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Not long after the end of the Civil War, a house was constructed on a small slice of land in Northwest Washington, D.C., in an area now known as Logan Circle.
The land had belonged to Seth Ledyard Phelps, a Union navy officer in the Civil War and later a commissioner of the District of Columbia, who was subdividing the area and built his own house a block away.
The city was immersed in a period of explosive development. The war had brought waves of people from all directions: Journalists, foreign diplomats, federal workers, tourists, and tens of thousands of refugees from the South—many of them former slaves—all poured in, seeking both the relative safety and the heady excitement within the District’s heavily protected borders. Soldiers traipsed the streets; nightlife in all its forms abounded; refugees congregated in sprawling camps of tents and shacks; war traitors and spies were publicly hanged in open fields.
The Union Army made forts of its old barracks to house former slaves, many of whom had been attracted to the area partly by its sizable population of free African-Americans; President Abraham Lincoln had outlawed slavery here in 1862, nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation. An
1861 federal policy classified the refugees as “contraband,” and therefore Union property. One of the most famous “contraband camps,” which Lincoln visited and which by one estimate was occupied by some 4,000 people, was Camp Barker, located in what is now Shaw at approximately 12th and R streets NW.
By the end of the war, 25,000 African-American migrants called the District home, and many of them settled where they’d started: in the neighborhoods of Shaw and U Street. The city’s overall population had doubled. Newcomers flocked first to the real estate around the White House and the Capitol building; a “second wave” of land prospectors soon drifted outward. In 1864, streetcars arrived on 14th Street NW, transforming the surrounding area into a major transportation and commercial corridor. The additions of paved roads, gas lines, and sewers helped bring the former farmland swiftly into vogue among both blacks and whites. The public-hanging fields and eventually the land around the “contraband camps” became neighborhoods. One of these neighborhoods, located just blocks from Camp Barker and a stone’s throw from 14th Street, was Iowa Circle.
Brian Kraft, a local historian, guesses the house on Phelps’ subdivision was built between 1873 and 1879. Nearly a century and a half later, I moved out of the building.
By the time I moved into the house in late 2013, the dilapidated edifice was playing a very different role: a low-rent, Craigslisted group house for a motley, transient band of young professionals, host to a seedy parade of strange parties, crusty countertops, soggy takeout containers, and a virtual revolving door of tenants.
The worn white-brick building at 1204 Q St. NW, stained in places and draped in ivy, stands out from the others on its elegant block like an overgrown tooth. When I lived there, a brass lion’s head knocker yawned on the front door. The inside of the house—if you could ignore the cracked and cruddy windows, overflowing garbage cans and sticky floors—emanated old-America grandeur: high ceilings, wooden staircases, and sweeping broken banisters. A magnificent fireplace and tall windows lined the walls of the expansive living room, furnished with a few grungy couches and some video games.
Five of the six people who lived in the main house at 1204 Q St. in February 2014 shared one shower, toilet, and sink. Dirt and leaves coated the floor of the bathtub; beer stains mottled the floor, which was scattered with broken glass. I found what looked like a bloodstain near the bathtub drain. I showered at my office most days, even on weekends, to avoid the mildew crypt we called our shower.
A battered crystal chandelier, missing light bulbs, dangled over the desecrated dining-room table; a curvy, flesh-colored tub loomed in one corner of the massive second-floor bathroom. My bedroom had three windows and a private balcony. We could see the Washington Monument from our rooftop deck. It hadn’t opened to the public yet when the house was built.
Starting with the post–Civil War era that first shaped D.C.’s downtown, 1204 Q St. NW would be called home by more than a half-dozen owners and countless more people whose names don’t show up in the city’s property records. By the time I moved in, it had fallen behind the curve of the redevelopment sweeping the area around Logan Circle now, but for 14 decades, the house has stood through booms and busts, riots and redlining. And the story of the house on Q Street, ultimately, is also the story of the neighborhood—and the city—around it.
Alexander Upshaw was a self-assured man.
Standing just 5’6”, the Tennesseean nominated in 1886 by President Grover Cleveland to the post of Assistant Commissioner of Indian Affairs, to serve under Commissioner John D.C. Atkins, insisted that he must always be addressed as “General.” The brazen new appointee piqued national interest at a time when the relationship between the federal government and Native Americans could be described as patronizing and paternalistic at best and genocidal at worst.
