On the Connecticut Avenue of the mind, the car makes a nonstop dive for the city’s heart that, in real life, never occurs. The avenue is the oldest established permanent floating traffic jam in Northwest, at its epicenter the eternal snarl of Connecticut and Van Ness Street.
Connecticut and Van Ness is a mesh of contrasts: a white subcity where blacks study by the thousands; a major vehicular thoroughfare thronged with devout pedestrians and mass-transit users; six lanes of roadway sometimes narrowed to two by autosclerosis; a shopping strip along which, in the era of the megacorp, family-owned businesses thrive.
Residential but commercial, conduit and terminus, welcoming yet off-warding, Connecticut Avenue between Tilden and Albemarle Streets inspires the language of geology. It is a province of anomalies, a region of orogenies, a zone of tectonic pressures: the drive to develop, the desire to preserve, the impulse to expand, resistance to change, the dream of sailing in a sea of green lights, the likelihood that at any hour there will be a crush.
Metrobuses, Executive Protection Service units, tow trucks, commuters—everybody comes to Van Mess, whether for an education in UDC’s Stalinist buildings, satellite rescue reports at the INTELSAT mirrorama, discount gas at a legendarily energetic station, cheap cheeses and bargain booze at Calvert Woodley Liquors, or a hosing at Van Ness Car Care Centre, one of the longest-lived automatic brushless carwashes in the U.S. and therefore the civilized world.
The carwash is among the scene’s salient elements. Southbound on Connecticut, you cross Nebraska, cruise the condominial canyons, and there it is on the right: the inevitable line. Swap Beemers and Saabs for DeSotos and Packards, slap a fedora on every man tapping antsy fingers, and it could be 55 years ago, when the wash had just opened as Terret’s Auto Laundry. Next came Ely Wagner, proprietor through the mid-’70s, and, before passing the sacred rag, an inductee to the Carwash Hall of Fame. By then, though, Wagner’s once-proud establishment had gone to sog.
“It was a real dump. He had let it go,” says Don Hinton, who leased the wash in 1978 and, on an early reconnoiter, fell through its rotten flooring. Nonetheless, he and his family bought the 3,000-square-foot property in 1982 for $250,000. They blew another wad installing state-of-the-sudsy-art equipment.
The Hintons wanted the wash for their investment portfolio, but it grew on them. “It’s a neighborhood institution,” says Hinton. “We have a lot of regulars—David Brinkley, all the Channel 7 cars. And that isn’t mentioning the senators and representatives who live in Northwest.”
Or the volume. On a good day—say, after a snowstorm—500 vehicles may roll through at $8 to $11 a splash. According to the International Carwash Association, the average wash in an average year serves 59,000 customers. You do the math. Who needs another office building to manage?
And how about those colorful customers?
After a 1991 blizzard, one hotshot lawyer steering a slab of Teutonic automotivosity jumped the line ahead of a fellow officer of the court. After the party of the first part received his ill-gotten service, the party of the second part did what any man with an advanced professional degree, a partner’s sinecure, and a powerful position in the nation’s capital would do: He went upside that mofo’s head.
“Here are two guys in expensive suits getting out of $50,000 Mercedes-Benzes and having a fistfight in our parking lot,” says Hinton. “It was hilarious. We had to pull them apart.”
Twas not always so. Before modern life became nasty and brutish, the neighborhood was genteel, a locale of apartments to which government gals aspired, of single-family dwellings that, despite age and the periodic plateauing of house prices, have never lost their allure. Before that, there were farms and fields and woodlands. Until a now-vanished trolley span and then the Taft Bridge leaped the Rock Creek gorge, the area was tillage and orchards and rocks, and earlier, forest primeval, moistened by a stream originating near today’s Woodrow Wilson High School. That tributary of Broad Branch burbled through a valley known to resident Indians for its steatite deposits.
Steatite is talc schist, created when magma bubbled from the earth’s core half a billion years back; it exists wherever continental plates collide. The valley deposits congealed 300 or 400 million years ago when the North American plate slammed into the African plate.
