For 62 years, the old Mills Building offered its tenants a double vantage: a close-knit neighborhood to live and work in and a panoramic view of American history.
Built in 1902, of granite and terra cotta, in a late 19th century Chicago style, the ornate eight-story structure, on the southwest corner of 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, was a grand place to be whenever there were ceremonial goings-on at the Executive Office Building across the street, at the White House just beyond, or at Blair House. Once you stepped out of the building and away from its pillared entrance, you were strolling past the little ground-level stores of a neighborhood shopping center. Mrs. Flora Fedeli's gift and card shop was next to the entrance as you turned right. Bird's Florists was on the corner.
Around on G Street there was a beauty salon; the bookstore and art gallery where Franz Bader pioneered the showing of local artists; Maurice's ("king of the avocados," Jack Bird called him), a gourmet food store whose best-remembered wares were chocolate-covered ants and grasshoppers; Kay's Sandwich Shoppe, a kosher-style delicatessen; Lane's jewelers; the Mills Building Barber Shop, run by the neighborhood archivists, Dante Pagi and his half-brother Armando Petrarca. And, finally, Pearlman's Book store, crammed to overflowing with some 20,000 new and used volumes, accumulated in a tenancy of 43 years and presided over by the ebullient Paul Pearlman, bookseller, handball champion and "the mayor of G Street."
The AAA, a dominant tenant of the Mills Building beginning in 1925, moved across the street to larger quarters in 1954, but its employes remained involved in the life of the old building and the G Street community. It was possible in those days to live and work on G Street and a lot of people did.
The John Paul Jones apartment house, still new in 1946 and right next to Mills, offered an attractive innovation: central air conditioning. There were other apartment houses in the next block and rooms for rent in the Park Hotel or the YMCA, on opposite corners of 18th and G.
The Y served the community in other ways. Its two swimming pools and its gym and handball courts were frequently used by those in the neighborhood (although the Y was picketed for several years before it would admit black members). The AAA held sales meetings there and the AAA Bowling League used the basement alleys. At least one AAA executive taught in the Y's night school.
The neighborhood's other main thoroughfare was Pennsylvania Avenue, between 17th and 18th. If you turned left on leaving Mills' 17th Street entrance and passed the Fannie May Kitchen Fresh Candy Shop, you came to Whelan's Drug Store on the corner and to Jimmy Castro, who began selling papers there in the thirties, "when I was just a kid." He is 69, and still in front of the building.
Past the Mills Building on Pennsylvania were other shops and restaurants. The most frequented place was the Colonial Cafeteria, run by the Curtis Brothers, "two country boys," whose plain-fare menus featured produce from their farm in Warrenton, Va.
Members of the Carr family, the developers, were involved in the Mills Building from the start. Arthur Carr, the first resident manager, was a close friend of Anson Mills, brigadier general of the Union Army. Mills invented the webbed cartridge belt, which made his fortune, and owned the building that bore his name. The next building manager was Oliver T. Carr Sr., who extended the family real estate business into construction. Oliver T. Carr Jr. succeeded his father in the years after World War II and launched his career as one of the major developers in the D.C. area.
A frequent walker in the neighborhood was Harry S Truman, who greeted shopkeepers and tenants as he went by and dropped in occasionally at Bader's and Pearlman's. Lady Bird Johnson and her daughter Lynda visited Bader's gallery. So did Jackie Kennedy. And Bess Truman herself called up one day to order a cookbook.
Jack Bird did a substantial business supplying flowers for White House functions. Mamie Eisenhower, he recalls, used to order crosses of white carnations for deceased friends, and the Secret Service would have him make up its shield in flowers for funerals of agents.
The heavy foot traffic around the building included a complement of celebrities -- Herblock, the cartoonist, who lived in a G Street apartment house; Edward R. Murrow from USIA; Gene Davis, the artist, who worked at the AAA. George Reedy and others of the White House staff and an occasional Cabinet member used to get their hair cut in the building's barbershop. And such notables as Sen. Robert Taft, Democratic Party leader India Edwards and, to the delight of the women in the office, Melvyn Douglas, the actor, dropped by the AAA to pick up travel plans.
