The Sky’s the Limit: Down-to-Earth Jill and Scott Altman ‘Take Command’ of the 2016 Georgetown House Tour

April 27, 2016

It comes but once a year, one of Georgetown’s peak experiences, when homes open up on an April day.

Every year, some wonder how it will all come together. Who will agree to put their place on the tour? Who will host the popular Patrons’ Party — founded by the tour’s heart and soul, 100-year-old Frida Burling? From the co-chairs to the docents, work on this single Georgetown Saturday involves hundreds (not counting the visitors).

Reviewing this newspaper’s pages on the house tour over the years, one reads a living scrapbook of past and present, of people and place. Called “the glue that holds Georgetown together,” the tour provides a living record of the republic’s architecture: Federal, Georgian, Classic, Revival, Victorian and Modern.

Founded in 1931, and thought to be the nation’s oldest such event, the Georgetown House Tour & Tea is a love affair with this town. The 2016 tour, the 85th, will feature 10 private homes on Saturday, April 23.

In fact, this year — with co-chairs Jill and Scott Altman — it looks like the sky’s the limit. Scott is a former NASA astronaut and Jill is an astronaut’s wife.

“It’s an exciting year with Jill and Scott Altman leading our mission!” says Reverend Gini Gerbasi, rector at St. John’s Church on O Street. “The Georgetown House Tour provides vital funding for St. John’s ministries that support the needy in our community. We are grateful to the Altmans and every St. John’s member, friend and sponsor who contributes to this celebrated Georgetown tradition.”

“The thing I love most about Georgetown is being able to walk everywhere,” Jill says. “I am a gardener and look forward to spring because we have an explosion of bulbs everywhere. During the blizzard, we joined friends almost every evening for dinner. I also love that we are so close to all that D.C. has to offer. There is a real sense of community here. The house tour is special to me because it is a tremendous labor of love.”

Scott says his favorite thing “about Washington, and especially about Georgetown, is just walking around and breathing in all the history and stories that have taken place here. I love knowing that both Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln visited soldiers in hospitals here in Georgetown and that there is a continuity in this town that will continue after we are gone.”

Each year, the tour co-chairs work overtime to coordinate all the parts of the show, and each year their own life stories reveal a part of Georgetown — and add to its story.

Jill and Scott Altman met in San Diego at a friend’s engagement party. He was a Navy aviator and she, a college senior. “Are you one of those jet jocks?” Jill asked Scott, who was stationed at nearby Naval Air Station Miramar, known then as “Fightertown, USA.” She knew how haughty fighter pilots were. “You think you’re Prince Charming?” she parried, after he took her shoe, drank champagne out of it and kept the shoe — ensuring a date the next day at the Old Globe theater in Balboa Park.

Within months, the two — each with Midwestern roots — were engaged. They married in 1984. As a F-14 pilot in the Weapons School program, Scott acted as a stunt double and flew his plane in the 1986 film “Top Gun” starring Tom Cruise. For the movie, he buzzed the station’s control tower — an insane maneuver in real life. He also got to flip the bird, so to speak, to a MiG pilot flying alongside his jet. He was shown upside down. (Yes, some tricks of the camera were used, and the rumors are true: a “Top Gun 2” is planned.)

Next up for the Altmans was Monterey and Naval Postgraduate School, with Scott as an F-14D test pilot. Later on, there was an assignment in this area at Naval Air Station Patuxent River — as well as months in the Indian Ocean. At the time, Jill worked for Pacific Southwest Airlines and could readily fly to ports where the supercarrier USS Carl Vinson docked.

After medal-earning missions over Iraq’s no-fly zone in the 1990s, the Navy captain got the call from NASA. He had been rejected two years earlier. At six-foot-four, he was able to become a naval aviator (he was too tall for the Air Force). At the end of his second consideration, he told the NASA interviewers in Houston that his grandmother already thought he was an astronaut. He became one in 1995.

Scott had seen the Apollo 11 lunar landing on live television as a ten-year-old in Pekin, Illinois, next to Peoria. His love of flight was egged on by the “Sky King” TV series. Today, there is an elementary school named after him in Pekin. He was also honored by his alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, with a bust of his likeness. And about 10 years ago, he met his hero, astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon.