Steatite, better known as soapstone, was among early man’s happy discoveries: dense, stable, capable of holding a shine, and usually found close to the surface. Soft—on Mohs’ scale of mineral hardness, diamond is a 10, talc is a 1—steatite also enchants the eye and hand. Although the D.C. variety is black, the rock occurs in a spectrum of shades.
“Early man used soapstone for ceremonial gifts and trade,” explains UDC geology professor James O’Connor. “He made bowls, decorative pieces, pipes like the “peace pipe’ associated with Indians.”
Many North American deposits became Indian quarries. One was centered where Connecticut now crosses Albemarle; the course of the stream became known as Soapstone Valley. The Indians would carve artifacts in situ, then remove them to use or trade.
After the Industrial Revolution, steatite went commercial. Where Indians had dug, Rose Hill Quarry opened, and the rock began to leave the ground as laundry tubs, fireplace mantels, and tabletops for high-school and college laboratories. Eventually the supply was exhausted, and in the ’50s apartment-building construction obliterated the quarry.
The valley may be empty of its eponym, but the stream still flows. Soapstone Branch travels by pipe from the west side of Nebraska Avenue to the east side of Connecticut, buried under as much as 50 feet of landfill. A hike through what remains of the valley shows how dramatically the local landscape has changed.
Soapstone Valley Trail begins in a trash heap aft of 4401 Connecticut Ave. NW. An abandoned maroon-and-chrome Invacare wheelchair and mounds of discarded clothing mark the entry point better than the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club sign. On a recent afternoon, footprints in the receding snow and wear marks on the forest floor led down a steep incline to a track alongside the water.
At first the urban sounds persisted, but as I picked my way east, the creek raised its watery voice. The valley walls steepened and the trail narrowed, until it made more sense to hop the black-and-white boulders punctuating the streambed. The speckled stone is Kensington granite, known as Rock Creek granite when contractors were using it in the ’20s to build foundations in Cleveland Park and other neighborhoods.
The deeper I went, the louder the stream became, and the farther the city’s presence receded. The 3,000-foot trip took 40 minutes. I returned via Audubon Terrace, along the north rim, where the valley yawns southward. It ends abruptly at Connecticut Avenue, which is shouldered atop five stories of fill.
In the old days, at full length, Soapstone Valley must have been something: forested, undulant, dotted with granite and soapstone outcroppings. Pursuing records and memories of those days, I met Adlumia Hagner, who traces her ancestry to John Adlum, the best-known owner of these acres. A tanner’s son, a friend of scientific pioneer Joseph Priestley, a soldier of the Revolution, and in 1794 the surveyor of northwestern Pennsylvania, Adlum made such a name for himself as a horticulturist that a vine, Allegheny fumitory (Adlumia fungosa), was named for him.
After his Pennsylvania rambles, Adlum moved to Georgetown. He married his first cousin and assembled a 230-acre farm he called “The Vineyard,” after his enthusiasm for winemaking. The spread ran east from today’s Wisconsin Avenue at Tilden Street nearly to Rock Creek, and north from what is now Rodman Street to just south of Yuma.
A pioneer in the cultivation of native grapes, especially the catawba, Adlum grew 22 different varieties of the fruited vine on his estate. He conducted a 15-year correspondence with fellow oenophile Thomas Jefferson. In 1823, Adlum published A Memoir on the Cultivation of the Vine in America and the Best Mode of Making Wine—the first book on indigenous grape culture. Adlum sent a copy to Monticello, along with a couple of bottles of his output.
Wrote Jefferson: “I recieved [sic] successively the two bottles you were so kind as to send me. The first, called Tokay, is truly a fine wine of high flavor…[with] a good body of its own. The 2nd bottle, a red wine, I tried when I had good judges at the table. We agreed it was a wine one might always drink with satisfaction, but of no peculiar excellence. Of your book on the culture of wine it would be presumption in me to give any opinion, because it is a culture of which I have no knolege [sic] either from practice or reading….”
The Adlum farm was bisected by a road named for the mill operated at Rock Creek by the Pierce family; farmers from the western districts used the road to carry crops for grinding. In the late 19th century, the mill road would receive its current name, which honors a contemporary of the winemaker: John Peter Van Ness, politician, soldier, and D.C.’s eleventh mayor.