“It would be safe to say,” the New York Times wrote of Upshaw in 1886, “that no United States official of his size has more pluck, more energy, or better knowledge of the ropes, or greater capacity for having things done as he wants them.”
By the time Upshaw took office, the Logan Circle we see today had been solidly established as a posh new living destination. Then–Iowa Circle was also somewhat of a sociological phenomenon. The report filed much later to establish the neighborhood as a historic preservation area explains that by then it “had become a home for a racially mixed group of professionals and middle-class businessmen. The area’s racial integration was in many respects contrary to the prevalent social condition of increasing segregation.”
In September 1887, Upshaw leased the “handsome residence” at 1204 Q St. and moved there with his family. His wife quickly settled into her new home in their trendy location and the Upshaws’ prominent position in Washington society. “Miss Annie Blake, a handsome and attractive young lady from the South, is visiting the Capital, a guest of Mrs. A.B. Upshaw,” trumpeted the Washington Post society pages. “Mrs. George L. Thomas and family…are guests of Mrs. A.B. Upshaw. They sail on the 4th for Europe.”
They needed some serious help entertaining, too. A June 1888 ad in the Washington Evening Star read: “Wanted—A splendid cook who will clean up house. None but first-class cooks need apply. 1204 Q. st., n.w.”
Mrs. Upshaw may have quickly become a successful socialite, but her husband had a tough slog toward popularity. Cleveland was the first Democrat in the White House in nearly 20 years, and his administration faced accusations that it hired friends of the party in positions for which they were far from qualified—particularly within the Indian Bureau.
“Nearly every appointment in the Indian service is made by [Upshaw], or comes direct from him, and is turned to his account in some way,” the Indian Rights Association accused. In its initial announcement of Upshaw’s appointment, one newspaper noted that Upshaw was himself “an intimate friend of [current] Commissioner Atkins” who, The Nation chimed in later, exerted his own will over that of his “weak,” “simple-minded” and “good-natured” boss.
Regardless of the power dynamic, one of the legacies of this Indian Bureau leadership was its unwavering order that Native American children be taught only in English, rather than in their indigenous languages or with a mix of the two.
“Nothing but English must be taught or spoken in the school,” Upshaw, mincing no words, declared. The decision ignited debates about the separation of church and state when missionaries who also ran schools in Indian territories insisted that they be allowed to run those schools as they chose.
The missionaries weren’t the only unhappy ones. One piece in a March 1888 issue of The Nation read: “Upshaw is too expensive a person for any administration to keep in the house. He cannot get votes out of the Indians, and he disgusts thousands of voters who wish well to President Cleveland’s Administration, but to whom cruelty and jobbery and corruption are never so odious as when practised on those who cannot complain.”
Later that year, both Atkins and Upshaw resigned. Atkins left first; notably, Upshaw wasn’t promoted to Indian Commissioner, and he bowed out in December. He moved to New York City, entered the street railway securities business, and died in 1899. His daughter Mary Bradford Upshaw, whose father hadn’t believed in higher education for women, studied the books in his library, put herself through private school, and later became the first woman to serve as assistant civil service examiner for the city of New York.
Thomas Herndon and his friend forced their small boat through the late-May storm seething over Lake Griffin, Fla., toward the upside-down vessel they’d spotted three miles from shore. Its two occupants, now mostly submerged in the choppy water, grasped at its sides for dear life. Herndon and his companion heaved the two men into their boat and set off for shore again. The storm whipped and battered the four men for hours. Finally, they reached land.
That was in 1880. Eighteen years later, Herndon, who’d received a medal of honor for the rescue, founded the American Cross of Honor Society, which celebrated others who’d saved human lives. In 1902, then a clerk at the Department of the Interior, Herndon moved into 1204 Q St. and from there wrote a letter to the editor of the Washington Post. He titled it “Our Ambassador’s Biceps. Possible Effect of the Appearance on His Majesty King Edward” and within it fretted that the United States’ delegate to King Edward VII’s coronation didn’t have attractive enough legs for the task. From his house by 13th and Q, Herndon frequently sent the Post letters, poems, and other tidbits, which appear fairly regularly in archives.
