When the Hamilton Arms Village apartments closes its pink and wrought-iron portals next Wednesday, Georgetown may be losing one of its most eccentric landmarks.
The complex on 31st Street between M and N streets NW, with its pink-and-blue-tiled goldfish pool and "enchanted" garden, is being sold to settle the estate of its late owners. The architect-developer who plans to buy it seeking Fine Arts COmmission approval to turn the property into a residential-commercial enclave. The last of the complex's 30 households have been told to move by Wednesday.
Home to a stream of Washington notables over the years, this collection of pink, yellow and turquoise Swiss village houses was assembled by Col. Milo Hamilton Brinkley and his family four decades ago. Adorned with hand-carved shutters and ceramic tile, the Hamilton Arms was Georgetown's Grand Hotel.
Col. Brinkley, his wife, Emma Conger (an authority on early American pressed glass) daughter Mary B. Reid and her husband, Howard, collected wrought iron, stained glass, pottery and other bits from abandoned buildngs to incorporate into the Hamilton Arms. The six main structures were acquired from 1930 to 1947 and the center structure facing 31st Street, built in 1900, was once the west exchange of the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. TIt was here that the Hamilton Arms Coffee House thrived until 1958, boasting Southern cooking and the first salad bar in Washington. The Fine Arts Commission - which just jurisdiction over the Hamilton Arms redevelopment plan because of laws governing Georgetown's historic preservation - says the oldest structure in the complex is a small house at 1226 31st Street that was probably built in the early 1800s.
It was Mary (Molly) Reid, who studied fine arts at George Washington University and the Sorborne, who gave the Village its animation and peculiar charm. She undertook her calling as artist-in-residence with a vengence, pulling together the diverse a-brac, painting murals on many of the walls and creating flower and bird designs in a Bavarian style for the doors, cabinets and furniture.
In the "pottery" in the countyard, Mrs. Reid made her files which adorn coffee tables, walls and other surfaces inside and out. One apartment kitchen has tiles that lay out the story of Ferdinand the Bull, while characters from Cinderella and Snow White decorate the living room of her own home in complex.
Other aspects of Hamilton Arms life were less beguiling. For one, family members did most of the renovation themselves. There is some question as to whether they applied for building permits. Malfunctioning furnaces, flooding radiators, power blow-outs and electrically caused fires were commonplace. Leaking roofs were legend.
On one memorable occassion, a fireplace - complete with lit fire - fell through the floor and onto the double bed of the apartment below. Fortunately, the bed was unoccupied.
After the Colonel and his wife died in the early 1960s, the real age of do-it-yourself was ushered in, residents recall. A kind of unwritten law was codified: "Don't bothe us; we won't bother you," was the byword.
hus residents quickly learned that requesting a repair was not only an exercise in futility, but would also serve to rock the delicate balance between tolerance and irritation Mr. and Mrs. Reid maintained.
"They seemed to view the tenants as intruders or trespassers in their private domain," a 20-year veteran of the Hamilton Arms once observed.
"They considered us to be socially inferior," said a man whose grand-mother was a Blair of Blair Huse and whose great-grandfather was a Civil War mayor of Washington.
Despite these drawbacks, the Hamilton Arms had more than its share of atmosphere. It was cheap place to live but it was also for lovers - lovers of fantasy and of warm, witty and spirited conversation that often lasted long into the night.
"When I first saw it I knew it was the only place in Washington I wanted o live," recalls Dale Thomas, who lived there when he was assistant chief clerk to the Parliamentairan of the Senate. "A special magic existed there which is hard to explain - a kind of inspirational decadence.
"The grape arbors never bloomed- they went from ripe to rotten. Tehy weren't pruned, you see, but they created an indescribable perfume."
Most of the tenants were young, upwardly mobile careerists. When she was first married, Patti Cavin, then a Washinton Times-Herald reporter and now a syndicated columnist, turned down an offer to live in her father-in-law's home - the former Embassy of Venezuela - and lived instead for five years at the Hamilton Arms.
She describes the Hamilton Arms of the 1940s and 1950s as a "large salon watered in the center by the pool." The pool was a social center during the summer, the site of impromptu and "accumulative" parties that became a Village trademark.
The late Ned Mitchell, lawyer, bank vice president and sailor, was unofficial mayor of this social scene. In his salon were spawned many of the notions that altered the ambience of Georgetown during the 1960s - including the idea for Clyde's which revolutionized the bar scene in Washinton. The set drifting in and out of the Hamilton Arms during the 40s and 50s was individualistic, stylish and studed with White House aides, debutantes, Foreign service officers and other State Department types. When the city health department closed the pool in 1953 because of its poor sanitation, it was the beginning of the end of a social era.
However, resident swear that Georgetown's first "pot party" took place there in the late 50s, along with several other recreational "firsts."
During the 1960s, one apartment was used as a haven for military deserters, a kind of Georgetown depot on the underground railroad of the times.
Last summer, in a kind of 11th-hour attempt to restore the old days, residents got together and cleaned up the grounds and restored the swimming pool. For three months, the garden was aglow again but it was a temporary reprieve. Stone walls, crumbled by trees that fell in high winds several years before, still lay in profusion like piles of tomb stones. Even the wild cats of Hamilton Arms, nurtured by the Reids for years, suddenly began succumbing to a variety of ailments.
Mr. and Mrs. Reid had died earlier in the year - within four months of each other. Now, architect Richard Stauffer and associates are about to buy the place. Stauffer says he want to preserve as much as he can, but he also talks about adding such amenities as underground parking.
"This kind of winds up Georgetown. in my mind," says long-time Hamilton Arms partisan Walter (Tad) Moyle. "Everyone getsinto the act, commercializing on an atmosphere that once existed in the name of the almighty dollar."