A native of Kinderhook, N.Y., Van Ness prefigured familiar Washington types: the ambitious arriviste and the lawyer who has never entered a courtroom. Elected to Congress in 1800, he married the rich and beautiful Marcia Burnes, a daughter of the Georgetown gentry, and settled with her on 17th Street, in a Benjamin Latrobe-designed mansion called “the finest house in America.” Van Ness represented Kinderhook until President Thomas Jefferson appointed him brigadier general of the city militia, whereupon contemporary interpretation of the separation of powers required him to give up his congressional seat. He went into banking. Later he became an alderman and, in 1830 and 1832, mayor. He took the big chair the first time with a total of 343 votes; his re-election was narrower—505-492.
Though charmed, the Van Nesses also endured sorrows. A daughter died in childhood; after Marcia perished in the 1832 cholera epidemic, J.P. became a temperance zealot. When he died in 1846, his estate included $50,000 and five slaves.
John Adlum died in 1836, leaving his daughter Margaret 62 acres near the intersection of Massachusetts and Wisconsin Avenues. In 1881, the government condemned the property, paying $72,000 for the land on which it built the U.S. Naval Observatory.
Anna Maria, Adlum’s other daughter, married a southern Marylander named Henry Hatch Dent, who had come to D.C. after Yale to read the law in Francis Scott Key’s offices. The Dents bought a 50-acre patch adjoining John Adlum’s farm and named it Springland. After Mrs. Dent died in 1850, her husband and children moved away, leaving the property in rental. In later decades, the family sold all but 33 acres of the estate. That property was eventually developed as Rodman Street, Reno Road, and Springland Lane by Adlumia Hagner’s father, William Dent Sterrett.
The former Dent estate eventually became the campus of the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), which opened in 1901. At the bureau, which sprawled across the slopes where John Adlum had grown grapes, all manner of machine and material was examined, tested, certified. As the nation’s physics lab, the bureau developed a reputation among the city’s newshawks as a place of easy pickings for feature fodder—the biggest anchor chain, the platinum yardstick, the latest wind tunnel, the quietest soundproof room. The campus, with its heavy tree cover and clumps of neo-academic buildings, looked like a cross between the University of Virginia and a steel mill, and often raised a racket.
“When they tested airplane engines, the noise would rev up like a drag race,” says Adlumia Hagner, who has lived all her 78 years on land held by her family since her namesake was Mr. Jefferson’s pen pal. “My grandmother was friendly with the man who ran the place, and when it reached a certain point she would telephone him and say, “That’s enough!’ ”
Mrs. Hagner, a great-grandaughter of the Dents’, attended National Cathedral School and Miss Ethel Walker’s School in Simsbury, Conn. She and her first husband, Christopher Sargent, had three sons and a daughter before Sargent died suddenly in 1946; photos show a handsome man, forever boyish. In 1950, his widow made a match with Randall Hagner Jr. of the D.C. real estate clan. He had two daughters from a previous marriage. The families knitted together beautifully.
In the fullness of time, Adlumia Hagner became a widow again, and though she can hardly be said to live in the past—when we spoke, she was helping to organize a seminar sponsored by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association—a chat with her about roots is an escalator ride into history. The present slips away, and suddenly you are in a Washington, D.C., where people write letters to Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Jefferson writes back.
But the escalator runs both ways. A straight historical line connects Adlum’sgrapevines, the standards bureau, and subsequent large-scale development. By holding so large and strategic a parcel of undeveloped land for so long, John Adlum and his descendants helped spawn Van Mess.
From a grain conduit, the Van Ness thoroughfare quickly grew into a key Northwest passage—a role amplified once Connecticut Avenue came through in the 1890s. As the avenue drew residential development to and beyond Soapstone Valley, the old mill road attracted ever more traffic.
Meanwhile, standards bureau managers intent on security and easy parking sought to close the portion of Van Ness cleaving the campus. But the bureau’s grip on the land was not assured; for a time, there was even talk of a city jail on the site. The jail idea faded, but not the concept of closing Van Ness, especially in the late ’30s, when the bureau and the nearby Carnegie Institution were helping to hatch the A-bomb. Top secret stuff going on!, NBS would declaim. Explosive potential!
