Washington's present meets the past in Adams-Morgan NEIGHBORHOOD TOUR

June 25, 1995|By Ralph Vigoda | Ralph Vigoda,Knight-Ridder News Service

Washington -- There is a plaque on the house at 1831 Wyoming Ave. here, marking the last residence of North Pole explorer Adm. Robert Peary, who bought the building in 1914 and lived there until his death in 1920.

It may be the only historical marker in all of Adams-Morgan, an eclectic neighborhood in the city's northwest section.

There is nothing, for instance, to tell you that the Wyoming, a turn-of-the-century luxury apartment building, was where Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower lived for nearly nine years.

No guidebook points out the house that Al Jolson bought for his parents.

There is no marker at the apartment Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson rented for $42.50 a month in 1935, or the shop where Charles Lazarus began Toys 'R' Us. Or the place where reporter Carl Bernstein was living on the night of the Watergate break-in.

But these are just a few of the interesting places sprinkled through the 240 acres of this colorful, offbeat, multicultural area. Adams-Morgan has gone through a half-dozen reincarnations in the last 100 years and become something of a tourist destination most recently, primarily because of its proliferation of restaurants.

Fortunately, there's a man who knows the neighborhood well, is constantly discovering more, and is willing to share his knowledge with just about anyone. Each Sunday, Anthony Pitch leads a two-hour walking tour of Adams-Morgan, regaling his audience with tales of the presidents and radicals and authors and artists who have passed through this neighborhood. The tour starts in front of the Wyoming, which is at 2022 Columbia Road, at 11 a.m. (Phone Mr. Pitch at [301] 294-9514.)

The tour is fascinating -- and it's just $5. (Weather is a factor, though.)

Adams-Morgan, says Mr. Pitch, is something of a yuppie paradise. It is close to downtown, relatively safe and very picturesque.

While not nearly as famous as the Georgetown section, its neighbor to the west, Adams-Morgan already rivals Georgetown for real estate prices. Large brick and stone townhouses that could be bought for $30,000 in the 1970s go on the market for $400,000 or more today.

Perhaps you only know Adams-Morgan from its restaurants. The neighborhood is home to some of the most diverse and eclectic eating establishments in the city, most of them on a stretch of 18th Street that's just a few blocks long.

And even if you've never heard of Adams-Morgan, it's likely you've caught glimpses of it at the movies. Remember the opening frames of "In the Line of Fire," in which Clint Eastwood waits to be picked up by his partner? That was filmed on 18th Street in the heart of Adams-Morgan.

How about the walk taken by Tom Cruise and Kevin Pollack -- Pollack's wheeling a baby stroller -- in "A Few Good Men"? That's 20th Street near the Airy View apartments. "Dave" and "The Pelican Brief" also feature scenes of Adams-Morgan. Hollywood has discovered it because it's in a good location, it's quiet and it generally doesn't have a problem with traffic congestion.

That doesn't mean, though, that's it's off the beaten track. Adams-Morgan sits right behind the gigantic Washington Hilton and Towers, just north of Dupont Circle and south of the National Zoo.

Little more than a century ago, though, it was considered the boondocks. That all changed when the 18th Street trolley began running in 1892, followed five years later by a streetcar extension on Columbia Road. Developers saw the potential; in 25 years 26 apartment buildings went up, many of them still standing and retaining traces of the luxury for which they were noted shortly after the turn of the century.

Three on Columbia Road, the main thoroughfare in Adams-Morgan, are the Wyoming (2022), Woodley (1851) and Norwood (1868). Built in 1905, the Wyoming, which has two large wings, has housed many members of Congress, but its most famous residents were the Eisenhower family. Dwight, Mamie and the children lived there -- during the times that Ike was not working overseas -- from 1927 to 1936. It is considered one of the finest examples of a turn-of-the-century luxury apartment house.

On one of the top floors of the circa 1917 Norwood, a building covered with decorative plasterwork, lived Rep. William Bankhead. He eventually became speaker of the House, although his daughter's fame has long outlasted his. Her name was Tallulah.

The Woodley, completed in 1903 as the first apartment building on Columbia Road, is noted primarily as a one-time investment property of Woodward & Lothrop's Sam Woodward, whose partner, Alvin Lothrop, built a mansion at the southern tip of Adams-Morgan, where Columbia Road, Connecticut Avenue and California Street intersect. The building, assessed at $5 million, is now used by Russia as a trade mission.

Slightly less luxurious was the Woburn at 1910 Kalorama Road. LBJ moved there in 1936, a year after his marriage. A frequent guest was Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn.

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