We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Stan Cowan and Jeff Allen’s new home has a legacy of pride. Or at least “Pride and Joy.”
The way 42-year 16th Street Heights resident JoAnn Barber tells it, she and other neighbors of the house at 4301 15th St. NW have always been the model of inclusiveness. “We are very accepting here of gays,” she says. “We are happy to have them.”
That’s not exactly how I meant the question. I wasn’t asking about Stan Cowan and Jeff Allen, the eight-room house’s current residents. I was actually referring to the Gayes. As in Marvin Gaye, who bought the home for his parents in 1963, as his song “Pride and Joy” reached the Top 10.
When I correct Barber’s wrong impression, Cowan and Allen erupt in laughter. And Barber, who lives across the street, quickly recovers to say that she has just as much fun visiting the house now as she did when the Temptations and the Supremes stopped by for late-night jam sessions.
Of course, she’s not the first one to stumble over the house’s homophonic series of owners. Cowan says friends tease him about it all the time: “‘Wait,’ my friend said, ‘Why do you keep calling your house the gay house?’” Plenty of homes in the neighborhood have gay owners. But only a few have had Gaye owners. “It’s the Gaye house!”
The neighborhood—and the city around it—was never quite as pleasant for Cowan and Allen’s famous predecessor. Born at Freedman’s Hospital on April 2, 1939, Marvin Gaye had moved to Detroit by the time he moved his parents to 15th Street. He always told people he hated D.C. (“The place filled me with a feeling of hopelessness,” he said, according to Divided Soul, David Ritz’s biography of the late singer.)
But on visits home, 16th Street Heights remained his local headquarters. “One day, I was walking my dog, Smokey, and I saw Marvin,” says Barber, who looks a good 20 years younger than her 60 years. “I said, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood,’ and we became friends.”
Over the 35 years Barber has sat in the Gaye house’s living room, she has heard a live discography of Motown Records. “Mr. Gaye’s piano was in here. He’d open up the French doors, and the music would come out. The Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Barry White, Kool & the Gang. All the entertainers would leave [the] Carter Barron [Amphitheatre] and come here afterward.”
And she liked all of them, she says, except for “Miss Ross the Boss….The other Supremes were humble, but Diana was icy. I’d say, ‘Honey, you don’t do that in this neighborhood.’”
These days, the living room has been painted dove white and hosts a trendy Stickley armchair. A fuzzy white dog named Randy barks where Gaye used to croon.
The arrival of Cowan and Allen is just another twist in the neighborhood’s history. A Jewish neighborhood after its houses were built in the 1920s, the area had become heavily African-American by the time Gaye bought the house. But “it’s always been mixed,” says Barber, who adds that these days, “I’m seeing more whites coming in.” Over the past five years, an increasing number of gay couples have moved onto the tree-lined streets and old-fashioned front porches of the neighborhood, which sits next to Petworth.
“I actually found the neighbors to be most welcoming,” says Cowan.
Most people have heard through the grapevine that Marvin Gaye’s abusive father—who shot Marvin in Los Angeles the day before Marvin’s 45th birthday—liked to wear women’s clothes. “He’d have his little shorts on,” Barber demonstrates demurely. Barber says it was in an attempt to detach himself from his father’s proclivity for cross-dressing that Marvin added the “e” to his last name when he went into showbiz.
Throughout his life, Gaye harbored a resentment of his father’s sexual ambiguity and confusion about his own identity, according to Ritz. “All someone has to do with my name,” he quotes Gaye as saying, “is put an ‘is’ in front of it. ‘Is Marvin Gaye?’ Man, I can’t tell you how many guys have asked me that.”
Barber says she revels in her friendships with her new neighbors. “I love it. Oooh, I love it!” she exclaims. “They’re my husbands. I have a half-a-dozen husbands.” But, says Cowan, he and Allen are pretty dull neighbors compared with the earlier occupants. “You know,” he says, “the wife-beating transvestite minister.”
For Cowan and Allen, the fascination with their famous digs has still not worn off. When they clean the house the Gay family sold in 1983, says Allen, “You can feel the spirit of all the life that used to be here.” But a large mystery still remains. There’s a large wall safe in the basement that has remained locked for at least 15 years. Cowan and Allen say they are in no rush to discover what could be the last remaining secret of an ill-fated family tree. CP