For her part, Jill — originally from Tucson, Arizona — was happy to hold down the home front, raising three boys and playing her part as an astronaut’s wife during 15 years in Houston, home to the Johnson Space Center.

“NASA took good care of us,” Jill says. She recalls walking past the space shuttle at the Kennedy Space Center launch pad in Florida. “It was amazing to be that close. You could almost touch the shuttle. Astronaut wives were usually relieved when MECO [main engine cut off] was announced, but Columbia showed us that danger continued throughout the mission.” (Shuttle Columbia burned up in the atmosphere during its descent in February of 2003.)

Her husband — known as Scooter and considered NASA’s tallest astronaut — went on four shuttle missions as pilot or commander, logging more than 40 days in space. His last time up was as commander of Atlantis, STS-125, in May of 2009. It was the last service mission for the Hubble Space Telescope, itself a singular achievement.

During his first time in space, Scott glimpsed his hometown in Illinois. “It was an incredible feeling to look down and see the place where I grew up, where so many of my friends and family still live,” he says. “It was an emotional rush for me that put the whole spaceflight in a human perspective.

“I also felt that way as we flew over the Holy Land. It is amazing to look down on that part of our planet and think of how much impact that land and the people who lived there long ago are still having on us today.

“On my last mission, after having so many struggles with the repairs to Hubble, but finally being able to release the telescope with all our repairs completed, it felt good to set Hubble free to continue its voyage of discovery of our incredible universe.”

In 2010, with the U.S. manned space program on hiatus, Scott retired as an astronaut and the Altmans moved to Georgetown.

Scott works for Arctic Slope Regional Corp. as a vice president in its Engineering and Aerospace Solutions section in Beltsville, Maryland. The firm provides federal services, including those that assist the Orion program, NASA’s next manned project, and works with engineers at the Goddard Space Center. Among her charities, Jill is on the board of directors of the Georgetown Senior Center and the Salvation Army Grate Patrol.

The two are members of St. John’s Church. Scott gave a stirring homily on God, science and faith — with an image from the Hubble Telescope shown above the altar — during a service at St. John’s last year. His faith in God got him through very tough basic training, he says, adding, “It’s hard to imagine an atheist in the cockpit of the space shuttle.”

The Altmans have three grown sons: Daniel, Alexander and Michael. Mom and Dad live on 36th Street with their little white coton named Roxie. Neighbors include Georgetown College Dean Chester Gillis, real estate agent Michelle Galler, Robin and Jeff Jones — who is an advisory neighborhood commissioner and an airline pilot — and two 90-year-old nuns. Jack the Bulldog, the sports mascot for Georgetown University, lives across the street. Scott likes that Mike Lackey, whose O Street house is on the tour, also flew F-14s.

While we wonder if Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer will indeed fly again in the movies, we know that Scott Altman would like to return to space. “I’ve had a fun ride,” he says. “I stood on the shoulders of giants. I like to imagine that someone I’ve talked to will become the first person to walk on Mars.”

As participants in the Georgetown House Tour experience on a small scale, the houses, the people, the stories collectively reveal this extraordinary neighborhood in the nation’s capital. One might even say that Scott has taken the ultimate house tour: he has orbited our home planet — with Jill keeping it all together on the good earth. [gallery ids="102408,122237,122230,122246,122241" nav="thumbs"]

The Patterns of Your Life: Georgetown Lutheran Church

April 18, 2016

You can’t walk two blocks in Georgetown without passing a church tucked in between the 18th- and 19th-century homes, or beside an upscale boutique or consignment shop. If you stroll further, you’ll see yet another church or a small cemetery next to one of our famous restaurants.

One thing is for sure, when historians write the real history of Georgetown, the places of worship will be featured. This history will include the Lutheran Church of Georgetown, which has occupied the corner of Volta Place and Wisconsin Avenue for 240 years. Georgetown Lutheran is not only the oldest Lutheran church in Washington, D.C., it was founded 32 years before Washington was organized as the nation’s capital.

The original building was a log cabin, erected in 1769, that served as the place of worship until a newer structure was built in 1835. The members worshiped and went to school at this location until the cornerstone was laid for a new building in 1867. In 1919, a faithful member named Daniel Eli donated $50,000 to the church to build the beautiful building that now stands.

