Steve Kurzman moved to Georgetown with his wife in 1961 after he began working on Capitol Hill – He and his first wife, Ellen, loved the neighborhood because of its quaint charm and architecture, especially appreciated by his architect wife. The first house the Kurzman family rented was 22 feet long and 11 feet wide on 26th Street – a “charming house.” In his fascinating interview with CAG Oral History volunteer Arlene Alvarez, Mr. Kurzman describes integration in the DC public school system and his time working on the Hill when the Civil Rights Bill was passed. He describes Georgetown as an “interesting mixture” and “constantly changing” – which are two main reasons he loves living in Georgetown.
Arlene Alvarez: My name is Arlene Alvarez and I am here with Mr. Steven Kurzman at 3026 and 1/2 Q Street. OK, so, I guess let’s start with how you came, or when, where you came from if you’re not from Georgetown. Explain.
Steven Kurzman: Right. I was born in New York City in 1932, and lived there, grew up there, except for a period in Cleveland during the Second World War. Then moved back to New York and after college and law school in Cambridge Mass at Harvard. I came back to New York, and then got married, and moved. I served in the army in Panama and started out working…
Arlene: What year was this that you served in Panama?
Steve: I was in Panama in 1957 and ’58.
Arlene: And did you say this was after or before college?
Steve: This was after college and after law school.
Steve: And I was drafted, actually. The draft was still on in that period. The first war in Lebanon was going on.
Arlene: Oh my goodness.
Steve: Yes. That was under President Eisenhower. And I started out my legal career in the US Attorney’s office in New York City, Senators for Good New York. And in 1961, I’m sorry 1961, I got an opportunity by shear chance to come to Washington. And my late wife was an architect and artist, and we decided ‑ I got this chance offer to come down and work for Senator Javitz from New York and it was just such an exciting opportunity. The Kennedy administration had just come in, and the city was a very exciting place. My wife fell in love with Georgetown because of her architectural training, and I loved it too, and so we rented a house. We thought we were only going to be here for two years, because that’s what the Senator hired me for.
Steve: And we rented a house on 26th Street, which is 1530 26th Street, the end of a row of tiny, former slave quarters.
Steve: The house is 22 feet long and I think 11 feet wide. It’s two floors, no basement, no attic, and…
Arlene: How did you choose such a small place to live?
Steve: Well, we could afford it.
Steve: It was…and it was in Georgetown. That’s where we wanted to be, and we had our first child there. And so here are these two adults and an infant living in this tiny space. The living room, because you had the staircase, was only eight feet wide, and it was both the living room and a dining area, and a tiny 11 by 11 garden behind it. In fact I can show you a painting my wife did of the… She was also an artist, and she did a painting of the room, the living room, looking out at the garden. She did an article… In those years the New York Times Sunday magazine section always had a two‑page spread on architecture, and she wrote up a proposal to them to do a picture ‑ article ‑ about our house ‑ how three humans could live in such a tiny space, and what she had done to make it…
Steve: She had, we had storage compartments underneath the bed in the so‑called master bedroom, which was eight by eight and we had as much built in as possible, and…
Arlene: You adapted it really well then.
Steve: Yea, it was. I can even show you the ‑ you might want to take a picture of it ‑ of the article because I had it laminated…
Arlene: They did publish it…
Steve: They published it, yeah, and it was like having your financial report spread out for the world to see that you were a pauper. We were in our…
Arlene: Really proud of that.
Steve: …30s, or our late 20s and early 30s, so we didn’t mind that, but anyway. We lived there until 19… Well let’s see, were there in ’61, and our older son Charles was born in ’63, and then we moved to…Then my wife became pregnant again and we moved to, we had to have larger quarters at that point. So we rented another house in ’65 at 1250 28th Street, at the corner of 28th and N, right across the street from Kesher Israel Synagogue. Which we were members of ‑ we’re Jewish ‑ and, although it’s an orthodox synagogue and we’re not orthodox, it was within walking distance and there was a very welcoming rabbi, rabbi Rabinowitz. He made us feel very comfortable and he, actually, he was desperate for congregants because to make the 10‑man minyan for services, particularly in the summertime. And so, he would accept me and my sons, who had not yet even been bar mitzvahed. So they technically couldn’t be… but he really needed us.
Arlene: And is it because the Jewish population wasn’t as big in Georgetown?
Steve: Yeah, that’s exactly right. What had happened is Georgetown ‑ as you undoubtedly know ‑ has gone through waves of immigrants. Of course it was founded by an Englishman but then, it was Scotch‑Irish, and German. And of course, there were blacks here both slave and free all through that. And Jews came in the late 19th century, early 20th century, and the synagogue was founded in 1923, something like that. And many of the Jews were merchants on M Street and Wisconsin Avenue. And there was even a kosher butcher shop apparently.
Arlene: And when was this?
Steve: Way before we came. By the time we came, the Jewish population had largely moved to the suburbs. To Silver Spring, and Bethesda, mostly in Maryland, some in northern Virginia. So the synagogue was losing its congregants. Anyway, my work with Senator Javits extended, and I wound up working for him when he became ranking on the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee, as it was then called. I moved from his personal staff over to the committee staff and became the minority council to the committee, the head of the minority staff.
Arlene: And what year was that?
Steve: So that was in 1964‑65. And I was on his personal staff from ’61 to the end of ’64. And then, in ’65 until I left in ’66, I was on the committee staff. And our second son, George, was born when we were in that 28th and N Street house in 1965. And we lived there until 1968.