In 1940, NBS Director Lyman Briggs posted guards at the Van Ness entrances to the campus. After Pearl Harbor, he barred civilian traffic, prompting the Washington Star to rail against martial law and Secretary of War Henry Stimson to declare that Briggs had acted with presidential authority. Van Ness remained off-limits until well after V-J Day—perhaps justifiably, since in 1944 exploding aviation fuel blew a young, newly wed employee named Lorene Chandler out a window, killing her. The barricades finally fell in January 1946, though as soon as Korea flamed in 1950, the bureau was trying again to close Van Ness, this time permanently. That proposal withered with peace at Panmunjom.
Van Ness was a font of irritation, but the avenue—oh, the avenue was in its glory. Young women flocked to Dumbarton College, the Roman Catholic school on Upton Street. Sofas and love seats danced out of the Colony House furniture store. Franklin Simon moved dresses and coats by the rack. Amoco, Gulf, Shell, and Texaco stations pumped gas and changed oil and sold tires. The Hot Shoppes was bopping. Across the street, WMAL’s radio and TV staffs occupied a snappy structure the color of freshly grated parmesan cheese; every night, from antennas high atop Soapstone Valley, the dulcet tones of DJs like Felix Grant wafted across the airwaves between jazz sides.
Streetcars and buses brought uptown to downtown in minutes and vice versa, and amid the postwar boom apartment house upon apartment house marched toward Chevy Chase Circle. On the east side of Connecticut at Van Ness, Chevy Chase Land Co. owned 18 acres occupied by a Safeway and a Plymouth dealership on which it visualized a fancy-shmancy shopping center. But Bonwit Teller, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Lord & Taylor all demanded top billing, killing the deal. A federal office building scheme inflated and deflated. Then Robert Silverman and the Polinger brothers sat down.
Silverman, a real estate man’s son, had started in law but found building easier and more profitable. In 1963, he and the Polingers inked a joint venture in which Silverman would construct and the Polingers would manage five buildings—three residential, two commercial. A small apartment house on Connecticut already called itself “The Van Ness”; they named their project’s first stage Van Ness East.
The car dealer went away. The Safeway moved across Connecticut. The bulldozers sang their diesel song. Van Ness East opened in 1965, with efficiencies renting from $119 a month, one-bedrooms from $139, 2BRs from $247, 3BRs from $383. Eventually all five buildings went up, incorporating 1,625 apartments, 230,000-plus square feet of office and retail, even a tiny Giant. Today, shopping there is like buying groceries in Luray Caverns—you negotiate a claustrophobic entry, round several blind corners, and suddenly you’re in the Cave of Plenty.
As the avenue waxed, the Bureau of Standards waned—buildings acrumble, its activities increasingly unsuitable to the setting. In 1961, work began on a new campus in Gaithersburg; when that opened in 1965, Adlum’s farmland again lay fallow. In 1968, the Washington Technical Institute, one of UDC’s forebears, leased several vacant NBS buildings. The State Department studied the tract as a possible site on which to build embassies.
The neighborhood grew busier still. In 1970, the average weekday saw 37,500 vehicles traveling Connecticut; to cope, a more sophisticated traffic signal was installed at the intersection with Van Ness. The goal was smoother traffic flow. To many drivers, it was just another red light.
Other changes were rung. At Dumbarton College, sagging enrollment forced a sale of the 22-acre site. Howard University bought the campus, moving its law school and other activities there in 1974. A few Catholic touches remain: an empty grotto where a statue of the Virgin once stood, buildings with names like “Notre Dame.” Later, after decades of scientific research in an Italianate edifice next door, the Carnegie Institution moved out, leaving its red-tiled roof and smokestack to molder.
The ’70s were rife with socioeconomic squeezes. Following the first OPEC oil embargo, the city’s gas stations began to disappear. Pre-1973, the city had some 400 stations; today, the total is slightly more than 100. At Van Ness and Connecticut, the sole survivor was Vernon Winn’s 1927-vintage Texaco. As at other oil-company-owned stations, Winn’s overhead had been rock-bottom because the landlord gauged not footage leased but gallons pumped. After OPEC started jacking prices, however, reality set in and the rent rocketed. Feeling the crunch, Winn retired in 1976. He sold the station to Koo Yuen, starting a rumbustious new era for the 4200 block of Connecticut Avenue.
