Washington's present meets the past in Adams-Morgan NEIGHBORHOOD TOUR


Washington -- There is a plaque on the house at 1831 Wyoming Ave. here, marking the last residence of North Pole explorer Adm. Robert Peary, who bought the building in 1914 and lived there until his death in 1920.

It may be the only historical marker in all of Adams-Morgan, an eclectic neighborhood in the city's northwest section.

There is nothing, for instance, to tell you that the Wyoming, a turn-of-the-century luxury apartment building, was where Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower lived for nearly nine years.

No guidebook points out the house that Al Jolson bought for his parents.

There is no marker at the apartment Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson rented for $42.50 a month in 1935, or the shop where Charles Lazarus began Toys 'R' Us. Or the place where reporter Carl Bernstein was living on the night of the Watergate break-in.

But these are just a few of the interesting places sprinkled through the 240 acres of this colorful, offbeat, multicultural area. Adams-Morgan has gone through a half-dozen reincarnations in the last 100 years and become something of a tourist destination most recently, primarily because of its proliferation of restaurants.

Fortunately, there's a man who knows the neighborhood well, is constantly discovering more, and is willing to share his knowledge with just about anyone. Each Sunday, Anthony Pitch leads a two-hour walking tour of Adams-Morgan, regaling his audience with tales of the presidents and radicals and authors and artists who have passed through this neighborhood. The tour starts in front of the Wyoming, which is at 2022 Columbia Road, at 11 a.m. (Phone Mr. Pitch at [301] 294-9514.)

The tour is fascinating -- and it's just $5. (Weather is a factor, though.)

Adams-Morgan, says Mr. Pitch, is something of a yuppie paradise. It is close to downtown, relatively safe and very picturesque.

While not nearly as famous as the Georgetown section, its neighbor to the west, Adams-Morgan already rivals Georgetown for real estate prices. Large brick and stone townhouses that could be bought for $30,000 in the 1970s go on the market for $400,000 or more today.

Perhaps you only know Adams-Morgan from its restaurants. The neighborhood is home to some of the most diverse and eclectic eating establishments in the city, most of them on a stretch of 18th Street that's just a few blocks long.

And even if you've never heard of Adams-Morgan, it's likely you've caught glimpses of it at the movies. Remember the opening frames of "In the Line of Fire," in which Clint Eastwood waits to be picked up by his partner? That was filmed on 18th Street in the heart of Adams-Morgan.

How about the walk taken by Tom Cruise and Kevin Pollack -- Pollack's wheeling a baby stroller -- in "A Few Good Men"? That's 20th Street near the Airy View apartments. "Dave" and "The Pelican Brief" also feature scenes of Adams-Morgan. Hollywood has discovered it because it's in a good location, it's quiet and it generally doesn't have a problem with traffic congestion.

That doesn't mean, though, that's it's off the beaten track. Adams-Morgan sits right behind the gigantic Washington Hilton and Towers, just north of Dupont Circle and south of the National Zoo.

Little more than a century ago, though, it was considered the boondocks. That all changed when the 18th Street trolley began running in 1892, followed five years later by a streetcar extension on Columbia Road. Developers saw the potential; in 25 years 26 apartment buildings went up, many of them still standing and retaining traces of the luxury for which they were noted shortly after the turn of the century.

Three on Columbia Road, the main thoroughfare in Adams-Morgan, are the Wyoming (2022), Woodley (1851) and Norwood (1868). Built in 1905, the Wyoming, which has two large wings, has housed many members of Congress, but its most famous residents were the Eisenhower family. Dwight, Mamie and the children lived there -- during the times that Ike was not working overseas -- from 1927 to 1936. It is considered one of the finest examples of a turn-of-the-century luxury apartment house.

On one of the top floors of the circa 1917 Norwood, a building covered with decorative plasterwork, lived Rep. William Bankhead. He eventually became speaker of the House, although his daughter's fame has long outlasted his. Her name was Tallulah.

The Woodley, completed in 1903 as the first apartment building on Columbia Road, is noted primarily as a one-time investment property of Woodward & Lothrop's Sam Woodward, whose partner, Alvin Lothrop, built a mansion at the southern tip of Adams-Morgan, where Columbia Road, Connecticut Avenue and California Street intersect. The building, assessed at $5 million, is now used by Russia as a trade mission.

Slightly less luxurious was the Woburn at 1910 Kalorama Road. LBJ moved there in 1936, a year after his marriage. A frequent guest was Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn.