Arlene: Do you know any history of that house that you lived in?
Steve: That’s a good question; not really much about the history. What I do remember about it is that it had been owned for many, many years by a man named Richard Coe; C‑O‑E. He was the theater critic for “The Washington Post” for many, many years. I never met him, but that’s the only thing I really know about that house. It’s typical of Georgetown in so many ways, just as the first house was ‑ as the next house was, and as this one is ‑ in that it’s such a mixture. It’s so idiosyncratic and related to the history. That house on 1250…
Arlene: It’s 1250 N Street?
Steve: 1250 28th Street. It looks like a really big house when you look at it from where the front door is. It’s stretching all the way down the block from N Street, from the corner down, with a garden wall. But once you open the front door and walk in, you’re at the back wall.
Arlene: You had such good luck with houses.
Steve: It looked enormous compared to the first one on 26th Street. Oh yeah, we felt totally liberated. Oh boy, we’re in this great big house. But the fact was it was only a little bit deeper than the first house was wide. But it had high ceilings, and it had a whole lot more space and really was quite a charming house. And it had a bigger garden and a porch that overlooked the garden, and we enjoyed it greatly. But my wife started dabbling in real estate development, and she and another architect had done some houses on the hill. They had done some architectural work on various houses, and then, they actually bought one and…
Steve: …Renovated it and resold it. And using some of that money, and some money we borrowed from my parents, we were able to buy a Georgetown house on 32nd Street ‑ up on the hill, between Q and R ‑ as an investment. And my wife renovated that, and we were able to sell it, and repay my parents, and have enough for a down payment on our first house that we actually owned for ourselves. And that was at 1523 28th Street. So we stayed on 28th Street, we just moved up the hill.
Arlene: And around what year was this?
Steve: This was in 1968.
Arlene: So about the time you were working in the Senate?
Steve: Well I’d left the Senate staff, in 1966 to open up a law firm. To start a law firm with a friend, who was also coming out of the government, in the Justice Department. By then, I should say, first of all we, my late wife Ellen.
Arlene: What’s her complete name?
Steve: Ellen Goldberg Kurzman.
Steve: And she became, she joined an architectural firm when we came, first came here. One firm, then she moved to another firm. And then when our son, older son, Charles was born. She kept working, we had a house keeper looked after the baby. She became concerned and went through that struggle, working women go through! Once they have children and under great criticism from her colleagues at the time. She said, “I’m going to go home, and be with my son, and I’m going to practice out of my home. I’m going to do much smaller jobs…
Steve: …projects. And she took a lot of heat it was a very interesting time.
Arlene: And what year was this? And how old were your kids at this point?
Steve: Well, this was while we were in the first house. So it was sometime between ’63, when Charles was born, and ’65 when George was born, and we moved to the 28th Street house. So that was right around that time that she decided to practice on her own. And she did that for the rest of her life. We bought the house at 1523 28th Street as a set in ’68. George was then three years old. He was distraught, moving just a few blocks. He hated it, he was inconsolable.
Steve: I remember…
Arlene: He missed his house.
Steve: Oh yes! Anyway, we had Ellen remodel that house too. While we lived in it.
Steve: That was a nightmare, and a lesson! [laughter]
Arlene: She never did that again.
Steve: No! And she did a really imaginative job with that house. It had a little trash alley. Didn’t go all the way to the street, but it went back to the garden. And that had a quite a deep garden. It has. And she filled in that side alley and turned that into sort of a Pullman kitchen. With skylights above it.
Arlene: Oh wow.
Steve: And turned the old kitchen next to it into a dining room. And turned the windows into doorways, between the two, and opened up the back of that house. Put French doors in, so that it faced the porch, two story porch, and the garden. And later we put in a swimming pool.
Steve: And it was deep enough for that.
Arlene: That’s amazing.
Steve: And a pergola in the back. We had a terrible hassle over the pergola because she designed this beautiful, sort of Japanese‑y thing to block off 2500 Q Street, which was an adjacent building. Big apartment building.
Steve: It just wasn’t an attractive view at all. So she designed this thing that went up, I’ve forgotten how many feet.
Arlene: The neighbors were…
Steve: Well no, no. We had to get permission from the neighbors to do it. Ultimately we had too. Now this is part of the funny story here. I’m a lawyer, she’s an architect. It never occurred to us that we had to have permission to build this thing.
Arlene: Uh oh.
Steve: Yeah. Uh Oh! And there was a woman at the time named Eva Hinton, who was with CAG. In charge of historic preservation. And she made it her business to walk around Georgetown and spot anything! Anything ! Well you could see this thing only. And you know the restrictions only come in if you, where you have to go through the Old Georgetown board, and all that sort of thing and the Fine Arts Commission. Only if you can see it from the street. Well, you couldn’t see it from 28th Street . The only way you could see it is, was at the time, and I don’t think it’s still true because of other construction. But at the time if you stood in a particular place on Q Street, and looked sort of diagonally passed the house that was then on the corner, you could see a little piece of it and she spotted it and turned us in.
Steve: So we, you know, had to go through the whole thing, and they weren’t going to deny it, because. But they, Ellen. She’s a very strong woman. She burst into tears. They were going to make us tear it down.
Arlene: She convinced them.
Steve: That did it. So they said, “Alright, if you get permission from the neighbors all the way around. We’ll give you a variance.” So that you can call it a fence. Because it wasn’t enclosed, and we had to sign papers saying it would never be enclosed. In fact, I had built it. Largely myself.
