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Homes, History Thrive

By Julia Angwin
Special to The Washington Post
August 21, 1993

Although stately Sheridan-Kalorama is stuffed to its gills with mansions, embassies, chanceries, schools and museums, it manages to be a serene and pleasant place to live.

But it's not as easy as it looks.

"Some people are not aware that this neighborhood wouldn't be as nice as it is today if it weren't for the people who are actively fighting," said Marlys Bromberg, an 11-year resident who volunteers for a number of neighborhood organizations.

Sheridan-Kalorama residents, battling to preserve their residential enclave, don't want any more of their historic buildings divided into offices or apartments.

To maintain their little pocket of a neighborhood, they say creeping commercialization, especially additional chanceries, must be stopped.

"We're very fortunate in, so far, being able to maintain the residential quality of the neighborhood," said Sally Berk, an architectural historian who lives there with her husband, a Gaithersburg dermatologist.

Kalorama, which is Greek for "beautiful view," sits on a hill above Dupont Circle and houses some of grandest buildings in Washington. The neighborhood is bounded by Rock Creek Park and Massachusetts, Florida and Connecticut avenues.

Residents love the safety, engendered by the abundance of embassy police officers and Secret Service police, and the convenience to Dupont Circle, Adams-Morgan and the park. And of course, the prestige.

"I think it's the most desirable neighborhood in town," said Arleen Hesse, a resident since 1966, who does volunteer work. Her husband owns and operates apartment buildings.

All of this comes at a price. Homes range from $500,000 to several million dollars. "One house sold for $2.8 million last year," said Sue Safer, a longtime resident and agent for Pardoe Real Estate Inc.

But some transactions cost more than money, requiring years of cultivating potential sellers.

"There are houses that have come and gone and never come on the market," said Lucy Conboy, who recently moved from a Kalorama town house to a detached home. "People keep their eye out."

The scarcity of private residences may be one reason for such transactions, with more than one-quarter of the 686 buildings being used as embassies, chanceries or apartment buildings.

But another possible cause of secrecy is the stature of Kalorama's residents, many of whom are in the "green book," Washington's social register. The list is long, but includes former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen and Marie Drissel, a candidate for D.C. Council chairman.

And their homes live up to their owner's titles. One house near the "Spanish Steps" at 22nd and S streets was a stop on the underground railroad. In honor of its history, the owners painted a trompe l'oeil mural on an outside wall proclaiming it "Freedom Place."

Another on Bancroft Place houses a room that was imported piece by piece from a French castle. Still another, a 1754 structure called the Morris House, was dismantled in Danvers, Mass., and rebuilt on Kalorama Circle.

Not to mention the embassies, ranging from the chateau-like French Embassy to small nations operating out of row houses, which spice up Kalorama life.

Many residents fondly remember the day that the Chinese Embassy staff shed their gray Mao outfits.

"There was a moment and all of a sudden they blossomed forth, and you could tell the men from the women," said Maggie Johnston, a community activist who has lived in Kalorama since 1978.

The thrills, however, are tempered by the fact that many VIPs are too hurried to meet their neighbors.

"The people who live here are busy people," Arleen Hesse said. "There is not this visiting back and forth to have coffee."

A 10-year resident agreed: "Privacy is a hallmark of the neighborhood." But children and dogs bring neighbors together.

Jean Lindley, a 20-year-resident who is retired, described the scene at Mitchell Park most afternoons.

"The dog-walkers have been kind of meeting there informally at 4 p.m.," she said. "The overall arrangement is that the children play earlier in the day and the doggies can feel free to hop around later."

Children are more in evidence in recent years, residents said, as Kalorama attracts families from the suburbs.

"We became disillusioned with the public schools," said Sally Berk, who lived in Potomac before bringing her two children to Kalorama 12 years ago. "So nothing prevented us from moving to where there were sidewalks."

Most families send their children to private schools, such as the nearby Field School. In a neighborhood with an average income of $102,800, private schools are easily afforded.

"I don't even know where a kid would go to public school in this neighborhood," said Richard Flax, a physician who sends his 5-year-old daughter to Georgetown Day School. "We weren't moving to a school district."

If educating a child in Kalorama doesn't involve public schools, it surely involves a multicultural curriculum outside the classroom. Maggie Johnston said her daughter, Mary, played with girls from Sri Lanka and Indonesia. "It was a wonderful opportunity, early in life, to be exposed to the many cultures," she said.

And even the Chinese, when they were wearing their Mao uniforms, would welcome the children into their embassy on Halloween.

"They would all be standing there waiting for you," Johnston said. "They would laugh and look at you. They would seem to be so amused."

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