The flowing sea of red hair and Mae West-style drop-dead looks would probably draw any wandering eye on 18th Street to the outdoor mural on the side wall of Madam’s Organ Restaurant and Bar, which advertises its prime spot “In the Heart of Adams Morgan.” The sign, which also includes the spray-painted barmaid’s size 40D exposed breasts, is a real grabber.
The bar is tough to miss as well. Residents of Adams Morgan have long voiced complaints about the boisterous drinking establishment, which in the past year moved three blocks north on 18th Street to its present address near Columbia Road. They had hoped the bar’s more spacious location on Adams Morgan’s restaurant row would shelter them from its loud noise and commotion. What they hadn’t planned on was that the bar’s famous mural would also moveand undergo some graphic enhancements.
Kalorama Citizens Association president Peter Schott considers the primarily red, white, and black mural politically incorrect and morally objectionable. “I think it’s very offensive to women, and I would like it removed,” Schott says.
Similar complaints from neighbors prompted the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) to inspect the artwork. DCRA inspectors issued a citation to Madam’s Organ owner Bill Duggan because he had not obtained the necessary permits for the mural.
At last month’s Adams Morgan advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) meeting, residents celebrated their victory. Commissioner Jim Whitman, who chairs the ANC’s zoning and permits committee, advised the audience of the numerous other infractions cited by DCRA, including content, obscenity, and even too many colors. “What will likely happen is that the neckline will be raised,” Whitman told the crowd. How very Washingtonthe floozy will be fine just as long as she’s made to fit in with chaste locals.
But Duggan insists that a few of his Adams Morgan neighbors are censor-happy. “It’s a painting of a large-breasted woman,” says Duggan. “I can’t understand how anyone could say it is topless.”
“They don’t even want the mural down,” Duggan notes. “All they asked was that the words ‘Madam’s Organ’ be painted over.” DCRA spokeswoman Janet McCormick says the city issued the citation because the mural includes the bar’s name and address, making it advertisement rather than public art. McCormick adds that an inclusion of nipples would make the mural obscene, but in its present form it’s permissible.
In other cities, a bosomy bit of signage wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, let alone a stink, especially in a neighborhood like Adams Morgan. It’s a corridor known to contain its fair share of libertine enticements and garish storefronts, as well as an ample population of street hustlers, frat boys on night passes, panhandlers, and con artists. In that context, the depiction of the bawdy bar matron is almost reassuring in its legitimacy.
The alteration of the mural will not likely deter new customers or reroute regulars from an establishment that advertises itself as a spot “where the beautiful people go to get ugly.” As for community complaints, the sentiment of the neon sign lighting the front window of the establishment”Sorry We’re Open”says it all for Kalorama neighbors.CP