Yuen, a native of China’s Guangdong Province, had come to D.C. in 1964 at age 11 to live with relatives. Delivering papers and working in gas stations while studying at McKinley High, he graduated in 1971 and briefly attended D.C. Teachers College before dropping out to make his way in a world where $5,000 could buy a service station. Yuen did just that, purchasing a shuttered Exxon station at 9th and L Streets NW.
Once his new business was in gear, Yuen began looking for a second station. He found Winn’s. Yuen fought uptown rents with entrepreneurialism. “We were always true believers in volume sales,” he says. “Gasoline is a commodity; people are going to buy where the price is lowest. We also were seeking the loyalty and trust of our customers, because this is a stable neighborhood. We wanted them to know we would not screw them.”
Yuen added services and amenities until the station resembled a House appropriations bill: something for everybody. One day he had an inspiration: He would install a carwash, and market the service by establishing a club. Members could get free washes, free check-cashing, free coffee, discounts on fuel and service. The vision took form in 1989, and was an instant success. At $59 a year, membership soon hit 2,700—and some neighbors hit the ceiling.
Too many cars, they said. Too much noise. Voices were raised, letters mailed, officialdom hectored. Koo Yuen’s dream turned nightmare. “The city used its strong arm to twist my arm,” Yuen says. “They wanted to show a few elderly ladies that they know how to get things happening.”
A man’s grasp should exceed his reach, but a man is also wise to know when he is about to have his shoulder separated. Yuen shut down the wash in 1993. “I feel bad about the way things went,” he says. “I had to let my customers down.”
Club ranks dwindled, but Yuen persisted until April 1994, when he split up the business, leasing the service station to Chris and John Kuri and the gas operation—no longer Texaco, although the logo is Texacoid—to Brehanu Tereffe. Both businesses honor club cards, and the station remains a model of main-chance capitalism. As for Yuen, he is busy with a station on Rhode Island Avenue NW and mindful of his education at Connecticut and Van Ness. “One or two individuals happened to want to teach me something,” he says. “They said, “Mr. Yuen, since you will not cooperate with us, you are a knucklehead.’ They want to live in a perfect world.”
As Yuen was beginning his tenure, the subway was burrowing northward. In 1976, work began on the Van Ness station, 96 feet below the former Colony House site. Construction required excavation of 128,000 cubic yards of rock. In its ineluctable way, Metro altered the neighborhood pH. The Hot Shoppes closed; so did Franklin Simon. The station opened Dec. 5, 1981; system officials now count 6,422 Metro users on the average weekday. (If the trip in and out of the east side seems to feature lots of footwork, it’s because the escalators punk out about twice a month. That performance should have improved after the “up” stairs were rebuilt in November and December 1994. However, on Feb. 4, hooligans threw a bus-shelter glass panel down the moving stairs, bollixing them until Feb. 8. The next day, an electrical failure struck the “down” escalator; rewiring required four more days.)
There were other new arrivals. The University of the District of Columbia (UDC), a concatenation of WTI, D.C. Teachers College, and Federal City College, was forged in the bicentennial year. The bunkerlike architecture of UDC’s main campus was erected between 1976 and 1980 at Connecticut and Van Ness, on the north side of the old standards bureau property.
In the years since, the university has drawn fierce criticism both for its function and quality. Enrollment now stands at 10,599, mostly at the Van Ness site. Besides the concrete extravaganza, the layout includes rented space at the Van Ness Station building next door and a UDC-owned office complex built by the National Bank of Washington on the old Hot Shoppes site. Overwhelmingly African-American, the staff and students add a significant degree of color to the otherwise pale neighborhood. More than a few among the embattled university’s supporters see in calls to reform or shut UDC a subplot of The Plan, that storied caucasoidal cabal intent on wresting the city and its prime real estate from black control.
