The Washington Post

Joseph N. Grano Jr. dies; activist worked to block demolition of historic D.C. tavern

Joseph N. Grano Jr. displays fliers he distributes in his battle to prevent the demolition of Rhodes Tavern. (Linda Wheeler/The Washington Post)

Joseph N. Grano Jr., who quit his job as a government lawyer in an unsuccessful effort to stop the demolition of a historic landmark in downtown Washington more than 30 years ago, died Nov. 24 at George Washington University Hospital. He was 68.

The cause was complications from a stroke, said Nelson F. Rimensnyder, a local historian and longtime friend.

Mr. Grano came to prominence in the late 1970s after developer Oliver T. Carr Jr. announced plans to demolish the Rhodes Tavern, a decaying three-story stucco-covered building at 15th and F streets NW, to make way for the vast Metropolitan Square project, occupying an entire city block across from the Treasury Department.

The tavern, built in 1799, was at the time the oldest commercial structure standing in downtown Washington and had served as the city’s first polling place, an early courthouse and a watering hole for historic figures local, national and global. A Royal Navy admiral, George Cockburn, is said to have dined there in August 1814, enjoying his chicken dinner by the light of a burning White House.

Carr, city officials and some architects considered the tavern an eyesore, but for six years Mr. Grano led a band fighting to preserve it. The Bronx native left his job as a Veterans Administration attorney in 1979 to devote more time to his crusade, pressuring Mayor Marion Barry, local and federal officials and the courts to step in.

None, in the end, did. The tavern was razed in September 1984 — less than a year after D.C. voters had overwhelmingly approved a pro-preservation ballot initiative proposed by Mr. Grano.

The demolition was like watching “a human being being dismembered,” he told The Washington Post. “Sometimes the good guys don’t win.”

In 1999, after Carr had sold the new building, Mr. Grano succeeded in having a commemorative plaque hung at the Rhodes site. “I wish the building was here,” he said at the time. “But we have the plaque, and that’s the acknowledgment of history. I hope people will learn from it.”

The tavern fight lost, Mr. Grano spent the rest of his life pouring his efforts into various civic activities and causes — often under the banner of his Rhodes Tavern-D.C. Heritage Society. While he kept up his bar membership and occasionally did real estate work, he never again worked full time as a lawyer, Rimensnyder said, and his activities in the public eye were few. He remained active in preservation matters and supported himself primarily by teaching English as a second language and guiding tours of city landmarks.

Mr. Grano was a fixture of local Republican politics in the District, running unsuccessfully for a D.C. Council seat in 1980, and was perennially active in D.C. voting rights causes. In September, he demonstrated with Rimensnyder on Capitol Hill, calling on Congress to exempt D.C. residents from federal taxes if it would not grant them congressional representation.

Joseph Natale Grano Jr. was born Aug. 6, 1945, in the Bronx. His parents were Italian immigrants.

He received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a law degree, both from St. John’s University in New York. He came to Washington in 1977 to work for the VA. Survivors include a sister.

In addition to his activism for historic preservation, Mr. Grano was a ubiquitous presence in the local Italian-American community, a member of Holy Rosary Catholic Church and active in several cultural groups.

His embrace of a fellow Italian American, 19th-century artist Constantino Brumidi, ultimately proved more fulfilling than the tavern fight.

Brumidi, who had painted Vatican frescoes before leaving for the United States in 1852, spent the last 25 years of his life adorning the U.S. Capitol — most notably, the “Apotheosis of Washington” mural in the eye of the dome.

In 2000, Mr. Grano launched an effort to commemorate Brumidi, enlisting several prominent Italian American organizations and influential elected officials. Congress honored the bicentennial of Brumidi’s birth in 2005, and three years later, thanks again to Mr. Grano’s advocacy, posthumously awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal.

A subsequent effort to name the Capitol Visitor Center for Brumidi did not succeed, but the medal is now displayed there. In his last months, Mr. Grano pressed to have Brumidi honored with a postage stamp.

At a D.C. Republican Party dinner in October, he lamented to a reporter in his Bronx rasp that prominent members of Congress with Italian roots had failed to join his stamp effort.

Mr. Grano often found himself at odds with those who might be in a position to help his causes. He boycotted the presentation of the Brumidi medal, for instance, because it was not held in the Capitol rotunda, under the artist’s greatest work.

In 1981, at the height of the Rhodes Tavern fight, Mr. Grano split with the city’s main preservation group, which had agreed to a compromise in which Carr would preserve the facade of an adjacent theater but would tear down the tavern. “I don’t think Joe is willing to play by the rules,” the group’s president told The Post.

Mr. Grano did not dispute that assessment: “I didn’t play by the rules. I had my own game.”

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.
Most Read

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.