The stores also depended for trade on the surrounding institutions. Foreign dignitaries and their entourages came over from Blair House; officials and secretaries from the Executive Office Building; visitors from the Red Cross and the DAR headquarters, a few blocks down 17th Street. (Franz Bader will never forget the DAR convention delegate who strayed in one afternoon, spied a copy of Tolstoy's "War and Peace" on a table and exclaimed in a furious voice, "A Russian!")
The building was an unparalleled place for watching the parades that accompanied festivals, holidays and inaugurations. Every four years AAA Counsel Charles C. Collins held an inaugural buffet in his fifth floor office for friends and tenants. The Birds put chairs in the front window of their store to accommodate spectators. Flora Fedeli closed shop because people would come in from the cold to stand and watch.
All tenants remember two terrible events. They recall, whether they were eyewitnesses or not, the attack on Blair House on Nov. 1, 1950, when two Puerto Rican terrorists sought to assassinate President Truman while he and his family were staying there temporarily. A stray bullet smashed Whelan's front window. And they recall the December day in 1963, when they watched, in overwhelming sadness, the leaders of the world gather on the avenue for John F. Kennedy's funeral cortege.
This intricate web of neighborhood relationships was disrupted in the summer of 1964. By then it was clear that the old building was not aging gracefully. Even its low rents -- $49.50 on the eighth floor -- failed to attract new tenants.
Although Mills had one of the city's first refrigeration systems for supplying ice water to hallway and office fountains, it had few other amenities. It was not air conditioned. Its heating plant was old. It had no on-site parking and no space for it. The lone cage elevator in the front lobby, whose central shaft could be circumnavigated by a flight of marble steps if you got tired of waiting, had begun to behave erratically.
Carr Jr. recalls, "My career began here, learning to help people extricate themselves from the elevator when it got stuck between floors." William Fedeli says a chunk of terra cotta once dropped from the parapet into the street. And "Old Abe," the bronze eagle atop the building flagstaff, mascot of the 8th Wisconsin volunteers in the Civil War, was disintegrating so badly it had to be removed for fear it would fall and hit someone.
The decision to tear the building down, Carr says, was a painful one. "But its functional elements just didn't work." Consideration was given to gutting the building and preserving the facade. That idea was finally rejected, although Carr concedes that the movement for historic preservation is much stronger today than it was in 1964. In the end, the descendants of Anson Mills decided to build anew.
Many of the tenants were shocked when they got the news. "I thought I'd die," Jack Bird said. The old building, Franz Bader told the Evening Star, had the dignity "of an elderly lady. The new one they put up here will be like a young attractive girl -- except that she'll look like thousands of other girls."
When the building was leveled, the workers recovered the "time capsule," a foot-square copper box that Mills had inserted in the cornerstone. Carr says the contents were very disappointing: a medal bearing the likeness of Admiral George Dewey, hero of Manila Bay in the Spanish-American War, a friend of Mills and one of the building's first tenants; a letter from Mills on the letterhead of his cartridge belt firm; a book on Metropolitan Club membership, and a letter about the George A. Fuller Co., which built the Mills building in under 11 months for $225,000.
Mills was not the first of the city's major buildings to be demolished. But the whole neighborhood gradually came apart in the wake of it. The apartment houses, the Y, the hotels, restaurants and little shops have all disappeared. In their place came phalanxes, on G Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, of glittering, flat-front, blank-faced buildings -- "just boxes with windows," said William Fedeli, himself an architect. The stores that replaced the old ones are mostly chains or elaborate enterprises, far removed from the modest, family-owned businesses that once flourished there.
Carr said he tried to seek retail tenants for the new building, who would recapture the old atmosphere. There are, again, a bookstore, a gift shop and a jewelry store. Fannie May Candy is back, on the corner where Bird's used to be; and Dante and Armando are back on G Street, still barbering. Franz Bader, after moving to two other downtown locations, ended up, shortly before his retirement, in a gallery directly across the Avenue.
And Jimmy Castro is still there, in a snug, gunmetal gray kiosk that Carr built for him.
The old building had 35 or 40 tenants. The new, eight-story Mills Building has 13 primary tenants, who sublet to six others.
Oliver T. Carr Jr. is still there. His office is in the tower of the new building, with a magnificent view of the avenue and its historic sites.
In the lobby of the new building there is a piece of abstract marble sculpture, seven feet high. Entitled "Metamorfix," it rises phoenixlike from a low, round base of polished granite -- the last physical remains of the old Mills Building.