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Recollections about growing up in the Columbia Heights section of Washington, D.C., 1939 - 1950Bill Donaldson, Raleigh, NC
William Donaldson was born in December 1931 and lived in Columbia Heights from then until August 1955. He received a Ph.D.in nutrition (animals) from the U. of Maryland in 1957 and taught and conducted research at the U. of Rhode Island (57-62) and North Carolina State University (62-present). Mr. Donaldson graduated from Central High School in June of 1949.
When I was born (December, 1931), my parents were living in the Portner Apartments located at or near 16th and U Streets N.W. My first memories are of an apartment at 1460 Euclid Street, N.W. I was about 4 years old, and I remember looking out the bedroom window at the Netherlands Embassy which was across the alley at 15th and Euclid (SE corner). On the SW corner was the northern-most 15th Street entrance to Meridian Hill Park. Diagonal from the embassy was a large vacant lot. Just after World War II, a residence apartment for single women was built on that lot between 15th and 16th. By then I was living several blocks away and was attending Central High School. A school buddy was the lifeguard at the swimming pool in the basement of the women's residence. I spent many hours swimming and girl watching in that pool. As I remember, the fourth corner (also a vacant lot) eventually became apartments, but I do not know when. The last time I drove through the neighborhood (about 5 years ago), the apartment house that I lived in (1460 Euclid) was still standing.
In September, 1937, I began first grade at St. Paul's Academy, a Catholic school, located on V Street N.W. between 14th and 15th. Soon after starting school, my parents received notice that the apartment house in which we lived was being renovated to make smaller apartments. And so, we moved to an apartment at the corner of 18th and Columbia Road (what is now called Adams-Morgan, a name I had never heard until a few years ago). The apartment was over a People's Drug Store (now CVS?) and across 18th Street from the Ambassador Theater. As soon as the weather turned cold, we had to move again because the heating system did not work. The move was back to Columbia Heights to an apartment at 2715 14th Street (which may still be standing) between Girard and Fairmont. They too, remodeled after a few years, and we moved across the street to the Savoy Apartments at 2804 14th. My parents were still living there when I was finished college and married. They moved to Takoma Park in 1958 . My wife and I used to visit them in the Savoy Apartments before they moved away from the neighborhood.
Across Fairmont on the corner was a small restaurant called Gregory's, it too was owned by a Greek family. More store front shops were next--a bakery called Cris's and operated by another Greek who we all called Mr. Cris. His chocolate eclairs were the best I have ever eaten, but the donuts were greasy. There was a Chinese laundry and a few other shops in that block before you came to an eight to ten foot-high retaining wall made of large blackish stones. The wall continued around Euclid Street and on top of the ground which the wall supported, set back from the streets, was a Jewish Synagogue (Temple?).
Between Euclid and Clifton were a series of two story apartments. Each was considerably uphill from the level of 14th and there were stairways up to each of them. There were several of them in the block. The sides of the homes on Clifton bordered 14th. There then came a large apartment house with shops on the ground level at the corner of 14th and Chapin. Across Chapin on the corner was a large brownstone building in which was located Chambers' Funeral home. The rest of the way down that long block to Belmont were store front shops with single story apartments above. The block between Belmont and Florida Avenue is a short one and it was taken up by a single building. It had store windows at the Florida Avenue corner but the building was vacant for as long as I could remember.
Across Florida was another store that would compare to today's convenience store. It had a penny candy counter which I can remember pressing my nose against while trying to decide how to spend my penny. There were more small shops as you continued down W Street. Across W on the corner was a Texaco gas station. Again, more store fronts down to V Street. One of them was a motorcycle shop which sold and repaired Harleys. Gypsy fortune-tellers took up residence in another of the shops in that block, and the nuns at St. Paul's warned us to keep our distance--they never told us why. Most of the shop windows in that block had posters in them that advertised either the boxing or wrestling matches at Turner's Arena (near the northeast corner of 14th and W) or the strip shows at the Gaiety Theater downtown.
I turned right on V Street to go to school. The entire south side of V between 14th and 15th consisted of row houses. Store fronts with an upstairs apartment lined the north side of V to the alley. On the other side of the alley was the red brick convent of the nuns who taught at St. Paul's. They were Holy Cross sisters. Next came a chapel and attached convent for a group of contemplative nuns, a few of whom we caught brief glimpses of. They spent their entire lives praying inside that convent. Next came the school, St. Paul's Academy. It was two stories high with a basement as well--and was constructed of white stone (granite?). Next came the rectory (house where the priests lived) and then the church at the corner of 15th. As of five years ago, all of these buildings were there, and probably are still standing. The church steeples were missing the twin spires from my childhood.
If you are still with me, I'll describe the east side of 14th, but in less detail because I remember less of it. On the north side W, about 100 feet east of 14th was Turner's Arena. It was the site of the wrestling and boxing matches described in the posters in the store windows. Just north of Florida Avenue was a large concrete structure that resembled a factory and which housed a Chevrolet dealership. Then came some store fronts and next came apartments from just south of Clifton up to Euclid Street. Store fronts occupied the next block up to Fairmont. Next came a tall red brick apartment house with a concrete facade. One of the stores at street level was a beauty salon called "Pat, your hairdresser". Next to this apartment was the one in which I lived for a time, and then a corner apartment with the entrance on Girard. Our apartment was in the back (east side) of the building and had a porch overlooking a grassy backyard. There was a large walnut tree in the yard.
More store fronts lined 14th between Girard and Harvard. One of them was a High's dairy store that sold ice cream cones scooped with a flat paddle instead of the usual melon ball scoop. You got three scoops for ten cents. Across Harvard on the corner was Hines' Funeral Home and then more store fronts all the way up to Park Road. Just south of Irving Street was another large apartment house with a Scholl's Cafeteria on the ground floor. There were windows in the cafeteria which looked out on 14th. One of our amusements as young kids (yard apes) was to stand in front of those windows and watch the patrons eat. A large hardware store was located between Irving and Kenyon. There was a Gulf service station on the south corner of Kenyon. The Tivoli Theater charged five cents at matinees for children under twelve. The price went up to ten cents sometime during WWII. My mother would send me to the then equivalent of a convenience store at 14th and Harvard to buy a loaf of br ead and a quart of milk. She would give me twenty-five cent and I would come home with the bread and milk and change.
The next block was more small shops and in the middle was the Savoy Theater which seated probably only one-third the people that the Tivoli seated. On Friday nights, cowboy movies were featured, including such stars as Hop-along Cassidy, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Red Ryder and many others. Also on the bill would be a comedy, a cartoon and a serial. The serials lasted for 12 to 14 weekly episodes and were based on characters such as Flash Gordon, Charlie Chan, Fu Man-Chu and Sgt. Preston of the Mounties. Next to the Savoy and bordering on the alley that opened to 14th was a hamburger joint called the White Coffee Pot. On the corner at Columbia Road was a Whelan's Drug store and across on the other corner was another Peoples Drugs. Again, more shops toward Harvard. These included a barroom, Heller's Bakery and a flower shop on the corner. Across Harvard was Jones' Bar and Grill. Then more shops including a Chinese Laundry and a Penny Arcade (pinball machines) before arriving back at 2804 where this description started.
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