The Westminster Abbey coronation was at the time in high demand among American diplomats and travelers; Herndon wasn’t the only one to express an opinion about who should and should not go. President Theodore Roosevelt himself, who did not attend, sent and received several letters on the matter. “This great nation is expected to excel in everything, legs not excepted,” Herndon wrote in the Post, “and when we deliberately…send a brand of inferior quality to such an important event, we need not be surprised if we hear the growl of the British lion.
“It is said,” Herndon continued, “no ruler, king, or emperor is ever invited to the coronation of a monarch, for the reason that he who is to be crowned must be supreme—no one in attendance must approach him in title or in station. Now, it may be that the same rule holds good in legs; our rulers may have intended the selection of the pair that will attend the coronation, as a delicate compliment, to his majesty Edward VII.”
In 1871 in Noxubee County, Miss., former slaves Andy and Amanda Willbanks welcomed one of their seven children: a son named Alexander.
Alexander Willbanks found his calling as a teenager, when he joined the Baptist Church. He became a licensed minister in 1894 and soon moved to D.C. to study at Howard University’s divinity school. He also lead the congregation at the Mount Zion Baptist Church. Five hundred men and women joined the church during his six years there. The Rev. Dr. Willbanks then moved to the 32-member Virginia Avenue Baptist Church, also known as the Friendship Baptist Church.
In January 1908, he purchased a $1,500 automobile. “He is the only pastor in the city, white or colored, who has such a car,” reported the Washington Bee.
On April 14, 1914 Willbanks married hairdresser Lottie Dixon, who became his private secretary as his popularity took off. When he left the Virginia Avenue church in 1915, the congregation weighed in at 1,600 strong. A few years later he moved to the Tenth Street Church, where he worked until he died, and membership jumped from 22 to 1,356. Willbanks traveled across the U.S. and even abroad as a guest preacher.
“One would hardly expect to see an old Southern town like Savannah or Charleston turn out to welcome a negro preacher with a great parade,” an essayist wrote of Willbanks in The History of the American Negro and his Institutions, a 1922 collection edited by A.B. Caldwell, “and yet that is just what transpired at both places, as well as in the North and East.”
The “white newspapers” in a segregated country nicknamed Willbanks the “Black Billy Sunday,” after the prominent baseball player-turned-evangelist Billy Sunday. Willbanks’ dramatic, emotional sermons converted thousands. A headline in the Philadelphia Evening Ledger on March 24, 1915, read: “Negro Revivalist Wrestles With Devil and Women Faint: ‘Black Billy Sunday’ charges down aisles of church—his fervor persuades 29 men and women to ‘strike the pike.’” Willbanks gave sermons with names like “The Prayer Meeting in Hell” and “The Child Sneezing Seven Times After Death.”
“If your prayers are not answered, maybe the devil’s cut your tele, or you haven’t paid the phone bill to heaven,” he told the Philadelphia congregation. Willbanks also led mass river baptisms, a popular phenomenon of the day; in 1919 he organized a two-week session around the public ritual in Indianapolis. In 2011, a photo of Willbanks performing such a baptism was included in an exhibit at New York’s International Center for Photography.
The country and the city were changing fast. With the blazing popularity of the automobile and development of streetcar lines came a surge of suburban neighborhoods (like Mount Pleasant and Petworth) and towns (Arlington and Chevy Chase both boomed after World War I). People who could afford to move out of the center of the city and commute to work, mostly whites, emigrated en masse from central D.C. The Iowa/Logan Circle neighborhood went from racially mixed to predominantly black, home over the next several decades to a comfortable middle class of doctors, businessmen, lawyers and civil rights activists—and at least one pastor. “Those black people with homes on Logan Circle,” wrote Karen Bates-Logan in the Washington Post several decades later, “were living at one of the most prestigious addresses in the city.”
In the wake of Plessy v. Ferguson, blacks all over the U.S. faced increasing discrimination and institutionalized segregation, and the nation’s capital was no different. But nearby Howard University began to draw crowds of intellectuals to the area near 1204 Q St. Blocks away, the U Street corridor emerged as the heart of the city’s African-American community. Langston Hughes lived there for a time; Duke Ellington grew up near U Street—one of his childhood homes is just blocks from 1204 Q—and in the early 1920s helped launch one of the richest jazz scenes in the country.