The members are as faithful today as they were almost one hundred years ago when Eli made the donation. They showed their faithfulness when they found themselves at a crossroad three years ago and $30,000 in debt to the IRS.

Interim Reverend Dr. Janice Mynchenberg stepped in, to not only help solve their financial problems, but to help mend the broken hearted. Her duties as interim pastor might range from six months to an indefinite number of years. She has been at Georgetown Lutheran for three years, with no regrets.

“When I came here I found that the church was not just broken with financial issues, but with the broken hearted. The members remained faithful to God and to this church, so it was not hard to get back on the road to recovery. I am so proud of the way they not only paid off their debt but … they came together as a congregation.”

In the beautiful sanctuary, Reverend Mynchenberg’s face lit up as she explained their journey back to being a healthy church. “People actually walked by and thought this church was closed to the public and deemed a historical site. People get the wrong idea when things go wrong. They are on the outside looking in. There is life and fellowship in this building.”

She is right about the building and the people that I interviewed after service. The church is filled with members willing to give, not only to the survival of the building, but to each other and their community.

Sara Kaufman serves as treasurer and has a wealth of knowledge about the church she loves so much. She couldn’t resist telling me the history of the beautiful Celtic harp that stands from the floor to the ceiling in the back of the church. The instrument is as beautiful as the sound that music director and organist Pat Henry makes with it during the services.

Ranging from treasurer to music director, they all have so much to give. Giving is what Reverend Mynchenberg’s sermon was about as the members listened with care. “It is harder for a rich man to get to heaven than it is a camel to get through the eye of a needle,” she told her congregation as she talked about patterning your life to do good for God and your neighbor. You have to be willing to give and also live your life in a way that is pleasing to God. When you do wrong, you are separating yourself from God and from the good he has in store for you.

It is clear that her congregation has not separated themselves from God nor from their neighbors. They may have been broken for a season but they are not broken for life. On second and fifth Sundays, the members stay after church and prepare meals for the needy in the community. As they work their laughter fills the cross-covered walls of the sanctuary.

“The crosses are gifts from people around the world,” the pastor told me as I was leaving — which was hard to do as I was caught up reading some of the messages posted beside the crosses. As I looked at the crosses I left knowing that whatever was broken is now restored.

Sacred Ground: Celebrating 200 Years at Mount Zion

March 30, 2016

“He is worthy, he is worthy, worthy to be praised.”

The hymn warmed my heart as I walked closer to Mount Zion United Methodist Church on a freezing cold February morning. When I entered the sanctuary, I knew I was in no ordinary church. I was standing on sacred ground.

The architectural design of the oldest African American Methodist church in the nation’s capital was so overwhelming that it became difficult to focus on the hymn. It is clear that Father Time has taken a toll on the halls and the ceiling, but not on the souls of the people. The congregation is a combination of young and elderly. Many of the members are related and their history can be traced back generations — not just to the current building but to the original church their ancestors started in 1816.

Pastor Johnsie Cogman, who came to Mount Zion five years ago, knows all the details of the church’s origins. When she speaks, you can almost see the 120 men and women who grew weary of the racial divide at Montgomery Methodist Church (now called Dumbarton United Methodist Church) 200 years ago.

The vision of their ancestors’ pain is hard to forget, but a moment of reckoning came when Pastor Mary Kay Totty from Dumbarton Methodist arrived at Mount Zion last October. She came to apologize to the descendants of those wronged all those years ago. Pastor Totty presented a crystal dove in remembrance of the past and in hope for their future. Even before the dove’s arrival, the two churches were serving the community together.

There is joy in Cogman’s voice when she talks about the Saturday dinners Mount Zion started providing three years ago. The church collaborates with Dumbarton Methodist and four other churches in Georgetown to feed those in need every Saturday at 5 p.m. The hot meals are served on china with tablecloths and silverware. Those who have fallen on hard times do not drink out of paper cups but sip from glasses.

The coalition of churches will continue to serve the dinners at Jerusalem Baptist until the new kitchen at Mount Zion is completed this summer. This is one of many projects the members are happy to see expand, while celebrating 200 years of love and fellowship.