Steve: Got a little help putting the initial posts in and cementing them, but I’d done all the rest of it. And its still there.
Arlene: Oh, I was going to ask you.
Steve: Yes, it’s still there.
Arlene: So this is at the house on 1523, then?
Steve: It is. Yes.
Arlene: …on 28th Street.
Steve: The folks who own the apartment house agreed and the neighbors on both sides agreed, in writing. So it stood. And we grew a vine going in. That’s what it was for. And a tree arched through it. In fact, there’s a painting somewhere here. My late wife did these paintings and I think she did one of the gardens that are back.
Arlene: I might have to look at it.
Steve: Yeah, I’ll show you those.
Arlene: And I bet those new owners are really grateful that you did that.
Steve: Yeah, well actually we introduced ourselves. Well, there had been a series of owners. The current owner is a very nice guy. We saw him working, one day, on the front of the house, soon after he bought it. And we introduced ourselves. And he invited us in. We saw what he had done and it was very interesting. He changed it, but nice ways. So, some of Ellen’s design is still there. The kitchen’s still there.
Arlene: That’s great.
Steve: Anyway, so that house, you asked about the history of the houses. It’s interesting that I know so little about those. They were both I’d say, Victorian period. The one on 28th and N, 1250, I don’t think either of those or the one between P and Q, here on 28th… 1870s probably. But that’s a guess. I’m not as sure about that as I am about this house.
Arlene: Was this the next house that you lived after N Street?
Steve: Yes, because my late wife and I lived in that house. Well I lived in it from 1968 until 1990. So that’s 22 years. Ellen died in 1978. She had breast cancer.
Arlene: She was young.
Steve: Yeah, she was 45.
Steve: And she had cancer half our married life, came down with it within a year after George was born, our second son. And she really battled it and went back to practice and met with clients and everything. She had been sick and she went through lots, all kinds of treatments and operations, and died in that house which is what she wanted.
Arlene: So that house holds a lot of memories.
Steve: Oh yeah. And our sons were 12 and 14 when she died. And they both, ultimately, went to Saint Albans School.
Arlene: So by the time they went to school, integration and all that was already passed right?
Steve: You mean in the public schools?
Arlene: Yeah, public schools. Did they go to private schools?
Steve: They went to private schools. That was a real struggle for us, because we both, both Ellen and I, were very much dedicated to public schools. I went to private school for the last two years of high school in New York. But otherwise all our schooling, both of us, had been in public schools. She took Charles; this is a bit of history, to the school, our nearest elementary school, where he would have started kindergarten… was up on R Street. I’m struggling for the name. It’s an artist studio now.
Arlene: Is it Jackson? I’ve heard of Jackson.
Steve: Jackson! Very good. And the principal said to Ellen, “you don’t want to send your son here.”
Arlene: And this was in the 60s, in the late 60s?
Steve: Yeah, let’s see when this would have been. Charles was born in ’63? So at 5… would be ’68. You know there was massive busing. He would have been, probably the only white child in the classroom. And we felt terrible about it. So Ellen had him start at Georgetown Day School, which was integrated. And it was a good school, whereas here you had even the principal telling you this is a terrible school.
Arlene: Wow. So there were no public schools that were integrated in a balanced way?
Steve: There was only one. And in those days you couldn’t pick your school the way you can now. By‑and‑large, Amidon, down in Southwest, was a quality public school with a much more balanced ethnic and racial makeup, even in those days. But it was unique. I think John Eaton, down on Reno Road, 34th Street, also managed. And in fact, stepsons of my wife who grew up in Cleveland Park, went to John Eaton. But those schools, where it was viable, were few and far between.
Arlene: So Georgetown I guess had a hard time making that adjustment?
Steve: Yeah. Oh very hard. Now Hyde School is really being cherished by the community, because it’s a good school, and trying to keep it so it gets a lot of help from the parents, and community support. So that’s been part of the struggle here.
Arlene: And besides school integration, what can you say about those years, where there was a shift in demographics, or?
Arlene: Maybe in the neighborhood? Were there any interesting?
Steve: Yes. Very interesting, and became a very strong part of my presidency of the citizens association. We had in those years, in the 60’s, still quite a number of families, black families, living here. In fact, one whole block between, right around the corner from our 1523 28th Street house. Between 28th and 27th on P Street, particularly on the north side, a couple of houses on the south side, were occupied by black families who had been there for generations. In fact, one of our favorite baby sitters was from one of those families, during those years. Here and there, there were still black families occupying homes, which they owned. Gradually, one by one, they sold off, and moved out, or died. Families chose to sell the homes. So the black population just dwindled. It’s tiny now, compared to what it was in the 60’s.
The black churches are still thriving. That is my perception. We have events, CAG has events, I don’t whether you went, you were here, but a couple of meetings ago, a couple of months ago, maybe a month ago. They held a meeting in one of the black churches. We’ve done this before, had speakers who talk about the black history of Georgetown, and the families who and the history that they’ve kept.
There’s an author whose wrote several books, she spoke at the last one. I’ve read one of her novels, she’s a novelist, but they’re based on history here, and her family was from here. One of my big effort when I was CAG president was to try to, somehow, get some communication going between the black residents, and the white residents.
Arlene: When were you president?
Steve: I was president for two years during the middle 90’s.
Steve: In fact I came to know one gentleman very well, and invited him to join the board. It was the first non‑white ever to be on the board of the citizens association and I think the last.
Arlene: But he did serve.
Steve: He did serve. He was terrific, and sadly died not long afterwards.
