across the street next to the Lees, although the Lees were not there. Then next to the Harman house, do you remember that red brick, very old one?
Well, maybe 1800s, 1700s, charming little house to the left of Lucinda Lee’s. That was just open space and we played there constantly because Orchard Lane and West Lane Keys hadn’t been built.
There was a red brick house in there, for an old people’s home. Then the house on the corner of 31st Street and P, a big house — that was a Catholic old people’s home. I don’t know if the other one was an Episcopal one.
As a child, small pieces of land seemed so big. It seemed like a farm or something back there. They had a vegetable garden. We were constantly running in and out of that land. It looked very different from today.
Then, up the street, there were the Bradleys. You know Tom Bradley and Carol Bradley? I can’t think when they moved in, but a little bit later. Maybe I was 10 years old or something. In the early days, I actually went to Jackson School. When I go up there now to the studios [now Jackson Art Center], which is fairly often, I’m always just amazed at how little it has changed. I started school there. There were children around. We walked to school. I literally think I was about five years old when I walked. Children weren’t as spoiled as they are today. I was maybe six years old; then I would walk home for lunch. I suppose everybody walked home for lunch. Then you walked back again until 3:00.
Then eventually, I went to Potomac School. That was on California Street. Again, most days, I remember walking.
There were a number of children in the neighborhood. One was Frannie Sternhagen who lived on O Street. Do you know Frannie? Very well known actress, who I see occasionally. She’s an amazing actress.
This little group of girls, because there were only boys in the couple of grades at Potomac, would walk all the way to California Street. To me, it seems amazing now.
Tom: That was in the 2200 block of California? This side of Connecticut Avenue?
Judy: This side of Connecticut, yeah. I think it’s an apartment house or something now.
Tom: Now, Morgan’s Pharmacy, was that there then?
Judy: Oh, Morgan’s, of course. It was even there probably, I’m sure, before I was born.
That was one of the big fixtures of the neighborhood. It had a wonderful soda fountain. The treat of the week was to be given about 15 cents to go over and have a milkshake. Then another wonderful thing was Stohlman’s, the ice cream parlor I think it was called in those days. It’s in the Smithsonian now. It was down at the end of P Street on Wisconsin, maybe another block down. I remember every time I got an A in school, my reward was a chocolate eclair at Stohlman’s. That seemed such an enormous gift to receive. That was worth working for. It’s so pitiful, isn’t it, one chocolate eclair?
Tom: Would you go out to Wisconsin Avenue for any other reason?
Judy: Well, there was so little. I was just going to say there wasn’t much there, but I’ll tell you what I remember. Next to Morgan’s Drug Store on P Street was the grocery store, and it was called The Sanitary, which seems a very peculiar title. I think it may have been a chain.
Tom: Is that where that antique store is now?
Judy: Yes, that sort of funny antique shop is, so it’s had a lot of different lives since then. It was years ago when the grocery store left, and little boys would come after school with their wagons. My mother would walk across the street, get her groceries, and then she’d give the little boy 10 cents, which was quite generous, to bring the groceries home in the wagon. It was a very easy, wonderful life before the war came along. But you had everything going. A soda fountain, a grocery store. But when you got to Wisconsin Avenue, it was mostly people’s houses. Nobody we knew.
There was a great distinction between who you knew and who you didn’t have anything to do with. I can’t remember when. Maybe it was about when I was born.
It was a long, long time ago that Little Caledonia was started by the Wells sisters. To me, that was my favorite store I’ve ever, ever been in, in my whole life. That was so wonderful.
You could find anything you wanted. Then let’s see. Martin’s was there as long as I can remember. Martin’s Tavern.
Tom: There also was Martin’s Store that sold china.
Judy: Oh, of course, on Wisconsin Avenue. Oh, that’s where you always went for wedding presents if you didn’t get cheaper things at Little Caledonia. There was the Town House. Do you remember John Prince?
Tom: I think he was the manager of it as I remember. The Town House was there on the other side of Wisconsin at about O Street. There was a little kind of a carry out little deli place down the street. I don’t remember another grocery store or another restaurant.
Judy: Then the CVS Drug Store at Wisconsin and O: I remembered my mother was always talking about how convenient it was that her brother, Uncle Worden, who we all adored, who was very horsey and dashing, always kept his horse at the stable, which was the building, which then became years later, People’s Drug Store and now CVS. My mother was a great rider, and she said one of their favorite places for riding was Foxhall Road, that they would go, I guess, on dirt paths from Georgetown out to Foxhall Road. She said you’d just gallop along this wonderful dirt, very wide path. It may have even been called row then, but that was a marvelous place for riding.