Alexander and Lottie Willbanks moved to 1204 Q St. in 1922, and the Rev. Dr. Willbanks kept preaching. “He is a master of audiences, and plays upon their emotions as a musician plays upon the strings of his instrument,” said the essayist in The History of the American Negro and his Institutions. “At one time his hearers will be convulsed in laughter only to find themselves in a few moments looking through their tears…Great crowds throng his services—white and colored.” The Rev. Dr. Willbanks was elected official evangelist for the National Baptist Convention and served in that position until his death.
Lottie died in January 1929, according to the Washington Evening Star. She was 38. So many people showed up for her funeral in the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church that a wall cracked. Four years later, in mid-October 1933, a 62-year-old Alexander suffered a paralytic stroke in the house and died there. People turned up for his funeral by the thousands.
“Crowds halt traffic, jam church, to honor Dr. Willbanks,” read the Oct. 18 Washington Post. Funeral services lasted from dawn to dusk. Early that morning crowds lined up for a seat in the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church; 2,500 eventually filed in. A thousand more crammed downstairs and more blocked traffic in the street.
“Amplifiers had been provided to carry messages to the crowds,” the Post continued. “The funeral procession arrived at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery after dark. Hundreds of automobiles formed a huge circle and, in a blaze of light, the body was lowered into a grave beside that of his wife.”
The 14th Street commercial corridor boomed during the early 20th century. Automobile showrooms, repair, and parts shops—which are now places like the Studio Theatre and Le Diplomate—brought their customers to the Logan Circle area.
In 1932, Thomas A. Williston, an Ohio native, graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, and member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, graduated from Howard University Medical School. Two years later he earned a physician’s license to practice in D.C. and married Carol Carson, a University of Michigan alumna and member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, social worker, and daughter of a highly respected surgeon. The Willistons moved into the Logan Circle house. Dr. Williston established a private practice and ran it out of the separate-entrance English basement.
In 1939 the couple added a garage and a fourth story to the building. They redid the outside of the house, adding the brick of today’s façade, and put in a fence a few years later. Carol was promoted to director of medical social service at Freedmen’s Hospital, eventually persuading her colleagues that medical social workers were a necessity there. She joined the American Association of Medical Social Workers and served on the board of the D.C. Society for the Prevention of Blindness. Thomas worked as a part-time physician in the Department of Public Health and as an “attending physician on the D.C. Health Department’s tuberculosis bureau for 18 years,” according to the Washington Evening Star. Thomas Williston, a lover of jazz, and his wife turned the third floor of their home into a music hall. “Tom numbered among his friends all the important musicians,” wrote prominent lawyer and civil rights leader Truman K. Gibson, Jr.—whose wife Isabelle was Carol Williston’s first cousin—in his memoir Knocking Down Barriers: My Fight for Black America. (Other friends of Williston’s, according to Gibson: Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegun, whose father was the Turkish ambassador, and who founded Atlantic Records in 1947.)
Then the curtain dropped.
Congress passed the Communist Control Act on Aug. 24, 1954. “I have today signed S. 3706, an act to make illegal the Communist Party and to prohibit members of Communist organizations from serving in certain representative capacities,” declared President Dwight D. Eisenhower. “The American people are determined to protect themselves and their institutions against any organization in their midst which, purporting to be a political party within the normally accepted meaning, is actually a conspiracy dedicated to the violent overthrow of our entire form of government.”
On Sept. 13, 1954, Carol Williston was suspended from her job at Freedmen’s by Nelson Rockefeller, future governor of New York and vice-president to Gerald Ford, who at the time served as undersecretary for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (which controlled the hospital before it was transferred to Howard). The charge Rockefeller delivered to Williston: Her husband had admitted to membership in the Communist Party of the United States of America from 1942 to 1946.
Sometimes legal action against suspected Communists leaned on testimony from paid spies. In the Willistons’ case, that spy was a former beauty shop employee named Mary Markward, whose husband had been deployed to join World War II just a week after their wedding. In 1943, at age 21, Markward joined the Communist Political Organization as an FBI informant. Six years later, struggling with symptoms of multiple sclerosis, she resigned from the party and the spying. But her accusations between 1951 and 1954 before the House Un-American Activities Committee propelled the cases against Williston and more than 200 other D.C.-area residents.