Arlene: Did you create any initiatives or any?
Steve: Yeah well we did. We started some. One was to have an event. I’m trying to remember where we did it. In which we had him and others there were at the time, and one or two of the black churches, I’m losing it on names now. There was one particular man who was a historian of the black community and really serious. He gave a presentation to our membership meeting of the history of the black community here, and then there’s been the restoration of the cemetery. I don’t whether you know about this, which is a black cemetery that really was right around the Underground Railroad route.
Arlene: I did not know this. What streets is this? Is it still there?
Steve: Yeah, it’s still there. In fact it fell into terrible disrepair, and there was a big effort that whole lot community activists got into to restore it.
Arlene: Was this during your presidency too?
Steve: I think it that project may have started during that period. I’m a little bit fuzzy about that, but I made it a big point, the board went along with me to try to reach out and see what we could do. My perception is that it’s been very hard to keep it going. First of all there are very few black residents. The few we have had as members or now have, who come to meetings and so on, are largely new comers not people whose families have been here for years.
Arlene: Yeah. Which gives it a new…
Steve: Yeah, gives it new life. That’s a good thing. But it is bitter sweet, to me, that that’s kind of evaporated, but then you have to realize too that this has what happened to every wave here, I mean we have a very tiny Jewish presence. Actually a very odd thing has happened. There’s been a renaissance of Orthodoxy among young Jews all over the United States and often from families that weren’t particularly observant at all and certainly weren’t orthodox.
Arlene: Wow, so it’s a good thing for this church, or your synagogue, I mean.
Steve: You bet. Well, it’s no longer my synagogue; we got over to that story. But, anyway, it’s caused a renaissance there. Because those who were truly orthodox will not ride to Sabbath services on Saturday or Friday.
Arlene: They’ll walk?
Steve: They have to walk and so a number of those young families have found homes either in the West End or in Georgetown or in Burleith, whatever they can afford, so they can walk to Kesher Israel. Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut is a member of the congregation. He lives up in Hilldandale and he walks down from Hilldandale to the synagogue. I’m trying to remember the novelist in our day, who wrote Caine Mutiny. It’s escaping my mind. He was a member of Kesher Israel in our day and was a big celebrity because he was such a renowned novelist.
Arlene: You might remember him later.
Steve: Oh, it will come to me. Actually, his house was on the west side on N Street. Anyway… where was I? We were talking about the changing ethnography of Georgetown. One of the oddest developments was the way the commercial corridor of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue has changed over the years. Constant, constant shifts. It was the same with the residential neighborhoods ‑ often it’s block‑by‑block, house‑by‑house. There’s no consistency in the changes. They just morph. Of course the prices go up and up and up.
Arlene: Yeah, and they never go down.
Steve: They never go down, which is great for those of us who invest here.
Arlene: Are there any stores that you particularly miss? Or are nostalgic about and remember from when you first moved to Georgetown?
Steve: Oh yeah, there were periods when we had lots of antique stores.
Arlene: I think we still do.
Steve: Nothing compared to what it was.
Arlene: In the 60’s?
Steve: Yeah, in the 60’s and 70’s there were far more. And they were high quality antique stores. Now, it’s just a handful.
Arlene: Were they down on M Street? Or were they still around the same areas where they are now?
Steve: They were all over the place. There was one really very fine one on Wisconsin Avenue, not very far up from M Street. There were several ‑ and now there’s only one left, I think ‑ on the block off Wisconsin where St. John’s Church is, on O Street. There were some going up Wisconsin Avenue. There were some going east on M Street. Now there are only a couple of them down there on M toward the Four Seasons, but there weren’t many more. They were very high quality, expensive stuff ‑ beautiful English and early American antiques.
Arlene: I find it interesting that you say that there more in the past even though, now, Georgetown has become a more affluent neighborhood.
Steve: Now it has the chain stores and we didn’t have those. There were more one‑offs. We used to have a fabulous hardware store on M Street called Minahan’s. It was down toward Key Bridge on the north side of M Street. You know one of those old‑fashioned, “everything” stores with really knowledgeable store clerks? It was great. You know we missed that greatly when it went not to have a real hardware store that you could walk to.
Arlene: When did that store go?
Steve: Oh gosh. I’ll bet they went out in the early 90’s and maybe even earlier than that. At one point, where the Gap is, we used to have a fabulous modern design house wares store. That’s an unusual building with almost loft‑like spaces. It’s enormous. I’m trying to remember the name. That was a chain of a New York store. A very small chain, but it had very high quality home furnishings. That was a big loss. It became a taekwondo studio. Can you imagine that taking the space for awhile?
So it was kind of a relief when The Gap came and fixed it up. The Georgetown theater… we used to have three movie theater in Georgetown. And it’s really interesting. Once, the Georgetown theater, which is now the awful‑looking jewelry arcade…
Arlene: Oh yeah.
Steve: So sad. That awful rusted sign in front.
Arlene: Maybe that’s another project I can take on.
Steve: Anyway, it was an OK‑theater, but down on M Street, where one of the CVS drugstores is, was the Biograph Theater. It had been a car dealership years before, that’s what it was built for, with a kind of art deco front which was still there.
Arlene: Was that there when you moved?
Steve: When we moved here, the Biograph was already there, it was no longer a car dealership, and that was a wonderful offbeat movie house. I mean, they got art movies, and just terrific and it was such a loss when that went. And for a while we were consoled because one of the families, a Jewish family named Levey, they still have a presence here. They owned a number of properties they bought during the depression, I think, and two of the three remaining sons still own a lot of those stores. They, one of the sons are a real estate, he manages those properties, the other son is… has a little bookstore, on M Street, way over near those antique shops that remained…
Arlene: Yes, across the street?