Tom: Because those houses on Foxhall wouldn’t have been built…
Judy: Oh, no. In my day, when I was a child, they were. Although it’s funny. I was thinking of this on Saturday when I was over at Shaw with my picture framer just beyond Logan Circle, how little of the city we knew in those early days. Everybody we knew lived in Georgetown or Kalorama. I really can’t remember anybody. I think maybe we knew a few people in Chevy Chase because the Chevy Chase Club, of course, had been there since the early 1900s. There were big houses there.
Tom: But even just east of Connecticut Avenue.
Judy: No. Then, well, even after 28th Street, we didn’t know anyone because then all that was inhabited by African Americans. We had this wonderful maid called Lizzie Brent, who was with our family for about 60 years. She had Thursdays off, and she rented a room from a woman who had a house down there. When she got very old and was kind of sick, I would walk down there and see her. I distinctly remember it was just all African Americans in non gentrified houses on both sides of the street down to 26th Street. I was always fascinated talking to Lizzie, who we all loved, because her parents had been slaves. Can you believe it? They were from Amissville, Virginia.
Well, I mean she lived to be very old. Her parents lived, so it covered 150 years. Oh, not that long. Anyway, the parents had been slaves. Maybe it was the grandparents, but I think it was the parents.
Then we had this wonderful cook called Helen Thurston, and she was with us for, I don’t know, 40, 45 years. First of all, not too many people have cooks and maids. But if they did they wouldn’t stay that long. They wouldn’t speak English.
Tom: So your mother grew up in Georgetown?
Judy: In that house and she went to Miss Halstead’s school. In those days, you usually went to a German school. I never heard anybody discuss this, but she was adamant about it that, of course, if you were well brought up as a child you studied German. It was catty cornered across from Christ Church. I think it’s a white clapboard house with some stairs going up to it, and that was Miss Halstead’s school.
Tom: At the corner of 31st and O.
Judy: Yes. She was always there, and they would go to Maine in the summer. Of course, you went to Maine on a train. I remember she said you always took steamer trunks. I don’t know they use that word now. You took trunks full of clothes, so I suppose you stayed for a good long time.
Then eventually Aunt Laura, who I didn’t know, who was the maiden lady that lived with my grandparents, died. My mother took her into her house on P Street, but I wasn’t born then. Then when she died at 92, this wonderful death, that Lizzie went up to take her breakfast, which she did every morning and said, “Miss Laura, your breakfast is here. Please wake up.” She just didn’t wake up, and she jiggled her foot and said, “My! She’s getting sleepy.” But no response and she’d never been sick a day in her life at 92. When she died, she left this wonderful farm of 375 acres between Marshall and Warrenton to my mother since she had offered her a home for all those years.
Then the rest of my childhood, and even for years after that, we spent a lot of time at this farm. I mean all the summers roasting hot. That’s why we all got to be so horsey.
Tom: But how would you get out there?
Judy: In a car. I’m not that old. [laughter]
The car had been invented. I was thinking about that, when I was thinking about talking to you, how the drive down Route 50…
Then you went through Thoroughfare and The Plains and Marshall and then headed for a road that’s between Marshal and Warrenton. How it was just about the same time, an hour, that it is today, and maybe a little slower now than it was then. You would think with the money they pour into roads and overpasses and underpasses that you’d get there in half the time. Not at all.
You drove through all these little towns, Centerville, all these little towns that you bypass now on 66, you meandered through and it was charming — a drive you enjoyed. Who enjoys a drive down Route 66? [laughter]
Tom: But one thing I wanted to ask you about, because I know you’re a parishioner at Christ Church now. Was Christ Church your family’s church then?
Judy: My grandfather on my mother’s side, the one that owned the house on P Street, was very involved with St. John’s Church, and he was on the vestry for years.
Tom: St John’s Georgetown?
Judy: Georgetown. But I don’t know why they didn’t go to Christ Church because it was so much closer. Anyway, they didn’t. They probably knew the vicar or something. Then when I was a child I went to Sunday school at Christ Church because I wasn’t allowed to cross Wisconsin Avenue. Of course there was about one car an hour but…I won’t get into the prize I won.
Tom: You won a prize, perfect attendance?