Markward claimed Williston had belonged to D.C.’s Communist Political Association between June 1944 and October 1945. Williston eventually admitted to party membership from 1942 to 1946, and also to membership in several Communist-friendly organizations between the late 1930s and 1952. In 1956, the General Accounting Office demanded that Williston, who was by then receiving retirement benefits and just two years away from dying of cancer, repay the salary he received as a government employee for the five years he’d been a Communist.
Carol Williston was busy fighting battles of her own. The Baltimore Afro-American reported that she’d hired two lawyers to combat the various charges brought against her as a result of her husband’s political ties. Allegedly, for example, she’d once donated a dollar to the American League for Peace and Democracy, a pacifist and anti-fascist organization founded in 1933 by the CPUSA. But she insisted that she “gave no further thought in the matter” after the donation. To a charge that she’d consorted at the Russian Embassy, Williston retorted that she’d once run into the vice president there.
“Petite, dark-haired and attractive, Mrs. Williston lives with her physician husband, Dr. Thomas Williston, in the blue-trimmed, white, stone residence which is a local landmark at 1204 Q St., NW,” read the Afro-American in a December 1954 piece detailing the support Williston received from friends and colleagues during her legal troubles. “The loyalty charges against Mrs. Williston, which came as a surprise to the Washington community, and evoked prompt and vigorous support for her from those who know her, do not seem to have disturbed her natural poise and charm.”
But the prosecutors also leveled two more serious charges: that Carol Williston had associated with Communist Party members and “subversive groups,” and that meetings of the Communist Party had been held in the Willistons’ home. She and her husband had lived at 1204 Q St. for about a decade and a half.
Carol Williston denied much knowledge about the alleged meetings, explaining that the doctor’s office in the basement had a separate entrance and so she had no way of knowing who came and went there. But her husband had admitted to her—and the FBI—that he’d held one meeting in his office, “at the end of his office hours, over 10 years ago,” around 1944. The meeting would have been held in the English basement of the house. Today, that’s two separate-entrance apartments and the laundry room.
In late December 1954, Carol Williston was given her job back, a few days before Christmas.
In the house at 1204 Q St. “at the foot of the stairs, in the basement, to the right, was a room, and that was our chapel. We had Mass there every morning,” Fr. Anselm Deehr recalls.
Deehr, a brother and eventually a priest in the Catholic Church, lived at 1204 Q St. with colleagues from 1960 to 1969. The priests and brothers of the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity rented the house from 1960 until approximately 1973, and at least while Deehr lived there, held their religious services in the basement. Deehr now lives at the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity’s retirement residence in Adelphi, an independent-living home for retired priests and brothers. He is 79 years old.
The Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity worked just a few blocks away from their home, in the Fides House at 8th and Q streets NW, running after-school programs for local kids in arts and crafts, sports, music, and swimming, plus a summer day camp.
“All the activities were just keeping them [the children] busy and occupied,” Deehr says. “It was important…a lot of the families were on welfare and they were just one-parent families. So the kids really didn’t have much.”
By the time he lived there, Deehr says, the inhabitants of 1204 Q St. knew their house had been owned by a doctor. Carol Williston’s name is on the 1972 tax assessment for the house, which suggests they may have been renting from her; she died in 1976 after several years of illness. The men had a cook and paid a total of about $325 per month in rent; in the summers, students from their seminary also lived in the house. At one point, the group thought about buying it. It would have cost $17,000, Deehr says, “but we were employed by the archdiocese of Washington…and the archdiocese thought it was too much.”
About 40 years later, the city’s tax office values the house at $813,260.
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
“I remember the night that he was killed I was at a meeting down 7th Street somewhere,” says Deehr, “and someone came in and told us about it. So we called the meeting off, and then I drove up 14th Street toward U out of curiosity, because I expected that something was gonna happen. And sure enough, it does.”
D.C. residents gathered at 14th and U streets (and elsewhere) to mourn. Before long, riots, flames, and looters were ripping down 14th Street, which runs one block past the house. The chaos quickly spread to other neighborhoods. More than 13,000 federal troops were mobilized. Machine guns stood at the ready in front of the Capitol. Twelve people died.
