Like an invincible fortress she sits at the corner of 16th and R Streets NW - The Chastleton - girded in pearly stone, whimsical gargoyles and cathedral windows.
In its near-60 years The Chastleton has had its moments: as a swank address for civil servants: as a curiosity - a Gothic castle next to a temple copied from an Egyptian mausoleum has always drawn stares, an as a romantic hideway.
Gen.Douglas MacArthur used a back elevator to visit the mistress he stashed there. Other celebrated tenants have included Rudulph Evans, the sculptor of the Jefferson Memorial statue, and the chauffeur of Gen.Anthony McAuliffe, the Army man who said "Nuts" to the Germans during the Batle of the Bulge.
The elegance that was once The Chastleton has now faded into standard comforts. The cut-crystal chandeliers are now wrought-iron: the uniformed doorman is now an erratically functioning telephone. A room, maybe with a view of the White House, probably with a few stubborn roaches.
Yet the Chastleton is a busting crossroads of many of the city's faces - the frail elderly who wouldn't open their doors, the middle-aged be-hopping cocaine dealer, the students from Nigeria, Nicaraqua and Nebraska, and the just plain folks who get swallowed up in some government building every day> hang on the steel bars of the S-2 bus every night, and live ordinary lives.
Life at The Chastleton would not suit everybody's taste. By day the eight stories often are blanketed with ghostly stillness. At night the building known for staunch revelry, echoes with drum practices, squawking television dialoques and laughter. The air is thick with the scents of garlic, oil and peppers, competing with the flute-like soft tones of Port au Prince and Abidjan, the vivacious songs of Rio and the flat sounds of Lima, Ohio.
Mainly because of The Chastleton's size - 314 units, usually occupied - police squad cars and fire trucks are frequent visitors. In the last few years, however, only one serious crime, a murder during a domestic squabble, and one spectacular fire, where the mother hoisted her children out the windows to safety, has occured.
In 1920 the first tenants moved into The Chastledon, built by Harry Wardman, one of the town's most prolific real estate names, the man who built the British embassy anf the Sheraton-Park among many landmark buildings, and after who the Wardman Towers is named. Until the mid-1950s the clientele of the Chastleton was mainly whitle. Now, reflecting the population shift to a predominate black neighborhood> slowly beginning to reverse with vigorous town-house renovation, the residents are mainly black Americans, a few elderly and college-age whites, whites, with one-third of the building occupied by African and Spanish nationals. "The People are middle-class, a real nice group. They all live in harmony, says Sid Levy of the management office.
Whatever its reputation and moods, The Chastleton is home for the Rigsbys, the Bickerstaffs, the Ayoolas, the Bullocks, the Dias. the Williams and the Zambranos, who all have something to say about Washington.
In 1968 when Sam Eastman, the press spokesman for Mayor Walter Washington, was between jobs and households he rented an apartment at The Chastleton.
"I remembered my father going there to cram with other law students before World War 11. As you walked into that gorgeous lobby you got to feeling of a bygone era. But there was no question you also got a feeling for the city." says Eastman. "There was a mix, the guy next door was a bartender at Mr.Henry's, the little old whit ladies and the kids who would play in the hall. There was a sense of excitement, sometimes you could smell tear gas. But there was also that urban attitude of everyone minding their own business. I had the feeling I could walk through the lobby with an elephant on skis and no one would notice."
Somewhere in The Chastleton lives a short, stout widow who's 90 years old, nearly totally bling, a virtual recluse.
Though she wouldn't let a stranger into her apartment, she'll gladly talk on the phone. "This used to be the best building in the District," she says, her voice shrill but strong. In 1928 she moved into The Chastleton with her mother, moved out six years later and after 23 years on Columbia Road, returned. "At one time really hig-class people lived here - 12 senators, eight congressmen, three judges - all educated people.
For 22 years she did clecical work for the General Accounting Office and now her trips outside include a montly visit with a senior citizens group to the Kennedy-Warren Apartments and a business excursion to the bank. "I'm forced to got to the bank to sign my checks from my mother's trust fund. I have a trust fund so no man can get to me, especially my brother who by good fortune-dropped dead.
"Did I tell you about Mrs.Ingram, the lady who ran the dining hall?" she says. "She fell in love with a handsone Army officer who lived here. He had his arm shot off at the battle of Manila Bay. They got married. I never knew his name. She never told. That's how people are around here."