Whatever its fate as an institution, UDC is a visual piece of grit in the eye, with scant relief anywhere in sight. Van Ness Station looks like a stale napoleon; Van Ness Center summons memories of the failed cult of modernism. And on the south side of Van Ness stands the Embassy of the Federated Republic of Mars—in reality, the headquarters of International Telecommunications Satellite Organization. Open since 1985, the 600,000-square-foot INTELSAT building has won awards for design and energy efficiency, but I say it’s Klingon and I say the hell with it. The chilly exterior is matched by a chilly interior, through which one expects to find Capt. Janeway barking in her digital chipmunk voice. INTELSAT’s other defining feature is an enormous steel fence that runs down Connecticut, up Tilden, and out Reno in a tight sine wave of oxidation.
Behind INTELSAT range embassies built on 47 acres of the old Adlum property organized into an enclave by the State Department. The 23 lots are leasable for 99 years (payable in advance to the Treasurer of the U.S., thank you very much). Singapore, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, Ghana, Israel, Egypt, and Austria have built. Chile, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Morocco, Brunei, Nigeria, Malaysia, and the United Arab Emirates have signed leases. Slovakia has a lot on hold. (Attention emerging nations: only four small parcels left! Don’t say what you would fork over for this choice location until we reveal that the Executive Protection Service uniformed division HQ is close enough to toss a Glock at!)
Yet for all the changes on the avenue, some things remain the same—like the building beside the carwash where Thos. E. Clark Plumbing kept offices and a warehouse. The 1928 structure had been a Piggly Wiggly grocery, then an outlet of Sanitary Stores (now Safeway). The Clarks, who had been sweating pipe and clearing clogs since the 1890s, arrived in the ’30s. They honored the old ways: As late as 1989, to step inside was to rewind the clock by decades. Mechanical adding machines and telephones with the EMerson 2-2300 number sat atop ancient desks, and an unadorned Standard toilet was perched prominently in the window, as if daring someone to drop a load in full view of Connecticut Avenue.
When Metro’s roil finished, normalcy reared its head, and new businesses began to appear. Though enveloped in an eternal air of fermentation, Calvert Woodley Liquors has only been on hand since 1982, when competitors Aaron Bernstein (Calvert, of Glover Park) and Edward Sands (Woodley, of Cleveland Park) merged. The resulting store at 4339 Connecticut is famous for discounting both hooch and cheese.
“We ranged across Ward 3 looking for ground available on which we could build to our specifications,” says Bernstein. “This is a prestigious, class neighborhood, and we are happy to be here. There are no disadvantages, although of course we wish we had more space and more parking—we have 23 spaces.” Often, Bernstein is not alone; the line to buy Glenlivet and gouda sometimes rivals that at the carwash.
Other retailers came and went, including such stalwarts as Kemp Mill Records and Blockbuster Video, chased either by poor volume or rising rents. Antonia’s Restaurant toed up, though Charlie Chang’s hangs on. After WJLA-TV (formerly WMAL) opted for a corner of INTELSAT, its old home place was facadeomized into a blend of subsurface parking capped by retail and carryout, so that after buying fungus-colored clothing at the Gap a hungry consumer can haul home a hunk of Boston Chicken.
None of this has reduced congestion, though the city’s Traffic Operations Division does its darnedest. The lights from Albemarle to Tilden are run by a computer that controls every traffic signal in D.C., with preset timings for morning rush hour, evening rush hour, and the rest of the day. The idea is to harmonize signals with traffic flow—a goal honored, around Van Mess any way, more often in the breach. In the system’s defense, it should be said that whether the traffic is oxcarts or automobiles, the job of satisfying drivers in all directions at an intersection like Van Ness and Connecticut is a complex one—especially with a system that cannot correct instantaneously for changes in traffic flow.
In other cities, like Charlotte, N.C., devices set in the roadway detect traffic volume and relay information to a controller that adjusts signal changes in real time. Don’t look for that on Connecticut Avenue, says traffic operations official Timothy McGurk. The snag is not only cost—on Connecticut between Albemarle and Tilden alone, that could tally $1.2 million—but maintenance. As in an old-fashioned set of Christmas lights, every detector must work or the entire system won’t. Considering the constant slices in D.C. streets and the expansion and compression caused by the climate, Charlotte’s web of adjustable signals won’t come to Washington.