Steve: Yeah, on the south side, an unusual collection. But the third brother, who has since died David, loved movies and he created a terrific theater that for a while, after the Biograph left, failed. He kept going with terrific movies that was in the space that is now… This is terrible the chain that, there’s a house where it’s chained up…
Arlene: Oh, Parkway restoration?
Steve: Yeah, that’s it. And that was, yeah, that was a movie theater, and I’m now blanking on the name and it was terrific, I mean he did a really fine job there.
Arlene: When that one go in?
Steve: That went in the late 90’s, I think, my guess is, and then he got a few years later. Anyway, so that became part of the struggle over the development of the Ritz down at the corner of K and Wisconsin. Because when Anthony Lanier was trying to get the community going along with developing that, he told everybody that he was, it was going to be art films down there.
Arlene: Oh no. And that was when they built the Lowes?
Steve: Yes. And then, the company that was going to manage it. I can’t remember whether it was Lowes or something else, threatened to ‑ I’ve forgotten the details, but they threatened to back out of the deal, unless he did something. He had to create more theaters or something and he claimed that he didn’t have the money to do that unless he could build another floor on the top of the building to sell more apartments.
Arlene: So they did that?
Steve: Yes, and oh, the CAG, they went ballistic over that, because mainly, because it exceeded the height limitations and basically they were going to destroy a sight line down Wisconsin Avenue to the Kennedy Center, down to the river. Anyway he got away with that. And then of course the whole thing turned not into an art I’m glad it’s there. We go to it all the time because they do show some excellent movies there too.
Arlene: I mean it is the only movie theater in town.
Steve: Right, it’s the only movie theater we’ve got now, now one’s come into the West End that’s come back, that’s doing art films.
Arlene: Oh yeah, I’ve seen that.
Steve: Yeah, and that’s a treasure, we’re glad they’ve come back.
Arlene: That is good.
Steve: Yeah, we love movies, and of course the E Street Theater, the Landmark Theater on the Bethesda Row, which is terrific. But they’re a distance and you know, a hassle, parking and all the rest. Now, so we still have a lot of amenities that we can walk to, and that’s one of the reasons we love living here. And I have always loved living here, is being able to walk, I walked to work for many years in my career. A half hour walk downtown every day, it’s a wonderful health regimen. My wife walked to work, Pat my wife since 1990 when we moved here also walks to downtown to meetings and so on that she does and we you know, we eat in the restaurants and go the movies.
And I’m on the board of Dumbarton concerts at Dumbarton Church on N Street which if you like chamber music, is a fabulous series that I recommend you. And so we treasure that, we walk to the concerts and they have a terrific Dumbarton Concerts. We also have a public service arm called, Inner City Inner Child where we send trainers into daycare centers in the inner city to help them introduce literacy for preschoolers and to help them get accredited by the accrediting agency so that they get a higher match from the district and federal funds.
Arlene: That’s great. How long has this program been going?
Steve: It’s been going for many, many years. We’ve fifty or so of those day care centers accredited.
Arlene: That’s a good accomplishment.
Steve: Yeah. So that. And then the church gives us space not only for the concerts. Wonderful. The sanctuary has fabulous acoustics.
Arlene: Of course,
Steve: And they’re great. They’ve stripped it of all religious symbolism for our concerts. Candle lit concerts, beautiful spot. So I’d recommend it to…
Arlene: When did you get on board for the…
Steve: Oh when. This was after sometime in the late 90s, I think.
Arlene: So that was more recent.
Steve: Yeah, much more recent. But there are so many aspects. Even with all this flux and losing wonderful things. We get new things and some of them are very good. Some of them aren’t. Now Brooks Brother’s has moved in…
Arlene: Does that make you very happy?
Steve: So that’s very good for me.
Arlene: That’s crazy.
Steve: I’m terminally preppy.
Arlene: Yeah. Everyone has this certain style, right? And talking about new things and changes.
Arlene: Betsy told me that you are part of the community that wanted to get the water front.
Steve: Yes, yes, yes.
Arlene: Finally get a water front, right?
Steve: This is a great story. There are a whole bunch of them. And I don’t know how much time you want to give this.
Arlene: OK. We’ll this story or just…
Steve: Because I’m happy to do more session with you if there’s a time limit on how much you…
Arlene: I don’t have a time limit, but let’s say an hour and a half.
Steve: OK. All right. Well, I’ll try to be as brief as I can. Since Betsy brought up the water front. When I was leaving the presidency, my successor Bill Cochran, who is also an architect, asked the board ‑ The last president is always on the board for some period of time ‑ what we thought his highest priority would be. CAG’s highest priority would be as he started his term. I said it ought to be creating the water front park. The idea of creating a park down there that would complete the national park that’s all along the Potomac in the district had been around for generations. It had become approved in the early 80s before I was president. Before I was really involved in the park at all. Or really, involved much in CAG at all.
A plan was adopted. A memorandum of agreement between the district and the national park service that the land would ultimately be a national park. Part of the national parks all of the way from…
Arlene: By the Kennedy center…
Steve: Well, no, actually… The national park ended with the Thompson boat house.
Steve: So it already crossed Rock Creek. But where the Swedish embassy is, it was undeveloped at the time. It was in private hands… I’m trying to remember whether the Washington Harbor development was already approved. I think it was. So the park was going to be from Washington Harbor all the way to the Key Bridge.