The morning after King’s death, Deehr headed to the Fides House, near what was then Shaw Junior High School. “They let school out early, and the kids started breaking in the stores there,” Deehr says. Fides House had a camera club, so one day he and a couple students grabbed cameras and headed out to shoot the action—until young rioters started throwing stones at them and “we just had to run.”
“After a few days things calmed down and, you know, everything went back to normal,” he says.
But for much of the neighborhood, “normal” was still a long way off.
The area between U Street and Logan Circle, today one of the hippest drags in D.C., has only in the last few decades shown signs of substantial recovery, on the heels of which came the breakneck development and gentrification of the 2000s. In the years after the riots, the charred, boarded-up buildings made nearby neighborhoods a prime location for drug dealing, prostitution, and other crimes. Another mass exodus occurred; many who could get out of the area did.
In 1972, Logan Circle earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. By the middle of the decade it had been rediscovered as a “high-rent district,” but the illicit bustle lived on. Residents frequently found used condoms near their homes; construction contractors found syringes strewn through houses. Police assigned undercover officers to pose as prostitutes and started impounding the cars of suspected customers.
“Logan Circle…was for many years,” the Post reported in 1981, “the closest thing Washington had to an honest-to-God red-light district.”
Jan. 10, 1972 was a busy day for President Richard Nixon. He called Billy Graham in the Virgin Islands. He spoke with his chief speechwriter about the first draft of the upcoming State of the Union address. He chatted with Vice President Spiro Agnew about the razor Agnew had given him for his birthday, “secret documents” and a “leak problem,” “court decisions” and “legislative strategy.” Then he called the secretary of defense, Melvin Laird, and the two talked about Vietnam and an arms treaty with the Soviets. He also spoke at some length with Henry Kissinger, then the national security advisor.
But first Nixon spent four minutes at lunchtime with Arthur A. Fletcher, executive director of the United Negro College Fund, several assistants, and a young man from Atlanta named Carthur L.M. Drake.
Nixon handed Fletcher a check, which according to the Atlanta Daily World “marked the first time that a president in office had personally contributed to the UNCF.” The men posed for a photo.
In 1971, just after his graduation from Morehouse College, Drake had gotten a job as assistant to the regional director for the D.C. branch of the United Negro College Fund. By 1973, he’d been promoted to area director. By 1975, Drake’s name was listed in the city directory for 1204 Q St.
He expanded into city contracting. Drake’s companies, including one called DAC Corp, soon held several million dollars in city contracts.
Drake became good friends with many of the city’s power elite, most prominently civil rights activist-turned-D.C. councilmember and then-Mayor Marion Barry. Barry bought him a $200 wedding gift.
“Over the past 15 years,” Washington City Paper reported in 2000, “Drake’s companies have received millions of dollars’ worth of District contracts, ranging from food services at the prison to security contracts—many of which were found by everyone from the D.C. auditor to the control board to be improperly awarded and overpriced.”
In November 1985 the Washington Post ran a classified ad for the foreclosure of 1204 Q Street at a substituted trustee sale on the steps of the district courthouse. In 1986, 1987 and 1989, according to city directories, the house was empty. Then in January 1990, Barry’s trial made national news. Carthur Drake’s name made the news, too.
Drake’s firm DAC Corp. owned a 47-foot yacht called the “Sea Star,” christened by Barry himself. And the yacht became a focus of Barry’s 1990 trial on 14 counts of perjury and drug charges, after Barry was caught in an FBI sting operation smoking from a crack pipe at the Vista Hotel, only a few blocks from Drake’s house.
“Mr. Drake is…well-known for large parties he has thrown on his boat, which frequently is docked at the Washington Marina,” the Washington Times reported in July 1990 during Barry’s trial. “According to a source, the mayor usually attended those parties, arriving early and staying late.”
On the yacht in February 1989, Hassan H. Mohammadi, a local restaurateur who sometimes provided cocaine and opium to Barry, said he gave Barry and girlfriend Theresa Southerland some cocaine and watched them snort it—one of allegedly 20 locations where Barry “conspired to possess cocaine or crack.”