So how are the lights adjusted? Through trial and error and eyeballing and complaints, the city makes 30 to 40 signal adjustments a month. “The last time Connecticut and Van Ness was adjusted was in April 1993,” McGurk said. “If there is a problem that can be corrected, we do it.”
During the evening rush, Connecticut Avenue northbound carries about 1,700 vehicles per hour; the morning load is about 2,300 per hour. The rest of the day averages about 1,000 per hour. On Van Ness, most of the traffic is eastbound, averaging about 10,000 vehicles a day, compared with 3,000 or so westbound. However, most westbound traffic is making a left off Connecticut, complicating the mix. The need to give ped-Xers time to cross the avenue’s six lanes adds another variable.
Pedestrian traffic is up these days, after a lull. In the ’80s, neighborhood demographics went heavily Gray Panther and widowish, and for years the daytime sidewalk action emphasized quad canes, walkers, and paid companions pushing wheelchairs. Gradually, though, the next residential wave arose, and now along with the senior citizenry gambols a younger crowd emphasizing jogging shoes, cellular phones, and paid companions pushing strollers. At noon on a weekday, the avenue, which once had the hypokinetic pulse of a city at war, pops and jitters.
Not that all cares have been banished. A move by the Levine School of Music to occupy the old Carnegie Institution building has alarmed Upton Street. Residents fear that the addition of another educational facility will circumscribe streetside parking during the day and trigger waves of invaders at night, as has occurred with the Edmund Burke School and Howard Law.
At the neighborhood’s north end, however, Lois and Joe Whelan are basking in the success that vehicular and pedestrian traffic bring. Lois (née Berkow) grew up at 2nd Street and Missouri Avenue NW, a cabdriver’s daughter. She graduated from Coolidge High, then studied art education at the University of Maryland. Joe’s father and grandfather were plumbers. He was raised in Silver Spring, worked for his dad starting in seventh grade, graduated from Archbishop John Carroll High and studied business at Mount St. Mary’s. A few years after graduation, he hired on at Thos. E. Clark on Connecticut Avenue, hanging pipe as his forebears had.
Soon after the Whelans married in 1967, Joe’s dad visited. “The old man came to me and, in the true style of the plumber, told me, “Son, it’s time for you to shit or get off the pot,’ ” Joe said. He rejoined the family business, E. J. Whelan Co., and prospered on Americans’ quest for the perfect bathroom. The firm now has 100 employees and a big building in Beltsville, Md. Joe wanted more—specifically, a supply house that would sell the full range of plumbing paraphernalia. Since it is impolitic for a plumbing contractor to open such an operation on his own turf, Whelan’s first scratch at that itch was to acquire a bankrupt outfit in Boca Raton, Fla. He called it E.J.’s, for his dad. Long-distance management proved problematic, however; in 1987 he and Lois shut the store and shipped the stock north.
Lois had never taught art, but had always had an artistic eye; she consulted as a designer on Joe’s remodeling projects. They pondered combining those functions in a single showroom, and began to hunt locations. One Sunday morning in mid-1990, Lois read aloud a classified ad for a property at 4434 Connecticut Ave. NW. The address sounded familiar to Joe. “I remembered it from my paychecks,” he says. “It was the Clark building.”
The joint hadn’t changed a whit since Joe had worked there. The Whelans made an offer, then made a deal. They opened for business in 1991, after a waltz or two with the neighbors.
“They love having nice stores,” says Lois. “They are very proud of their neighborhood.”
“They don’t like change,” says Joe. “The Clarks had let the certificate of occupancy lapse, and we had a real bad time with that.”
But on April Fool’s Day in 1991, Town & Country Baths (E.J.’s, that moveable feast of plumbing supply, occupies the rear area) unveiled its new window, which includes a toilet but also a mess of luxe bathroom accoutrements, dangling not a dare to drop a load but an invitation to sink into a slow, steaming bubble bath, an idea whose time has come on upper Connecticut Avenue.
“We have as many walk-bys as we get from city-wide advertising,” Lois says. “Our customers and staff like the old-time connection. We like the comfortableness of the neighborhood and the beauty of Connecticut Avenue. For our parents, Connecticut Avenue was important. If they could see us now, they would think we are really making it. They would be saying, “Look what our kids have done.’ ”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.