The last of what was once Rhodes Tavern was reduced to a pile of rubble yesterday morning by a wrecking crew that spent the rest of the day shoveling debris and helping passers-by select bricks and other souvenirs from the site.
One of the collectors, attorney Bert Merwin, stood at the ruins of the 185-year-old building during lunchtime, his blue suit stained with red dust, and talked bricks and nails and moldings as these items were lifted from the ruins of Washington's first town hall at 15th and F Streets NW.
"There's an oldie," he exclaimed, balancing a portion of a wooden beam from the building while Maurice Pollard, a manpower specialist from the Department of Labor, worked with a borrowed hammer to yank nails -- the source of all the excitement -- from the board.
"These are all handmade nails in the 1800s," said Merwin, 59, who described himself as an antique lover. He carefully chose some keepsakes for himself, then helped others with their selections.
Workmen, who finished knocking down the structure with the razing of the front wall shortly before 10 a.m., said souvenir hunters had streamed past the site all day for a last look and a brick or two.
Another collector, Steve Kusterbec, a 33-year-old sales representative, picked up two bricks, a piece of molding and some nails "for my kids to take to school for show-and-tell when they talk about that kind of history."
The long debate preceding the tavern's demolition divided preservationists, politicians and the general public, and yesterday was no different.
"I'm heartbroken," said Merwin. "It's a shame they did this. Here you have the original framing with the original nails . . . it would have been an excellent attraction."
But Pollard, 47, said he had mixed feelings about whether the tavern should have been saved or torn down to make way for the completion of developer Oliver T. Carr's Metropolitan Square.
"It was just facade after facade after facade," he said. "You had to dig down to find something of a historical nature -- but I'm going to keep my four nails."
One person who didn't go to the site yesterday was Joseph N. Grano Jr., the man who spent six years trying to save and restore the building. His voice hoarse and his cause lost, he talked instead of publishing a Rhodes Tavern Record at election time in November to tell the history of the building and relate how Carr and city officials had destroyed it.
"We're not going to forget, and we're not going to forgive," said Grano, who accused Mayor Marion Barry and other city officials of letting Carr and his company "pull the strings" in the District.
Grano, who quit his job four years ago to devote all his time to preserving the building, said he expected to look for a job now but would not give up trying to "educate" people about what had led to the tavern's destruction. He said watching Rhodes Tavern be torn down, for him, was like watching "a human being being dismembered . . . but sometimes the good guys don't win."
Workmen for Wrecking Corporation of American tore down the east wall and most of the building's annex Monday and had planned to return early yesterday to finish demolishing the original building.
But after Grano and a committee of supporters made another last-ditch effort Monday afternoon to save the building -- posting what members said was a hard-to-raise $100,000 bond required by the D.C. Court of Appeals before it would consider an appeal of the tavern's demolition -- the Carr firm, according to a spokeswoman, ordered the crew to continue razing the building during the night.
Downtown Washington's oldest commercial building, Rhodes Tavern was a tavern and a town hall in the 1800s and served as a meeting place for the city's first civic association and a polling place in its first election. It also provided a ringside seat for every inaugural parade since Thomas Jefferson.