Judy: A perfect attendance. I thought that was a joke and I must say I don’t remember a thing but I know I did go for years. My mother remained very involved with St. John’s Church and my father was a complete non church goer.
Tom: What kind of work was your father in? Did he have work in Georgetown?
Judy: My father? Oh he was in the real estate business, H.A. Gill and Son. It’s still there prospering real estate and insurance and things. I don’t think he was terribly interested. He was a great movie goer. It seemed to me, as I remember as a child, I’d say, “Well, what went on today?” He’d say, “I saw the best movie this afternoon,” which seemed very peculiar for a businessman to have been doing.
Tom: Did he start the real estate business?
Judy: No, my grandfather did.
Tom: His father.
Judy: Herbert A. Gill. That’s why it’s called H.A. Gill. His name was Theodore Nicholas Gill.
Tom: But where would one go to the movies in Georgetown? Is that what he’d do? He’d see a movie in Georgetown?
Judy: The marvelous movies. Yes, it was called the Dumbarton. We called it the dump, I remember, and that was 10 cents. We often went on Saturday afternoons. That was the great treat. Then, of course, it became the Georgetown Theater. But, for years, it was the Dumbarton and I don’t know if there was a gap in time it wasn’t…No, I think it was there in the beginning. But wouldn’t it be nice if we still had a movie theater there?
Tom: And could you go? You would have gone as a child, Saturday afternoons.
Judy: Yeah. Also, when I was older, 13 or 14 or maybe even 12, there was a great deal of going downtown on the bus with a couple of friends, girlfriends. You would go to Garfinckel’s where they had a tea room, lunch room. You had lunch and often had fashion shows. That was so exciting. Then you had Woodward and Lothrop that was there because, of course, there were no suburban stores. The shopping nucleus was the center of the city. Funny, the way it’s getting back to that, isn’t it.
There were a couple of things that I was about to write down. One was that I remembered, which certainly would seem odd today, was the man that came around every couple of months with this little pony with a western saddle. He would knock on the door and ask if any children needed to have their pictures taken. I’m afraid I don’t have any of those pictures. But he was paid a small amount of money and the child was brought down and plunked down in the saddle and the picture was taken. Then he would go plodding down P Street.
Tom: Where there other kind of peddlers or merchants that came by, that sort of thing, on a regular basis?
Judy: These were all very useful. The one that sharpened your scissors and your knives that would call out. He was a regular visitor.
We had hobos. That’s what we called them. Now nobody called anybody homeless. You never thought of people being homeless, but…
Tom: My grandmother called them tramps.
Judy: Or tramps. Hobos or tramps. They would come, and they knew that you never knocked on the door. There was one at least once or twice a week, so there were probably plenty of hungry, poor people. They would just go through the gate and go to the kitchen door. Helen the cook, I suppose she made them sit on the back porch by the kitchen and always gave them the same thing, which I thought was kind of unimaginative. But it was two fried egg sandwiches. They were handed out, and whoever they were, were always very polite, sat on the step, ate the sandwiches, and departed. Now, you’d be terrified anybody like that coming in and knocking on the kitchen door. [laughs]
Tom: We lose trust.
Judy: Yes, exactly, and I never owned a key to my house. I was married at 21, and I never owned a key. At least at our house, you came in and out. I mean maybe at night, if I was out, the maid answered the door or something, but it just seemed such a safe place to live.
Don’t ever remember anybody getting robbed. I just heard night before last at a party, a neighbor here who lives two blocks down the street, just robbed the other day of $30,000 worth of jewelry.
Tom: Then what kind of social life was there in Georgetown when you were a teenager? A young girl?
Judy: Well, I was thinking about my parents’ social life that was so kind of easy and sounded like so much fun. This wasn’t really me, but when I was a child my mother loved to play the piano. People would be invited for dinner, and she loved to sing. Her brothers loved to sing. Then after dinner, people would gather around the piano and sing. But what happened to that nice custom?
Wouldn’t people think it was strange today if you went to a dinner party and said, “Everybody sit in the living room. I’m going to play the piano” or “I’m going to sing for you.” Well, it was awfully pleasant.
As I was getting a little older, I went to Mrs. Shippen’s dancing class. That was, well, two different places. I forget between my children going there and me going there, but it was at the parish hall of the Christ Church. Linthicum Hall. I guess in my day, she was there, and then eventually, they moved her out and she was on Q Street when my children went there.