Cogman and the members are equally excited about the future of Mount Zion after all the fanfare of the anniversary is over.
“We have a lot to be thankful for,” says member and Georgetown native Vernon Ricks. “I was born in Georgetown, but my family was forced out when I was eight years old. My folks could no longer afford to live here when wealthy white families started buying up the area. They bought everything except the churches. By the grace of God we held our ground on the churches.” There is sadness in his voice when he tells the story of walking back from 18th Street to Mount Zion, no matter the weather, every Sunday morning.

Today, there are only a few members who still live in Georgetown. Like Ricks, the families commute to the area they once called home. He has witnessed the church leadership change over and over again. He welcomes the young leaders like Pam Coleman, who has been a member all of her life.

Coleman tells stories about the church, as well as about the cemetery that sits on the hillside a few blocks away, behind Q Street near Rock Creek. Yes, their ancestors are gone on to glory, but their resting place is in despair, like many African American burial grounds around the country. She is sure that one day they will be able to honor their ancestors by repairing these sacred grounds.

Hopeful that people around the country will learn about the Mount Zion she loves so much, Coleman is writing a letter to President Obama and his family to invite them to the final 200th Anniversary service. She wants the president to know their story. There is too much history for Cogman, Coleman or Ricks to remember, as he continues to tell their story.

Mount Zion held a health and wellness fair at the church last Sunday. On the sidewalk you could find the pastor popping popcorn and inviting people to go inside. There are more activities to come, including members participating in the 25th anniversary celebration of the book, “Black Georgetown Remembered,” at Georgetown University Feb. 24. The formal anniversary dinner will be held Sept. 30 with the 200th anniversary Sunday Service Oct. 2.

“Pastor Cogman has a fire inside her that we need at Mount Zion,” Ricks says. It is clear that she is as beloved by the members as the church.

“We are a church that loves God,” says Cogman. “Yes, we have a rich history, but we are moving forward into tomorrow to serve God and this community.” [gallery ids="102252,128871" nav="thumbs"]

Moore Joins Italian Cultural Effort

Former Citizens Association of Georgetown President Pamela Moore, who has joined the board of directors of the American Initiatives for Italian Culture (AIFIC), sees some similarities between her work with CAG and promoting cultural interests shared by the United States and Italy.

“One of the things I’ve always loved about being and living in Georgetown, and what makes it so special, is that sense of history, and the appreciation of history here,” she said. “People care about preserving what’s here: the buildings, the streets, the homes.”

The AIFIC was founded in 2013, a year that was designated the Year of Italian Culture in the United States.

Moore decided to get involved in part because of the opportunities she and her husband had to travel in Italy when they were living for a time in neighboring Austria, specifically in Vienna.

“We went to many of the places you’d expect, but also to different parts of the country, the smaller towns and villages, the south. And one genuine characteristic that comes through is that sense of history, which we often don’t quite have a sense of here, but also the friendliness, the welcoming nature of Italians. And there are so many different kinds in the different regions,” she said. “It sparked my interest in the country and the culture, and so here we are. “

Her colleagues on the AIFIC board are Maria Gliozzi and Elisabetta Ullmann.

The still-fledgling organization is engaged in mobilizing resources here and abroad to help support innovative projects in research and education, including programs that center around arts and culture.

One of the concrete and beautiful results of that effort is a collaboration and exchange between the American Youth Philharmonic Orchestras of the Washington, D.C., area and the Padua Music Conservatory of Padua, Italy. It is considered a twinning project, which “connects two countries with one heart” through the sound of music.

The two orchestras will perform in Washington and in Padua. Five young musicians will travel to Italy and perform in the Padua concert in October and five young Italian musicians will perform in the American concert.

The concert in Washington will be held April 5 at the Italian Embassy, where AYP Artistic Director Christopher Zimmerman will share the conductor’s podium with Italian maestro Simone Tonin. Soprano Cheryl Porter will be the soloist in the American pieces and soprano Rosella Caporale in the Italian.
“The concert, I think, will show what cooperation can accomplish, and will, it’s hoped, initiate other projects,” Moore said.

