The house had always been pointed out during the annual family pilgrimage south to see my grandmother. It was a huge brick building, with lacy wrought-iron trim and pale window shades carefully pulled to uniform level on every floor. It was a cold, haughty-looking house, evocative of the time when those black people with homes on Logan Circle were living at one of the most prestigious addresses in the city.
There was a time earlier in this century when every family on this circle where Rhode Island and Vermont Avenues, 13th and O Streets come together had live-in help -- the blacks in rigid imitation of their former white employers or owners. Dinner for 24 with china and sterling was always seated, never buffet. Calling cards were left on silver trays in front halls, while one waited to see if the lade of the house was "at home." The mansions now being restored by the new urban pioneers aren't the same. Modern living does not allow the luxury of a two-hour tea: modern conscience cannot excuse the excess that was the hallmark of gracious living.
"I'll tell you," Gordon said two years ago in his late mother's kitchen, "this really used to be some neighborhood."
He was talking about Logan Circle as it was when he was a child, between the wars. Outside, the area might teeter in partial decay, but his memories link him so strongly to the old circle and its elegance that inside, anyway, things hadn't changed much in over three-score years. Inside, it was still "Logan Circle the way it's supposed to be," and we could see what he meant as Gordon walked us through the home his father, a self-made man, had paid for in cash.
"Black folks used to live this way, you know," he sighed, as he walked into the dining room, through the length of the butler's pantry, its cabinets on both sides holding his mother's ancient Limoges porcelain service. Ornate mahogany breakfronts with an overglaze of fine cracks echoed each other in dusty mirrors. "They used to have dinner parties here," Gordon said. The stacks of delicate china were edged in the heavy gold bands that were fashionable at the time. An exquisite set of wine glasses on long, intricately twisted stems was etched in floral patterns.
A splendid, faded Oriental rug stretched beneath a huge mahogany table with massive, curved legs. Gordon absently tapped the faded yellow silk lamp shade that hung over the table, and its tarnished gold fringe danced. "Should be cleaned," he muttered, squinting through the dust motes.
The parlor was hidden by soundlessly sliding double oak panels. The walls were covered in what appeared to be dark-green watered silk. Prim horsehair sofas, pale green and edged in rosewood, faced each other across the room. The bay window between them looked right out onto the circle. Old men sat and slept beneath the trees in the warm night.
The houses on the circle were exercises in their late-1800s architects' excesses of rococo whimsy. The stained glass, carved lintels, and neoclassic garden sculpture must have delighted the neighborhood's first occupants as much as they do the passing visitors now. "Oh, this place was something, I'll tell you," Gordon remembers, shifting his 68-year-old frame in his chair.
Some things change, but one remains the same -- the circle's passing parade of, um, working ladies. "I remember sitting on the front porch when I was small, while the maid swept the front walk. Me and my friends would call to the girls as they walked by, teasing them, you know, and they would come over and say a little something nasty to us. It was all in good fun," he chuckled, "but my mother's maid didn't like it at all. She'd shake her broom at them and holler, 'Shoo -- get away from here!" The girls would curse her, and we'd just laugh. That only made her madder . . . "
We looked through the window. A trio of young boys were perched at General Logan's horse's hoofs, singing.
When Gordon was young, the circle fulfilled Pierre L'Enfant's concept: It was "a point of great prospect," a fulcrum for the neighborhood's life. But the highway department carved inner roads through the circle in the mid-'50s to aid commuter-traffic. It made the park inaccessible through the whiz of Maryland-bound drivers. With the fulcrum's removal, the neighborhood's balance -- already dangerously precarious -- collapsed. But this month the inner roadway was closed to motorists, the pavement to be broken up and replaced by grass. The circle will be unbroken.
Walking out, I caressed a lamp set into the newel post on the front staircase. When a panel was pressed, the lilies in the arms of the post's bronze nymph glowed amber. "Tiffany," Gordon said, fondly.
We left through the back yard, with its old-fashioned grape arbor. I snapped a grape from the rotten trellis: the fruit was ripe, purple and full of sugar, a real jelly grape.
The car was parked behind the carriage house, which loomed two stories high. The second story would make some lucky person a wonderful writer's lair or painter's sunny atelier. But no matter how good the renovation, some elusive cachet will be missing. Life on the circle as Gordon's parents knew it won't come again.
"Nobody'll live like we used to live," Gordon sighed, not without satisfaction. "It was another era."