Mintwood Place, a street that curves between Columbia Road and 19th Street, was known as Admiral's Row because so many Navy people lived there. The pastel colors of the well-maintained townhouses are reminiscent of Rainbow Row in Charleston, S.C. At 1863 Mintwood Place, a bright yellow building that sticks out, lived Sen. Thomas Gore, the grandfather of author Gore Vidal and the first blind senator to serve in Congress, from 1907 to 1921. (Perhaps, says Mr. Pitch, he was a distant relative of the current vice president.)

A block away, Biltmore Street was General's Row, where the Pentagon's generals once lived. The building at the corner of Biltmore and 19th streets is where Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein lived when he and Bob Woodward broke the Watergate story. He later married writer-director Nora Ephron and the couple moved to the Ontario (on Ontario Road), one of the finest apartment addresses in Adams-Morgan and Washington.

The first wing of the Ontario was begun in 1903; Gen. Douglas MacArthur lived there at one time.

The strait-laced MacArthur undoubtedly would not have been pleased with the residents who inhabited Lanier Place, around the corner from the Ontario. The street in the 1960s became the home for inhabitants of the radical movement, including members of the Catonsville Nine and Chicago Seven. This was not exactly unknown to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

A generation earlier it had also been well-known to Al Jolson, whose father, Rabbi Moses Yoelson, and stepmother moved to 1787 Lanier after Jolson made it big in the first talkie, "The Jazz Singer." His father, the leader of a congregation in southwest Washington for 30 years, died there in 1946.

It was around that time -- right after World War II -- that Adams-Morgan's fortunes began to slip. Many of the stately homes were broken into single rooms and efficiencies, and a transient population moved in. The area became rundown; property became cheap.

In 1955, a year after the Supreme Court decision in "Brown vs. Board of Education" declared segregated schools unconstitutional, the principals of the white John Quincy Adams school and the black Thomas Morgan school agreed to merge, and the area took its name from the new school.

In the next decade hippies and American leftists began arriving, drawn by the low rents. At the same time there was an influx of anti-Castro Cubans. The Cubans paved the way for other Spanish-speaking peoples, and the two populations -- American liberals and foreign nationals -- lived peacefully side by side.

Restaurants and cafes began opening along 18th Street, and soon that is what the street, and the neighborhood, became best-known for -- its eclectic mix of food.

Today there are about 75 restaurants that seem to represent almost as many countries -- from Senegalese to Vietnamese, from Italian to West Indian, from Ethiopian to Spanish and Mexican -- plus the usual gourmet, vegetarian, pizza and deli places.

One of the oldest eating places is Millie and Al's, a pizza parlor that opened in 1963.

By the late 1970s the yuppies had discovered Adams-Morgan, and they've been moving in ever since. A new development of luxury townhouses is being built off 20th Street; prices start at $204,000. Many were sold before the concrete was poured.

Today, Adams-Morgan is, in the words of author Barbara Raskin ("Hot Flashes"), "a truly tan community. Residents who stuck out several racially tense eras eventually found themselves living in a politically, culturally and artistically integrated area. On alternately quiet and raucous streets, have and have-nots live next door to each other, constantly surprised by their coexistence."

That quote is taken from her best seller "Current Affairs," set largely in Adams-Morgan.

Ms. Raskin should know what she's talking about.

She lives on Wyoming Avenue -- right across the street from Peary's old home.

IF YOU GO . . .

Adams-Morgan is in Northwest Washington between Dupont Circle and the National Zoo. The boundaries are U Street (south), Rock Creek Parkway (north), Connecticut Avenue (west) and 16th Street (east).

Take Interstate 95 to Interstate 495 -- the Washington Beltway -- and then take the beltway west to Exit 33, Connecticut Avenue South. Once you're on Connecticut Avenue, about a half-hour of city driving will take you to the National Zoo. A few blocks past the zoo is the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and Calvert Street. Turn left on Calvert and go about a half-mile to 18th Street. A right on 18th puts you in the heart of Adams-Morgan. If you're taking the Metro into Washington from the suburbs, the Dupont Circle and Woodley Park-Zoo stops on the red line are the closest stops.

Where to eat: Walk along 18th Street and take your pick. Some suggestions: Red Sea or Meskerem (Ethiopian), India Gate (Indian), Saigonnais (Vietnamese), I Matti (Italian), Peyote Cafe (Southwestern), Pelican Cafe (vegetarian and organic), TomTom (Mediterranean), and Belmont Kitchen (seasonal menu).

For more information, contact the Washington D.C. Convention and Visitors Association, 1212 New York Ave. N.W., Suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20005; (202) 789-7000.

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