Scheele’s Market: A 120-Year Neighborhood Bond

February 18, 2016

When Donguk Kim first came to America from South Korea in 2003, he never dreamed he would one day be the proprietor of a storied market in Washington’s most historic neighborhood. But he did have dreams.

“I wanted to be a successful businessman in America and I heard there were many chances there,” he said.

He came to Maryland in 2004 with his wife and son. They lived in a homestay and attended church with their host. Through a church connection, he began running a dollar store a few months later. After that, he ran a deli in Silver Spring. That’s what Kim was doing in 2012 when he saw a listing in the Korea Times for Scheele’s Market, at 1331 29th St. NW.

Considering the market’s loyal customer base, taking over Scheele’s was no simple matter. The 120-year-old market has been a staple in the neighborhood for generations. Indeed, a few years ago, neighbors contributed to a special fund to ensure that the building remain a market through an agreement with the property owner.

Kim has taken the initiative to maintain the market’s strong relationship with the customers who come for groceries, beer and wine and fresh deli sandwiches. The blizzard of 2016 also gave him a chance to shine: he was open throughout the weekend. “I’m always listening to what my customers want and I try to get it soon,” he said, referring to his plan to add requested merchandise to the shelves.

Kim’s customers, meanwhile, love the quality of the food, the dedicated service and the friendship the quaint market fosters. Scheele loyalists include senators and the Secretary of Energy, who once posed for a photo with Kim.

They are just as devoted to Scheele’s as Kim is to them. One customer described the recent attempts to get a few tables and chairs out front, allowing customers to eat their sandwiches while enjoying the scenery and the buzz of life in Georgetown (that plan has not yet been approved by the District).

Kim believes that the market has the potential to become more profitable. Grocery purchases currently account for about half of sales, he said, and new customers are few. Though the work is hard and the hours are long, he enjoys interacting with the community and getting the chance to experience life in the nation’s capital.

“I’ve liked adventure all through my life. South Korea is not a bad country, but I was always longing for America.”

Along with running a business, Kim has managed to fulfill that desire for adventure by visiting places such as the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Mexico and Miami. And he also has Scheele’s, which, though quiet and unassuming at first glance, has certainly been an adventure of its own.

Power Women of Georgetown Talk

“The City of Conversation” takes place entirely in the Georgetown living room of Hester Ferris, the kind of set very familiar to Georgetown residents who were part of — or chronicled — the high tides of the village’s fame as a locus of social and political power. Although Georgetown has changed over time, its image nonetheless remains potent.

In the second half of the 20th century, the leading ladies of Georgetown’s social and political scene included Evangeline Bruce, Lorraine Cooper, the Washington Post’s powerful publisher Katharine Graham, Pamela Harriman, who became Ambassador to France, and Sally Quinn, the savvy and stylish author, novelist, Post reporter and wife of legendary editor Ben Bradlee. (Those five were profiled in the 2003 book “The Georgetown Ladies Social Club” — the title a phrase first used by Ronald Reagan — which could serve as a bookend to the recent “The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington.”)

Female movers and shakers are still in style here, but the political and social scene is not what it was. There is more of an emphasis on fundraising and charitable events, with leaders such as Elizabeth Bagley, Nancy Pelosi, Valerie Jarrett, Kitty Kelley and Quinn.

We talked with Quinn and with another Georgetown resident, biographer Kitty Kelley, about Georgetown’s political and social scene, then and now.

SALLY QUINN, famous for her talked-about profiles in the Washington Post’s Style section, never wrote a play. Her two novels, “Regrets Only” (1986) and “Happy Endings,” both feature a smart, beautiful blonde reporter for a major Washington daily.
Comments about Georgetown then and now from Sally Quinn:

“What I like about the play is that it is not a frivolous play about parties.… The drama is right-on” — about another era, a time and a place that no longer exist.

“So many of these hostesses had dysfunctional families. … They put their energies into being hostesses — today they would be CEOs.”

Of the main character in the play, she said, “Her priorities were completely skewed. In the end, it’s a mistake” not to make your family a priority.

Now, she said, the entertainment has become about panels and seminars with dinner afterward. And there are still the charity balls — “It’s corporate now. A lot of them are digital people — from that world.”

