The first time we saw G Street was on an October night in 1945. We had no way of knowing that it was the beginning of a lifelong love affair, sometimes turbulent, but lasting.
Don, my husband, had returned after two years in the Pacific. The children and I waited in Philadelphia, his last stateside post. He was to return to his peacetime job with the Civil Aeronautics Administration and it was imperative that we move back to Washington, and soon.
During the war, Washington was swollen beyond belief. Little if any new housing had been built, and most existing homes of any size had been divided to create rooming houses or small apartments. The weekend advertising section of the newspapers had pages of real estate ads, but all were seekers. No renters or sellers. One of these ads was ours, saying we wanted a house with space and character and we did not insist upon a fashionable address. (This last was due to the influence of Mother Detwiler, whose Scottish blood was secure in the profound knowledge that "where the McGregor sits is the head of the table.")
A telephone call came Saturday evening while we were at dinner, giving us an address in Southeast Washington. An expected sale had fallen through, and the place would be available. Would we care to meet the owner at the house the next day? We would.
But 15 hours was too long to wait. My sister, who was stabling us during our search, drove us over to the 600 block of G Street SE. We sat in the car and fell in love. It was almost midnight, and the street seemed asleep. There were little houses and big houses, and of such variety that they could have gone into an index of American architecture. Across the street, a pebble-dashed church with a turreted tower gleamed behind a grove of towering oaks, now gone.
On the south side of the street and facing the church, a two-story brick house stood as erect and dignified as a dowager, with an elaborate cornice like bangs across the top and matching eyebrows over the windows. Freshly painted, its immaculate whiteness set it apart from the dingier houses on either side.
The following morning had a magic of its own. The leaves were turning but the air was warm, and as we parked we could hear the congregation singing the Jubilate. It could be a sign. We went into the house and the walls folded themselves around us and we were at home.
We returned to Philadelphia to pack, still in a glow. We didn't know that most of those nice people singing in the church would get into their Pontiacs and drive home to Sunday dinner across the river.
We did not know that with a few exceptions, most of the original families had either died off or retreated to the safety of the eastern suburbs. Several were left -- the Hagemans, the Hills, the Whittons, and possibly a few others who hid behind locked front doors.
We did not know that the schools, lily white though they were, had little to offer that was good and much that was not. Those first years were a mixture of challenge, bewilderment and hilarity over our situation, but we never lost our love for the house or the neighborhood, nor our absolute faith that some day things would be better.
Don yearned for a parrot to hang on our side veranda to pick up some of our next door neighbor's pithier words. She had killed her first husband, served time in the penitentiary, married again was said to have threatened to do in number two. She had a family of small, inbred, bandy-legged dogs, uncertain in number depending upon the breeding season, and they all had people names like Harry, Jack, Clara, Sam, Bessie, etc. She called them exactly what they were, sons of bitches. But she was fond of them, and she fancied flowers.
A great clutch of petunias grew madly out of an abandoned toilet bowl in the yard, and she was very successful with what she called "hyderangers." We countered by clearing tin cans, oyster shells and other rubble out of our back yard and planting a few to welcome spring.
One day the next April, while I was kneeling in our little patch of earth, I could feel eyes boring into my back. Turning to look, I saw my neighbor leaning over the board fence. She shifted her cigarette to the other side of her mouth, no hands. "Wha's them lil yeller things?" she demanded.
"They are crocus," I told her.
"Huh. Damn cute." She turned her back and banged the door as she went into the house with eight or 10 little dogs at her heels.
That first year on G Street was the Year of the Rat. One afternoon I went down to the kitchen and met eyeball-to-eyeball with a creature as evil-looking as the devil could devise. We glared at one another, but I was first to chicken out and run. Of course, we knew that there must be vermin around, but I had never actually seen one before. We put out the rat poison recommended at the time, the kind that impelled the rats to go home to die. They did -- under our kitchen floor. The whole kitchen had to be ripped up and cement poured.
The adjustment to the old house and its needs was a minor problem compared with how we should deal with the children, both at sensitive ages. Young Donald was 13 and Mary Lucretia was 11. After a semester in the public school we handed Mary over to the Sisters of Saint Cecilia's, a very good school on East Capitol Street, and we will always be grateful to them for their gentle manners and insistence upon scholarship.
Young Don had a difficult two years at the old Hine Junior High, now gone from the corner of Seventh Street just off Pennsylvania Avenue SE. That's the new Hine that's there now. It was no prize even then, but he survived.
To maintain contact with civilized values, we enrolled them in Miss Shippen's Dancing Class in Georgetown, which was a Washington tradition. On Saturday nights we delivered them over to meet other young people their age and, we hoped, pick up a few social graces. During the Christmas holidays Mary was invited to an all-girl party of Shippen students and school friends of the hostess. Many of the young guests were strangers to one another, so the party factotum asked each little girl to introduce herself, tell where she lived and where she went to school.
After a long line of residents of Spring Valley, Georgetown or Chevy Chase who went to Sidwell Friends or the National Cathedral School or some other socially acceptable institution, Mary's turn came.
"My name is Mary Detwiler. I go to St. Cecilia's Academy and I live in the slums." I gasped. "WHAT did they say?" "Oh," she replied, "they were fascinated."
It was not until my children were established at Eastern High School, at 17th and East Capitol streets, that they found their boon companions. At that time the area east of Lincoln Park, south of Benning Road and north of Pennsylvania Avenue, was termed Northeast and Southeast and considered quite a step up from the rundown Capitol Hill neighborhood.
It was a respectable community of rows of decent brick houses on unlittered streets. Many of the students were from some of the old Capitol Hill families, which now are scattered to newer homes in various parts of the city. Later, most would achieve a measure of success. Three were awarded Fulbright Scholarships, one became a Rhodes Scholar and the rest in one way or another climbed the upper roads. All continued their educations and most made significant contributions to society.
Perhaps their most dramatic ploy was the formation of an organization called SCROOCH. In devising this name they imitated the government agencies that go by their initials. The Student's Committee for the Restoration of Old Capitol Hill was a natural that helped prod their elders to greater effort. Constance Green, in her "History of Washington," gives them credit, although she assumed (probably correctly) that the R stood for Redecoration rather than Restoration.
The spring after SCROOCH was formed they organized a project to launch their summer campaign. With the blessing of John Paul Collins, the Eastern principal, and under the guidance of Leon Berkowitz, then the Eastern art teacher, they planned a one-day transformation of a row of five nondescript brick flat fronts on a shabby block.
The absentee landlord, assured that he would not be responsible for accidents, gave legal consent, and the Washington Home Builders Association agreed to furnish paint, ladders, brushes and other essential materials. The Art Department held a contest to work out the specific design for the project. The contest was won by Allan Marsh, later chairman of the Art Department at Montgomery College.
It was a great local story for the papers and provided publicity to get SCROOCH's summer project off to a rousing start. Under the direction of Gus Winnemore, Eastern's printing teacher, the printing classes made cards proclaiming that the bearer was participating in the Capitol Hill Restoration Movement. These cards, presented to merchants also participating, were good for a 15 percent discount on paint, tools, brushes, brooms and trash cans.
The Capitol Hill area was divided into sections, and a chairman was appointed for each division. It was the duty of the chairman and his or her helpers to canvass each house and try to sell the idea. There was probably more publicity than progress, but it was a beginning.
It seems incredible, walking along the same streets today, to see the bleak houses visited by SCROOCH now restored and selling for six-digit figures.