Steve: Two and a half acres. Part of the deal that the developers had mentioned of Washington Harbor had to agree in order to get approval for their development was that the one block east of Wisconsin Avenue the foot of Wisconsin Avenue to the western edge of Washington Harbor had to be a park. That it would be part of… that they would pay for creating it. So that became a park back in those days. And the national park service was supposed to maintain it all. And it was badly disowned. But it was used heavily. So the idea that was adopted of this memorandum agreement was that the district would take over the land from Wisconsin Avenue all the way to Key Bridge temporarily to use it as a staging area for reconstruction of the White Hurst freeway.
It was a big effort to tear the freeway down; which had preceded me. Preceded my presidency. Had failed. The community wanted it torn down, by and large, in those days. But that failed. The structure was so defected by then that it required a massive amount of money. I don’t know, 30 million dollars or something to rehab it. It was going to take a long time. But no body new how long it was going to take. Anyway, during that period the District had all that land. They had this Quonset hut like thing over a salt pile, which was used not for the construction, but to spread salt on the streets during snowstorms.
Arlene: So they used it as a warehouse… an outdoor warehouse?
Steve: Exactly. They housed garbage trucks and all kinds of equipment there.
Arlene: So it was an eyesore, right next door?
Steve: There was a terrible mess. And part of it was a parking lot, which they were collecting the revenues from. The arrangement was that once the Whitehurst Freeway was completed, then the land… the District would give it back to the National Park Service and it would become a park. The plan for the park, which was adopted at the time by all the planning bodies and that included the National Capital Planning Commission. The Old Georgetown Board of the Fine Arts Commission, the Fine Arts Commission, the Historic Preservation Review Board, I mean endless. And that plan was a simple green park.
So Bill Cochran came up with the idea, “why don’t we try to get the university.” I said not only should we propose this CAG to get this done, to get this land turned back. Because they were just about to finish the construction. It took them until… that was like 1988. It took them until 1990 for them actually to finish the construction.
Arlene: So about two years?
Steve: Well no it took way longer than that!
Arlene: Oh, wait… no 12! Yeah, 12 sorry.
Steve: Way more years than that. I’m just talking about from the time I made the proposal. And Bill seized on it and I said too that we should not do it alone. And that we should do it in alliance with the business association and the university. So that we have the residential community, the business community who obviously would benefit from having a green park and so would the university. So to do that we had to create some sort of an entity. And Bill came up with the idea, “we’ll create a commission.” The Georgetown Waterfront Commission. It was not incorporated. It had no significance at all. It just sounded…
Steve: Yeah. And he had a very good idea. He said “Senator Chuck Percy, Charles Percy, of Illinois is a resident of Georgetown. Let’s see if he would chair it,” cause that will give it the cache. Cause by then he was an ex‑Senator, having been defeated. But he stayed in Georgetown and so he agreed to do it.
And we had these monthly meetings. We had them over in Saint John’s Church, I think. Or maybe in Christ Church here, I think on this side. I can’t remember what church. Anyway, in the big parish house. And we had these monthly meetings and the National Park Service representatives would come. And we had Council Woman… Delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton. We brought in all kinds of people to try to lean on them to, first of all to get the district to give it up. They didn’t want to give it up, so that took enormous effort.
I wound up testifying before with another member of the commission. Anybody could be on it, you just walked in you were a member. The two of us went and testified before the Public Works Committee of the DC Council, to get them to appropriate or lean on the Department of Public Works to spend the money, to get the junk off there, and turn the land back to the Park Service.
And we thought that we had the plan that already had been approved all around. The Park Service people had drawn it up, as they do for their parks by‑and‑large. They have big staff that does all these things. It was just a green park, with a walkway along the river, and traditional National Park Service benches that are used all around and the traditional lighting for Georgetown, the Washington Standard lampposts, that is all over and is even in Washington Harbor with its crazy post modern architecture. Even they have… it has red brick pathways and it’s just like the rest of Georgetown.
Well a funny thing happened. We finally succeeded in getting the District off of there and getting the property turned back to the Park Service. But then a very odd thing happened. Also during those years, when we were holding the Commission meetings, people would come up with ideas for what ought to be in the park. There was a skating rink, and there should be a flagpole…
Arlene: A memorial.
Steve: …and there should be this, and there should be that, and there should be places to eat. And there was a whole hassle about a parcel at the far western end of the park, which Clyde’s Restaurant had gotten an option on while the district still held the property. It was a narrow strip of land and their plan was to build a restaurant on a barge out in the river.
Steve: And you’d have parking or a walk way down to it on the land. So, there was a big hassle about should that be done. And then there was a huge human cry by the rowing community. First of all, George Washington University and Georgetown University share Thompson’s Boat House with a whole lot of community rowers and high school crews, many of them from private schools way out in the burbs. It’s just totally overcrowded; the demand is enormous.
So, particularly the high school teams wanted to have boat houses and so there were people who were championing turning that whole thing into, like, the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia with boat houses all along.
Arlene: So everybody had different visions?
Steve: Everybody had a different idea. So, largely, motions from the floor like mine because I was dead‑set against this I would say on each one, “All right let’s take a vote.” And, overwhelmingly each time each one of these ideas got turned down in favor of a simple green park.
Steve: The theory that I used was “Look, you have boat houses and activity to the west of Key Bridge and there are extra places there for more boat houses.” Empty spaces which were designated as part of the original plan for boat houses. The original plans set on the Clyde’s property said that if Clyde’s didn’t get the permit to build that in the river, then it would be for a boat house. So, there was going to be one east but that still left a large slot.