Memorandum to Tenants: It has been brought to our attention by the Post Office Department that some persons are pouring liquids, such as sodas, tea, coffee, etc., into the outgoing mailboxes at The Chastleton....Tampering with mailboxes is a violation of the federal law....If any tenant of The Chastleton is doing this, they should cease and desist from this conduct at once.
In a spartan two-room apartment with books as the sole decorations and companions lives C.L.R.James, one of the leading historians and political analysts of Africa and the Caribbean.He's the building's most famous tenant.
During his 76 years James, who keeps the lilt and passport of his native Trinidad, has been a friend and associate of Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, Aime Cesaire and Leon Trotsky. But his surroundings reflect only his intellectual energy, not the milestone events of his life. With his nutmeg brown face, framed by a snowy shock of hair, resting on a worn pillow, James tells how he came to The Chastleton.
"I was offered a post at Federal City College and the building was convenient. When I first came there was a restaurant;now it's a coffee shop. And that's useful to me because I'm not much of a cook," he says, then adds a political reason. "I saw the people who lived here and felt here was a chance to live aa a worker in city of blacks."
Much of his life is isolated from the other tenants, though he signed a petition to keep the last resident manager, but he enjoys the smidgens of intellectual exchange he encounters in the halls. "There are people here from Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, some Latinos and East Indians. The stimulation isn't continuous but it doesn't take much to start. I'll say, 'How goes it in Nigeria?' and get a response," he says.
The austerity of his surroundings is compensated by a spacious apartment in London, used by his wife, Selma, a women's rights acitvist, and the pleasures his fame around the building brings. "A lot of people greet me, I have some reputation and there's an atmosphere of respect and good will in their words," says James, who still teaches and travels regularly to Pan-African conferences around the world. "Every now and then someone knocks on the door asking me to sigh a book, which I do,"
Even a high-rise has a heart, Almost. William Edwards was a blind black man who had delivered mail for many years. After visits to the hospital he would return to his apartment very disoriented through he continued to cook and clean for himself. Sometimes his neighbors on the fourth floor would find him walking around the hall nude. But they liked his gentleness and his independence so no one ever harmed him but guided him back to his apartment. Then one day he walked out on his balcony and day he walked out on his balcony and fell head first fatally onto the sidewalk on R Street. No one took up a collection, says the desk clerk, because life goes on."
The Chastleton is not just eight floors of bachelor, efficiency, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments. It's also the headquarters of several modest business: a catering service and coffee shop, a pharmacy, a cleaners and a bar.
On one thin plywood door is a sign announcing Resources Engineering, Inc. It's the fiefdom of Laurie F. Hess, a bald, chunky man who served many years in the U.S.Army Corps of Eneering, retain the Colonel, did who's good-natured about The Chastleton despite some brushes with the neighborhood criminal element.
"I come from a long line of adventurers," he says, the sounds of his native Georgetown. Washington now coated with British-Robert Morley accents. "I guess that's one of the reasons I'm here. Part of his childhood was spent in Panama where his father was an electrician on the canal project. And one of the proudest moments of the Colonel's life was building Gen.George Patton's coffin for his burial in Luxembourg.
"Well I guess you don't see a great deal of activity around here. But I have visitors from around the world," says Hess, as he fills a lighter shaped like a grenade. One of the firm's current projects, explains Hess, is finding someone to develop a plant in Sonora, Mexico, that would manufacture the by-products of the jojoba plant. He's the ultimate optimist, pushing farflung projects and trying to find a godfather for his own invention of a "systematic insect repellent," that he developed in 1944.
Like many of the other residents Hess likes the international ambience of The Chastleton. Except for one time. "This chap who had an African connection recommended a foresty project to me. He gave me a document that was supposed to be sigbed by five tribal chiefs," says Hess, chuckling as he told the story. "Then I found out none of those men had a right to dispose of any property. I learned from that deal and there were no hard feelings."
"The Chastleton is no hotbed of crime. The calls we get are routine, no worse than any other building that size. THe Chastleton is not like the Cairo used to be before renovation or like the White-law Hotel (at 13 and T NW)," says Sgt. Stephen Packard of the Metropolitan Police Third District. Asked about rumors of prostitution in the building, Packard says> "I've been around when a female arrested for prostitution gave that address. But i don't think anyone knows where a prostitute lives."
Joyce and Gregory Dorsey, a black couple in their 20s, moved to The Chastleton with their infant son three years ago because....
"Because of the way it looks," says Dorsey. "Then you find out what it's about. It's convenient to everything, yes. But sanitation. Well, the halls could be a lot cleaner. I'm not asking for white glove spotlessness but the halls are never painted unless ther's a fire."
