It had been three years since Joe Grano stood on the corner of 15th and F streets NW and fell so madly in love that he quit his job just to protect the object of his attentions.
Love in such heroic proportions is usually the stuff of romance. But in the case of Grano, whose passion has led him to exhaust his savings and live off loans from his parents, it is no woman he pines for.
Grano is in love with the 182-year-old Rhodes Tavern, the ugliest historic building in Washington. His sole purpose in life is to preserve and protect it from developers and anyone else who would like to see it torn down or moved from 15th and F streets -- much to the chagrin of his parents, who would prefer that he go back to work.
"Preservation is good, but not to quit a job," said Joseph Natle Grano Sr. of his 35-year-old son. "Maybe you could tell him to get a job?"
The disheveled building that has consumed all of Grano's waking hours is currently stalted either to be moved or demolished because it occupies a strategic corner of developer Oliver T. Carr's mammoth Metropolitian Square. Though tiny -- it is only 1,894 square feet -- the property is worth about $300,000. If the Carr project is built as planned, it will occupy most of the block between 14th, 15th, F and G streets NW.
Grano, who two years ago left his $20,000-a-year job as a Veterans Administration attorney to lead the preservation fight, argues that the small three-story stucco building should be saved because it is full of local history. That may be so, but most agree it is also one of Washington's homliest buildings.
That is exactly why most local preservationists are willing to allow the Tavern, named for William Rhodes who ran the first bar there in 1801, to be demolished as part of a compromise with the developer that will save two other landmark buildings on the same block and the historic interior of a third.
But Grano, who ran unsuccessfully on a preservationist platform against incumbent Republican City Council member Jerry A. Moore Jr. in 1980, is a maverick amongst preservationist, preferring to work outside their circle. Accordingly, he formed the Citizens Committee to Save Historic Rhodes Tavern in April 1978 without their support and started a crusade that many feel could jeopardize the existing compromise.
Since then, Grano, an abrasive man with a rasping voice, has peppered local newspapers, radio and TV stations with press releases, conducted about a dozen demonstrations at or near the Tavern -- he has about 30 hardcore supporters -- and claims to have made about 50 apperances on TV and radio.
With singleminded determination, Grano had become an expert at demonstration techniques -- right down to the proper clotes for him to wear for interviews with reporters.
Recently, for instance, Grano was wearing what he terms his "media suit" -- a two-piece conservative gray suit, blue shirt and red print tie that is perfect for color TV -- when he arrived by taxi at the Riggs and American Security banks at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW for a demonstration. From the truck of a cab he unloaded signs, a pile of flyers, a large cloth banner and a bulging briefcase. White House and the Tavern, had been targeted for a demonstration in support of the Tavern because Grano maintained that they both had been founded in the old building. Therefore, he reasoned, they should support its preservation.
When Grano joined the six demonstrators waiting for him, it was just after noon and the temperature already was climbing past 90 degrees. Also, there were no reporters on hand to cover the demonstration.
Grano scowled as he paced up and down Pennsylvania Avenue. "I always feel like this is a production," he said. "You have to worry about the actors, and the audience. It's easier in cold weather. We might not last till 1:30 in this heat."
Then he started a chant. "Help save Rhodes Tavern. Buy a button. Sign a petiton," adding, "Riggs Bank got started in Rhodes Tavern."
People passing by stared at the short, compact Grano. Some even stopped to sign the petition. Grano continued to scowl, however.
"I always get this way," said Grano. "I'm always this way at my demonstrations. I want more people, more people."
By 1 p.m., there were 14 demonstrators and Grano was smiling: Two reporters, WTOP Radio's Charlene Williams and Clyde H. Penn Jr. of The Los Angeles Times, had arrived and were interviewing him. Grano told them that he had just that day learned from historian Nelson Rimensynder, a member of the Citizens Committee, that the Tavern was also the birthplace of the long-defunct Washington Stock Exchange.
When it was all over, Grano declared the day a big success. "The highlight was the guy from the LA Times coming," he said. "The chant was right. We got it right. It flows. Charlene and the LA guy, that felt good. We look for a different twist and the LA Times came. It's a thrill. People 3,000 miles away will know it was a success. I'm happy. You never know what important person will see you."
Because of Grano, the Tavern has become a large thorn in the collective side of Washington preservationists.After years of battling developers in much the same fashion as Grano does today, they finally won passage of a city law in 1979 that generally makes it more difficult to tear down historic buildings.
Rhodes Tavern was one of the first tests of the new law. After a three-day hearing in late 1979, during which both preservationists and the developer presented expert witnesses, the demolition permit was granted.
That seemed to be the end of the battle for everyone except Grano.
"I was the battle as just beginning," Grano said as he sat in his orderly Dupont Circle efficiency apartment stuffing envelopes with his latest flyer. "I was playing a differnt game. I saw it as a public relations game. I was the law as keeping this thing newsworthy. Media counts. I always work on that premise."
Judy Sobol, for the last three years head of the decade-old Don't Tear It Down, believes Grano is causing a schism within the preservationist community by focusing continuing attention on the Tavern.
"The crux of the problem is that it is important for preservation groups to be approachable by developers. We have to play by the same rules. I don't think Joe is willing to play by the rules," she said.
Grano agrees. "I didn't play by the rules. I had my own game."
Grano's game had taken the decision to allow Carr to demolish the building through two City Council reviews and two court appeals. Now he is considering taking his case to the Supreme Court. In the meantime he has taken his case to the streets in hopes of convincing the local residents and news media of the worthiness of his cause.
"One thing about Joe, when he makes up his mind, no one can change his mind," said his father from his home in Yonkers, N.Y. "No one can stop him. He walks the straight line. He won't move off the center of that line."
Nonetheless, he disagrees with his son's passion for the Tavern. His son took him to see it in 1979, he said. "There is no art in that building," he said. "I don't like to disagree with my son, but there is no art there."