In any event, we had that history. Then, when it fell back into the Park Service’s hands, a handful of ‑ I hate to say this ‑ women decided that this wasn’t a grand enough plan for the land. One of them went so far as to say, “This is the entryway to the nation’s capitol. Hello? And it’s got to reflect that and it’s for the whole nation; it’s not just for Georgetown.”
Arlene: They wanted a monument?
Steve: No, they wanted it to be designed not by the National Park Service but by a world‑class designer of parks.
Arlene: Oh, wow.
Steve: So, at the time when this decision was made up to that point, the Park Service had estimated it would cost eight million dollars to do the green park that had been approved in the ’80s. They said even then ‑ this is 1990 or so ‑ “We cannot build this park. We have no money for that and we can’t ask Congress for it because we struggled to get the money to maintain the national parks that we already have. So, we tell every new community who wants a new project, they have to raise their own money.” So, we were starting to think of how you are going to do that. And one big factor was that as soon as the property was turned back to the Park Service, the revenues from the parking lot ‑ not the whole revenue, because the operator got some of it ‑ but the balance went back into a fund, which the district had pocketed for a long time. And then once it went into the Park Service, it went to the National Parks Foundation, which is a non‑profit support group for the Park Service.
They were building up a fund, so we had a start toward the eight million dollars with that. Over a period of time that would grow. So, that was a beginning. But, there was this idea, “No, that plan is not good enough,” and the Park Service did a 180 on us. After having supported their original plan, they caved into this small group who insisted on having a world‑class designer.
So, then we went through an agonizing business of, well, which world‑class? So, several firms bid and it was narrowed down from five to three, and it was a nightmare. Anyway, in the end a firm in Philadelphia which does work all over the world ‑ landscape architects ‑ was hired. Well, they then went through this process of inviting everybody in.
Arlene: On the design.
Steve: And so people who had never come to the community mission meetings came to those meetings. It just opened into a maelstrom and more and more ideas. The biggest proponents were this small group who really wanted facilities for the boating community and for the spectators at the handful of races that are run along that stretch for people to watch them. For years what had happened during those ‑ it’s a handful of spring weekends the weather’s warm enough to have races out there, and the schools are still in session. It’s just a handful of weeks. People would come the families and the high schools from all over and they built little tents all along.
Arlene: They didn’t think that just having a classic park in the city and having a picnic…
Steve: Yeah, sure.
Arlene: And watching them was enough.
Steve: We didn’t need anything. Well, anyway, the net effect of this was after years this company came up a plan. They had steps down into the river at the foot of Wisconsin Avenue, concrete steps which would be a kind of stadium seating to watch.
Steve: They have an interactive fountain at the foot of Wisconsin Avenue, where you can walk through the spring water.
Arlene: Kind of like Millennium Park in Chicago.
Steve: They were going to have pergolas, two pergolas that stretch in the old park, the part towards Washington Harbor. And you can see the posts for those are already gone. Even worse, they were going to have three… gigantic… they had an outdoor sculptor from the West coast as part of their design team that this company had brought in. And she… had built one of these… sort of leaning mast‑like structures of fiberglass in Santa Monica. Because you have a 2,000‑mile coast, and Santa Monica wanted to be visible from the sea, as a separate, unique… So she built this thing that sticks up there. It’s fiberglass.
Well what she wanted was three of those in the West end of our park, to symbolize the nautical history. They were sort of mast‑like, and we were going to have fiberglass internally lighted towers as tall as the Whitehurst Freeway, canted out over the river, and these wave‑like canopies over seating, all of fiberglass, and molded fiberglass under‑lighting seats underneath.
Arlene: Which would blend so well with…
Steve: Yeah, with Georgetown. They are clearly evocative of Georgetown.
Arlene: So all these were approved?
Steve: Well, we went through a terrible struggle. I and two other younger people took the lead, and we got petitions signed by hundreds of Georgetowners against this. And we testified. Many of the leading architects who live in Georgetown signed our petition. And we went down to the Old Georgetown Board and the Fine Arts Commission, over and over and over and over again.
Arlene: So you had an overwhelming support for this cause, which is interesting that it would go that far.
Steve: We got them to drop the three masts, so we won something. But we lost on all the rest. So what’s been built from Wisconsin Avenue to Key Bridge, or almost to Key Bridge, It’s certainly better than a parking lot. But it’s over‑built in itself. Too many paths. And they put in these crazy modern lights that don’t have any connection to Georgetown. What we think happened, is the design firm essentially, after all… river was deep enough for shipping, sailing vessels to come all the way up from all over the world. There is a major East coast port. Hard to believe.
And then it became industrial in the 20th century, so that there was nothing typical about it. But you go just a little further up the hill toward the canal, and then you see all these brick buildings.
Steve: And brick sidewalks. It just is inconsistent to me, and I fear that what we have is an off‑the‑shelf sort of corporate looking park that they used for developments and corporate developments elsewhere. In any event, it’s better than a parking lot. And it will connect all the midway, all the way to the Kennedy Center, you know, the walkway, and that’s all good.
Steve: And certainly, even the part that’s been built is being heavily used. Clearly there’s a demand for that kind of a… There’s still a struggle over the boat‑house issue. And I won’t bore you with all that, but there’s a lot of detail about it.
Arlene: It’s come a long way.