Drake determinedly kept himself and his businesses out of the trial, and no charges were brought against him. (Barry, of course, was convicted of cocaine possession and
sentenced to six months in prison and a $5,000 fine.)
Court records show Carthur Drake married Sherry Miles St. Clair in 1993. He had three daughters from previous relationships, court records indicate. He and Sherry Drake were estranged not long after they married; the case says Carthur Drake had contracted AIDS and that he passed the disease to Sherry Drake.
In 1994, Marion Barry, out of prison and back on the D.C. Council, was re-elected to a fourth term as mayor.
By 1995, Carthur Drake was in declining health and in debt to the IRS. On June 29, court records show, he asked his son-in-law, Tyrone Thompson, to buy the old house in Logan Circle at a foreclosure sale—presumably with intent to sell it again to pay off some of the debt. Under the name of a fictional company, Thompson paid $155,000 for the house; a Drake asset company, Designmark, would later sell it for just $126,000, property records show, and the “IRS attached the proceeds of the sale,” according to court records.
Carthur Drake died, still in debt, of complications from AIDS on July 29, 1995.
John Coon bought 1204 Q St. from Designmark in April 1996.
The house had been most recently used for drug use and prostitution purposes, Coon and his then-partner, Joshua Tuerk, found as they began gutting and renovating it. Tuerk, the owner of Puppy Love Pet Sitters, says the place had been abandoned for 10 years at that point.
“There were still crack addicts shooting up on the corner” when they started working on the place, Tuerk says. They found heroin needles strewn throughout the house.
The roof of the house had rotted completely through on one side; the interior sported purple and orange shag carpet and mirrored tiles. On the top floor, Coon and Tuerk discovered the remnants of the Willistons’ music hall and after-hours club, including badly damaged vinyl booths with names on them: Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey. In the basement, which by that point Coon says “looked like a room in the Titanic,” Coon and Tuerk found what looked like a waiting room, a doctor’s examination room and old gynecological textbooks.
Eventually Tuerk and Coon were able to move into the house with their two young sons. Tuerk says they’d heard Ellington and Fitzgerald had “played and hung out there,” probably on the top floor, but couldn’t remember where they’d gotten that information. By the time I moved into the house last year, the old music hall had been divided into three bedrooms—the wall between mine and the adjacent one so thin I could hear my roommate breathing in his bed—but Deehr and Tuerk both say it was once one big room, which Deehr says included a bar and Tuerk says had soundproof doors and slots in the walls for records.
Coon and Tuerk were featured in a chapter of Al and Tipper Gore’s 2002 book Joined at the Heart: The Transformation of the American Family. Coon and Tuerk’s chapter, called “The Logan Family,” touches on their identities as gay men, their history as a couple, and the decisions, processes, and emotions involved in adopting their two older children.
Coon and Tuerk also told the Gores they wanted all four family members to share a surname. So they picked a new one: Logan. The choice was partly inspired by the name of their neighborhood. “That’s right—we’ll be four Mr. Logans living in the house,” Tuerk said in the book.
Coon and Tuerk lived together in the house with their children until February 2002, according to Tuerk. Coon says they began renting it out soon after that.
(Real estate wasn’t Coon’s only interest: A 2008 Washington City Paper piece reported that Coon, “entrepreneur” and “president of a board of directors of a company that owns the store,” closed Washington Consignment Shop without having paid in full people who consigned items with the store, some of whom claimed they were owed hundreds and even thousands of dollars, and igniting at least the start of a class-action lawsuit. “Our business folded because of the economic conditions of the times,” Coon says now.)
Coon, my landlord when I lived there, is now living in 1204 Q St. again; he and Tuerk are no longer together. Tuerk says his name is on the mortgage but that he holds a title with Coon for the house because their divorce is not yet finalized.
Coon told me that once while he was working in the home’s front yard, a woman he didn’t know came up and asked if she could come in. She told him she’d once lived there, had a husband there, they’d made a life and then he’d kicked her out.
Her name was Geraldine Drake.
“She asked if I would let her walk through the house and out the front door of her own accord,” Coon says. He obliged. “And then I never heard from her again.”
The house, Coon says, had that kind of pull.
“I looked at that house for years [before I bought it], and there was something about it,” he says. “There’s just something about it.”