KITTY KELLEY is famous for her biographies, most of which have drawn cries of outrage from their subjects. She is working on a book about living in her beloved Georgetown. (Send her your stories.)

Comments about Georgetown then and now from Kitty Kelley:

“I think Georgetown still shines.… There are other places, such as moneyed Greenwich or Beverly Hills, which have power and prominence. But Georgetown has that and radiates history — now and in the past.”

“These women started as a hostess — like Nancy Reagan — as a woman operating behind the scenes in influencing legislation. In the play, Hester entertains both parties in her home. … Parties at homes do exist — but they’re fundraisers.”
“‘The City of Conversation’ is a period piece, and tells a family story in a Georgetown setting, but also tells more about what has happened to our politics.”

“It’s interesting that the Supreme Court is at the center of our partisan divisions. The struggle over the Robert Bork nomination will be seen as pivotal to the loss of civility between the two parties — add to that the Clarence Thomas hearings.”

Kelley recalled Henry Kissinger’s often-quoted remark: “The hand that mixes the Georgetown martini is time and again the hand that guides the destiny of the Western world.”

The Georgetowner: A Life of Its Own

March 8, 2015

Forty years ago, as a Georgetown University student, I gave the Georgetowner Newspaper little attention. It seemed to me to be the old people’s newspaper. Today, it occupies my waking hours and then some.

My news journey between then and now remains oriented to Washington, D.C., and Georgetown. While I may have worked for U.S. News & World Report, Army-Navy-Air Force Times and the Washington Times, the Georgetowner was always there, whether in the background or not.

I met editor and publisher David Roffman through his brother Randy, who worked for the newspaper, at the Bread & Chocolate on Prospect Street (it would become Cafe Milano). Dave muttered to his brother, “Another [guy] in a suit.” I can also say I met the Georgetowner staffers through Georgetowner Francis Scott Key. In my work for the Francis Scott Key Foundation, I had completed the Star-Spangled Banner Relay — from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to Georgetown, specifically the as-yet unbuilt Key Park in 1991, and wrote about it for the newspaper. Dave and I became great friends.

In 1992, I met Sonya Bernhardt when she owned an art gallery, and she, too, has become a great friend. She credits me with getting her involved with the newspaper. I credit her with saving the Georgetowner and breathing new life into the old girl. The paper had gotten zippier under the influence of Roffman during the 1980s, but it was Bernhardt — as third owner and third publisher — who put the newspaper on a more serious business footing for the 21st century.

Friendship is perhaps not the first word to come into one’s mind when thinking of Georgetown. Yet, it is a defining, quiet feature of our neighborhood. I have experienced such loyalty and trust with businesses and neighbors here. In 2005, sculptor and fellow Key Foundation colleague, John Dreyfuss invited me to rent an apartment at Halcyon House, a glorious, historic spot. My other little places around 35th and Prospect streets attest to neighbors’ generosity and concern.

Most of us in the news business may not make it to the millionaire’s club, but we do get opportunities to meet some of the world’s most interesting folks. Within weeks at the newspaper, I saw Frank Sinatra at Warner Theatre and, soon enough, Gov. Bill Clinton at Gaston Hall. A year or two ago, it was Bono at Gaston Hall and President Barack Obama at Georgetown Waterfront Park. Regardless, the lives and stories of Georgetown neighbors can keep up with all those high and mighty – that’s why this newspaper was created in the first place.

Yes, we have run many excellent stories and profiles over the years, but we believe the Georgetowner’s coverage of the September 11 attacks with front pages through the end of 2001 was superlative — given our resources — and revealed the urgency of our new century. Again, I tip my hat to writer Gary Tischler, the strong heart and gentle soul of the Georgetowner.

Meanwhile, the work and fun never end — whether meeting and working with the most interesting persons in Georgetown, covering various news, attending community events or showing our interns how to report (or giving them a tour of this great town). As with the phrase, “once a Georgetowner, always a Georgetowner,” it is the same with this newspaper: “Once on the staff of the Georgetowner, always on the staff of the Georgetowner.”

Telling the Story of Georgetown, Person by Person

January 20, 2015

“I grew up in a small town,” said developer Richard Levy, one of those recently interviewed for the oral history project of the Citizen Association of Georgetown. He meant both Georgetown and Washington, D.C., he said. It was a sentiment echoed by those at the table and by many in the audience.

