Adrienne Bird-Wilson quit her Web-writing job last month. The 33-year-old has always thought of herself as a writer, and drafting online marketing text didn’t count.
Now, she can devote herself to finishing a book about a struggling actress in Los Angeles. “It’s semi-autobiographical, but it’s mostly fiction with some social commentary,” she says.
That’s also a good description for the work of Sinclair Lewis, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist who once lived inside the stately Dupont Circle townhouse that Bird-Wilson calls home.
If you live in an older part of town, there’s a good chance that a notable person once shared your space, says Paul K. Williams, who has written several books on local history.
“Washington, D.C., tends to attract prominent, ambitious and wealthy individuals, plus the celebrities that marry into all that,” he says.
Glamorous gals like Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Kennedy and Julia Child all called Georgetown home. Staid Capitol Hill rowhouses sheltered both Barack Obama when he was just a senator, and, later, president Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel — who bunked in Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s basement apartment.
In addition to political types, plenty of musical geniuses called D.C. home. Duke Ellington laid claim to seven different D.C. addresses, including a narrow row home just south of T Street NW.
The house’s current renters are Kimberly Olive Colla, 32, and her husband. The two of them didn’t know much about Ellington before they moved in, but they have since boned up on their local history. To get started, they read the sign on their fence, which was installed by Cultural Tourism D.C. It explains that Ellington spent his formative years in their home, studying jazz and ragtime piano.
Tour groups regularly stop by and take pictures of the house, and one Ellington fan actually let herself into the foyer.
“She asked if this was a museum and if she could come in,” recalls Colla. “I explained that it’s our private residence, and there’s nothing historic left here, anyway.”
Before Colla moved in, the home’s previous owners did a “total gut” of the house, she says. Now, it’s as airy and modern as the 2004 condos bearing Ellington’s name down the street. The only remaining period detail is probably the hand-carved banister.
That doesn’t stop Colla from bragging to friends about her brush with fame.
“I see signs about Duke Ellington all over the city and think, ‘He lived in my house,’ ” she says.
The only physical holdovers from Sinclair Lewis’ time in his Dupont Circle home are the marble fireplaces and perhaps the bannister. However, Bird-Wilson feels like something of the novelist’s spirit infuses the place. That energy helped her realize that she needed to quit her job and focus on writing, she says.
“It was definitely a factor in my decision,” Bird-Wilson says.
Soon, the aspiring novelist will move to a place with cheaper rent — she currently pays more than $2,000 a month for the basement apartment. Her upstairs neighbor, Christine Clinton, 40, will be moving out soon too. The 100-year-old house was great before she and her husband had twins — they even got a first-edition Sinclair Lewis book in honor of its former resident. Now, the three flights of stairs between the family’s bedrooms and laundry room are taking their toll.
“The stairs are killing me,” Clinton says. “It was fun while it lasted, but I’m done with old houses.”
More on this story: How to tell if someone famous lived in your house