Woman Visits Old Home in Much Changed D.C. Neighborhood

Sandy Paregol and Bryan Greene talk about the Columbia Heights neighborhood. In the 1940s, she lived in the house he now owns.
Sandy Paregol and Bryan Greene talk about the Columbia Heights neighborhood. In the 1940s, she lived in the house he now owns. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
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By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 15, 2009

The old house -- the red brick one on Park Road NW, next to the new Giant supermarket -- was once filled with the laughter of a little girl who tugged on her grandmother's apron.

Yesterday, Sandy Paregol giggled and cried with delight as she walked through the 109-year-old Columbia Heights townhouse for the first time in 45 years, a visit arranged after she sent the owner a letter.

She was overwhelmed by memories, mostly of Ida Einbinder, her Jewish immigrant grandmother, whom she taught to read and write English. "She was the most generous, caring human being. After the war [World War II], soldiers stayed here for $1 a week," Paregol recalled. "Bubbe. Everybody called her Bub. She was everybody's grandmother."

The current owner, Bryan Greene, 40, a senior official at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, listened and asked questions, such as, "Was this here?" and "Is this original?" Fireplaces, banisters, closets and moldings mostly seemed as Paregol remembered them.

The house is a little hipper than it was when Paregol's grandfather bought it on a cabbie's pay. Greene, who bought the house for $405,000 in 2002, has mixed modern furniture with antiques.

Paregol said her grandmother would have been impressed by the kitchen's stainless steel appliances and wood cabinets. Among the dozens of black-and-white photos she brought for Greene to see, one showed Einbinder and a new refrigerator. "My grandmother always wore an apron," Paregol said, "but she took her apron off to pose with the refrigerator, she was so proud."

The narrow upstairs bathroom resembled the one Paregol remembered from the 1940s. As a child, she would sit there, turn the knobs on the faucet of the sink in front of her and look out the window to her left as if driving a streetcar.

"That was my big dream," she said, "to drive a streetcar when I was a kid."

Paregol said the visit came about because of her 11-year-old grandson, her 72nd birthday and Greene's kindness.

In February, Paregol, who is a retired bank vice president, and a friend decided to take Evan Paregol to Ben's Chili Bowl, the U Street NW diner known for its half-smokes.

On the way home to Rockville, Paregol had the urge to show her grandson where she grew up. There it was: the old house, surrounded by signs of gentrification.

Columbia Heights, a diverse mix of races, ethnicities and classes, is enjoying a revival. The neighborhood was ravaged by the 1968 riots, and crime remains an issue. But the neighborhood has been transformed, with new stores, such as Target, and with new residents who are renovating rowhouses and moving into condominiums.

"It's the place to be," Paregol said. "When my uncle sold [the house in 1964], it wasn't a place you wanted to be."

By April, Paregol began taking stock of her life, creating a sort of 'bucket list,' as her May 6 birthday approached. Her grandmother Ida died in 1963, at 72, of a ruptured abdominal aneurysm. Her mother died of the same ailment at 79.

"Is there anything you'd like to do" before death? a friend asked her.

She began writing a letter: "Dear Bryan . . . "

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