The Dorseys have complaints common to the other tenants: the parking lot musical chair game where even if you pay for a space it might be taken;the security system they say is lack-adaiscal, and the extra charge for air-conditioning.
The rent, says Joyce Dorsey, ought to pay for an intercom system. They pay $189 for a one-bedroom. "I stay to myself. I'm just that way," says Dorsey, as she sat outside with a couple of friends on a sunny afternoon. "We don't open our doors to anyone unless we know they are coming."
As a youngster this woman was brought up to be an achiver, so she spent her afternoons perfecting her piano, painting, sewing and French.
But when she got a job in the government someone blocked her way up. Bow she thinks everyone is a Nazi spy. And she's working on a book that will reveal "all the spies in the government." she tells her neighbors. As proof she carries around her writing tablets and notes in a baby carriage.
"Do I have a grudge against you?" Sylvia Gregory, the acting resident manager, was shouting into the telephone. "Do I have a grudgle? Do I have the time to have a grudge? As long as you pay the rent, observe the rules, you will be treated no different than the other people here. Goodbye."
Eight years ago Gregory, who grew up in the Newport News. Va., area, came to THe Chastleton, just like so many other people, with no plans to stay. But a teaching job never materialized in any of the local juristictions and she began to like her job. Shutting between floors in carnation pink slippers. Gregory has a reputation as being as hard-as-nails, aloof and unsympathetic to tenants' complaints, but she seems unflustered and friendly.
In a glass-enclosed office in the center of the lobby, she sits at ther command post. The eyes of this large woman move constantly from the front door to the television to the issue of Business Week in front of her.
"We have a turnover of 10-12 apartments a month. All our leases are month-to-month. And we usually have three skips a month, people who move off in the middle of the night," she explains. Then the phone rings. "What you are at the airpor? Looking for who?" she looks exasperated. A relative of a tenant, who is at work, needs transportation from Dulles. She explains how to get to midtown, then calls the tenant to inform him of the anexpected guest. "People say you don't have a smile on your face but how can you. You don't have the time."
Each Thanksgiving and Christmas, the banquet hall of The Chastleton is filled with Fountroys.
Years ago the family of Del.Walter Fawtroy (D.D.C.) decided to take the holiday cooking pressures off of Ethel "Little Momma" Fountroy, the clan's mother.
It's a relaxed, happy occasion, where the talk over the baked ham prepared by Delbert Cross, the caterer, is about grands, and great-grands, not politics. And the family's politician is not asked to sing or speak.
But after the first gathering, everyone - about 40 strong - adjourned to the New Bethel Baptist Church to work on Fountroy's petitions for Congress.
There's always a person in a neighood or apartment complex that neighors create legend about, picturing their past lives as foreign princes ro tycoons. At The C hastleton they tell you Aida Ayoola is a princess. Well, she's not.
Aida Ayoola, 37, was born in Syria, one of seven children of an upper-class family, whose father worked as a pharmacist for the Danish Missionary Hospital. "I was brought up in a Danish environment," she says> explaining the first juxtaposition of the international threads in her life. When she was 12 she moved to Great Britain, received her training as a nurse, and at a dance fell in love with Nigerian accountant.
From 1958 until last year she lived in Nigeria. "When you are in love you follow your husband anywhere." she says, describing their comfortable life in a 21-room house, with their five children, three servants, spacious gardens and ponds.
However, it was the desire to educate her children in the United States, then the needto be with her three children here, and the frustration she felt as a woman and a non-black African in Nigeria that eventually brought her to Washington.
"Ultimately it was the life of Nigeria." Ayoola, her curly black hair falling in ringlets around a puffy, lined faced, explains one evening. In Lagos she helped manage the family's printing and publishing and candle-making factories. "It was the tradition more than anything, the husbands. And I was never really accepted by his family and I went all out, even adopting the Nigerian women's dress."
When she writes to Edmond, her husband, she tells him that The Chastleton is homely, secure, and conveniently located, that she has made friends with people from the Cameroons and Ghana in the building, and that Mandy, 9, Angela, 18, Ann, 19, and their granddaughter are all fine.
She leaves out the negative things. "I don't want him to have any fears for us," she says, "I don't feel safe all the time. People are always coming by and saying 'Can I borrow money?' or 'Can I borrow the iron?' and there's a lot of noise. I'm waiting for screens for the windows and the flies are really disturbing and the roaches. I have seen such roaches. But, all in all, I think the place is all right."