Tom: We talked a little bit about your involvement in art. Making art but also exhibiting art and then just going out and looking at art…
Judy: And going to England and buying art. [laughs] Still doing that.
Tom: Was there any kind of an art scene in Georgetown?
Judy: No, there really wasn’t.
The first year I was married, I used to go to Whyte’s Book Shop. It wasn’t Georgetown, but it was close at Dupont Circle. Franz Bader, who used to live across the street from me until he died. Whyte’s Book Shop had Franz. I guess Franz Bader owned it or he later did. Then he had a little gallery there. The first painting I ever bought by Leonard Mauer, I bought from the Whyte Book Shop when I was about 21 years old. Diana, my daughter, has it in California, [laughs] so I like to see that painting. Then, another little art gallery started up on Wisconsin Avenue. I think it was called The Artists’ Mart. I’m sure it was, and that was there for a few years. I really don’t remember other galleries. It took years before any kind of art scene came. I mean art galleries and restaurants that are so popular in Washington, were nonexistent then.
Tom: What sort of scene was there along the waterfront down by the river? Did one even go down there?
Judy: No, I don’t remember going down there at all. Now, I suppose there were people fishing and… Of course there were, yes. There was a paper mill or… the flour mill, the thing with the big stack that there was a controversy about. It was absolutely a commercial kind of a working place, and then I can remember when they built the Whitehurst Freeway, which certainly was a mistake. It was too bad it wasn’t underground. [laughs]
Now, it’s changed so much, but part of it is having lived so many years. Anyplace is going to change, but I’m sure a lot of cities have not changed as radically as Washington has. Do you think that about covers it?
Tom: One other question I have, and that is, how were you aware of the political life of Washington as a federal city living here in Georgetown? I ask that because certainly during the Franklin Roosevelt administration and then again during the Kennedy administration, Georgetown became so identified with politics and the presidency. I wonder… Senators lived amongst us, and members of Congress and so forth. I wonder if that was always the case. Was one aware of that growing up in Georgetown?
Judy: I don’t remember as a child. Having a father who was in business and not in anything political, I really don’t remember. I don’t remember a lot of senators living around us. They seemed to just be old Washingtonians, the people that lived in my part of Georgetown. You’ve got the lower part heading toward Dupont Circle. I just don’t remember. Then I was very young when the whole scene of Polly Wisner, Susan Mary Alsop and these people who were giving lots of dinner parties and things.
In my childhood, the answer is no, it just seemed the city…I know one thing is people, my parents always knew the president. I remember my mother saying Herbert Hoover of all people was to be admired. Well, they happened to be Republicans, which I’m very far away from. Anyway, going down to my mother saying you always left cards with the president. Oh, you went and called on them. Can you imagine it today, there being people with assault rifles coming toward you?
They personally knew Herbert Hoover and Mrs. Hoover and would go there. They did have some political connection that was the president. Let’s see. What else? That’s the most outstanding fact I remember about their political connection. Of course, when Roosevelt came in, my father was extremely agitated about that.
Tom: Maybe they didn’t call on Mr. Roosevelt?
Judy: I don’t think they would have dared called on that traitor to his class. No, not at all.
Tom: Funny, funny. Well, thank you, Judy. If there’s anything else you think at this moment. We’ve talked about what it was like being a little girl in Georgetown and going to school in Georgetown.
Judy: Oh, it was so much colder. I remember that. We would start up by R Street and go sledding all the way down to 31st Street. I can’t believe it now. I remember we would go skating on Rock Creek all the time. I had absolutely no supervision. I guess these other little girls didn’t either because there was always a gang of people rushing around, but all the skating. Now, Rock Creek rarely freezes. You certainly wouldn’t have enough snow and you’d have all those cars. We would just go flying down the hill.
It was a wonderful place to grow up, but it really was like a small town.
However, it was a big city and what was going on in all the rest of it, southeast, southwest, I don’t know. I never was taken to that part of the city. The fish wharf, we would go down there.
On Main Avenue, that was much more vibrant than it is today. I remember, as a child, there were a lot of restaurants down there, seafood restaurants. Every now and then, I was taken there. I hope I’ve said something that is worth it.
Tom: I’ve heard things I never knew before, so that’s the point. I’ve heard things now that only you know about.
Judy: Oh, no, there must be a few people hanging around that still know. Well, thank you, Tom, for the interview.
Tom: Well, this is great. Thank you, Judy.
Transcription by CastingWords