Steve: It’s come a long way, and unfortunately it became a 20‑30‑million dollar project that’s still not paid for fully. They couldn’t raise the money. They never raised enough money even to pay for the fundraisers and the designers.
Arlene: Oh no.
Steve: So the bulk of the money has come from the federal government. And astonishingly, three‑million from the District of Columbia. And they’ve run out of money again, and now they’re trying so raise some more. So it’s unfortunate. We could have had a simple green park. Way back. But someday, I guess it’ll get completed and I just hope that whatever money is available, the park service will be able to maintain it. Because maintaining these structures particularly fountain…
Arlene: It’s expensive.
Steve: …take care of the fountain, and I’m very worried about the safety of people falling into the river from steps going down into the river.
Steve: It’s a very swift flowing current there.
Arlene: Yeah. Well hopefully the economic recession will open up that mindset of keeping things smaller.
Arlene: Smaller scale and simpler.
Steve: It’s too late for the park.
Arlene: That’s true.
Steve: We’ll see, we’ll see.
Arlene: Yeah. And I guess before I leave, I just want to ask you a little bit more about this house, and when you moved here and…
Steve: Oh sure. Sure. Well when Pat and I… She was also widowed. And when we got married in 1990, she’d lived over in the Foxhall at MacArthur Blvd. area, which I considered the suburbs. I got nosebleeds going over there.
Arlene: I actually live there.
Steve: Oh, I’m sorry.
Arlene: It’s OK.
Steve: And each said we’re going to move into the other’s house and we’ll do whatever needs to fixed and so on. And then we said, “Well, you want to change what?” [laughter]
Steve: And then we followed the advice of all our friends and family who said, “Sell them both and buy one.” It’ll be an “ours” instead of “yours” or “mine,” so that’s how we came to this house. When we started looking, we thought this house was very odd and rejected it. And, then after looking at some others we came back to it and bought it. As I said earlier it’s typical of so much of Georgetown in its mixture.
The wall behind you was an adjoining wall. It was a wall of the house next door. The house next door is one story higher. There was a doorway there ‑ you see this crack. We’ve had that redone a couple times and the crack always comes back.
Arlene: It wants to remind you of the…
Steve: Right, that this was part of that house. And this woodwork and these two rooms and the two rooms above are 1840s. That part and this part of our house. This was the outside wall. Where you have the fireplace was the outside wall, and there was a side garden where you see our front hall. It was a side garden that went all the way back. Originally, the house had a huge backyard across what are now two houses. And way back past what is now West Lane Keys, or Cherry Hill Lane I think is the one that faces, and it went way back. It was a huge piece of property. Then, over the years, it got sold.
Arlene: In pieces.
Steve: It just got sold off, so we have no access from the back. Excuse me, the houses on Cherry Hill Lane back to us. In the 1960s ‑ I think 1966 ‑ an architect and a couple bought the property and split it into two houses.
Arlene: So, it’s a fairly recent ‑ I mean, the 60’s, I guess.
Steve: The 60’s, so part of our house is 1840s and part of our house if 1960s. They filled in, wrapped around in the side garden and across the back of both houses.
Arlene: The sunroom.
Steve: So I’ll show you the very high‑ceilinged den in the back. And the kitchen was created in that side garden. In the upstairs, we have the master bedroom suite in the back. Anyway, they did quite a job. Then successive owners on both sides have remodeled. So, when we bought it in 1990, we really didn’t change much. We took out a hot tub that was inoperative in the garden and put in a lap swimming pool. There are swimming pools all around this block in the backs of these houses.
Arlene: And nobody would have guessed.
Steve: No one would ever know. My wife accused me of having swimming pool envy when we moved in. There were all these swimming pools around, but my late wife and I had put one in, as I mentioned.
Woman 1: As you’re doing this, if it’s missed, there’s a wonderful book called The Secret Gardens of Georgetown. You can drive down because you’d have no idea what some of these homes have.
Arlene: Yeah, that’s something I’ve thought about. That’s beautiful. Yeah, because you don’t really see a lot addresses that are “and a half.”
Steve: That’s right, and it causes all kinds of problems because computer programs often don’t allow for a half in an address.
Arlene: That is true.
Steve: We have to do work around. Sometimes we get them to put a period in after the 26.5. But usually what happens is it can’t be done.
Arlene: Your neighbors.
Steve: Yeah, our stuff winds up in our neighbor’s mail box, or packages ‑ it’s a problem. But it’s typical of Georgetown. It’s full of anomalies.
Arlene: Quaint quirkiness. Well, it’s a beautiful house.
Steve: Thank you.
Arlene: Yeah, I’ll record that. So, your first house…
Steve: The first house that my late wife and I bought here, after having rented two houses, was the one at 1523 28th Street between P and Q, and we paid 61,500 dollars as I recall. I thought it was outrageously beyond our means and she had to talk me into buying it.
Steve: Twenty‑two years later, when I sold it after she had died and I lived in it for many years after that, I sold it for somewhere between 600,000 and 700,000 dollars. Now even considering the rate of general inflation, that still was way past over the 22 years the rate of inflation.
Arlene: So she…
Steve: She was right; I was wrong.
Arlene: Wow, 61,000 dollars ‑ that’s barely a down payment at this point.
Steve: Yeah, right. Of course, we put a lot of money into the house even when we first moved in, so it’s not quite as stark.
Arlene: It was worth it.
Steve: Yeah, in contrast, surely we put at least 40,000 to 50,000 dollars right away into the pool.
Arlene: Beautiful finishes.
Steve: The pergola, the kitchen and all that, yeah.