The facts may be the same, but the feelings are more vivid. That is why Georgetowners of all stripes crowded the grand room of the City Tavern Jan. 13 for another live presentation of the CAG project, coordinated by committee chair Cathy Farrell.

Five prominent residents, at one time or another, were there to tell their story about growing up, living or working in Washington, D.C.’s oldest and most famous neighborhood: Anne Emmet, Philip Levy, Richard Levy, Elizabeth Stevens and Gary Tischler. Emmet, an artist, was ready with some insight into old social traditions. Sons of real estate pioneer Sam Levy, Philip and Richard Levy recalled growing up on M Street above the family store. Stevens, with her husband George Stevens, Jr., founding producer of the Kennedy Center Honors, raised three children on Avon Lane. Tischler has been a writer and editor at the Georgetowner over four decades.

With a nod to the old and new, Stevens began the talk, saying that it is “so lovely to live here,” recalling the elegant specialty shops, such as one run by Dorcus Hardin, along with Neam’s Market and the French Market. She also recalled Menehan’s Hardware Store on M Street. She noted that with Jackie Kennedy the town had gotten real style. Nevertheless, she said that Georgetown “hasn’t changed that much.”

Richard Levy, who learned more Georgetown history while researching for his West Heating Plant condo project, reminded the crowd that the town once had 12 gas stations and at least two car dealerships and that the parking lot behind the Old Stone House was a used car lot. He also pointed out that Georgetown has had a vibrant group of Jewish merchants. Living in a house once occupied by John F. Kennedy, he cited the Kennedy era as Georgetown’s second re-birth. (The brothers also mentioned the Biograph Theater and Key Theater, ran by their other brother David, now deceased. The CVS on M is where the Biograph was; the Key, Restoration Hardware.)

Owner of Bridge Street Books on Pennsylvania Avenue, Philip Levy recalled watching football on TV at his father’s store and the cops walking the beat. For him, this “small town” was full of country western music (the Shamrock was on M Street) and was the bluegrass capital of the world (after Nashville). He listed the Bayou, the Cellar Door and Shadows, where Ri Ra is now. He noted the importance of Blues Alley.

Emmet began by mentioning that her mother bought the family’s P Street house in 1950 for $50,000. As her mother become bedridden, Emmet’s neighbors pitched in. To sighs from some in the audience, she mentioned Dorothy Stead’s dress shop. She remembers when Volta Park was a “junk heap” and she was not allowed to go there. She and her girlfriends got to meet the King of Jordan. Then, at a different time, they went with the boys to Wisconsin and M, carrying paint cans and brushes. They held the wet brushes against the turning cars — and never got caught (The audience howled). She said the town has changed a lot. Emmet did stress one of Georgetown’s enduring qualities: “Friends, neighbors, we all took care of each other.”

Tischler, known as the longest-serving and most prolific writer for the Georgetowner, said he began writing in 1980 for the newspaper, which just celebrated its 60th anniversary. He wrote immediately about Sen. Ted Kennedy and then about burlesque dancer Blaze Starr (not in the same story or breath, we assure you). He has written about 2,000 articles about the town and its people and called the place “steadfast” and “classy.” He gave a quick list of notables for him — “George Stevens, Ed Shorey, Don Shannon, Virginia Allen, Chris Murray” — and worried about not naming others. Tischler gave a tip of his hat to author Kitty Kelley, who, he said, “is famous but never acts like it.” Indicating his love of the arts, he also said, “The best view of Georgetown is from the Kennedy Center, and the best view of the Kennedy Center is from Georgetown” — and that he hoped to keep writing 2,000 more stories.

If you want to interview and be interviewed for the oral history project, contact the Citizens Association of Georgetown — — — 202-337-7313. [gallery ids="135659,135661" nav="thumbs"]

Georgetown Family Holiday Traditions

January 16, 2015

We asked a few Georgetown families to talk about what they love to do around Christmas or Hanukkah, and what it means to them. The village is quieter, easier to traverse – all the better to appreciate all that you and yours have. It is indeed a special time of year.

Quiet, Peaceful Neighborhood

“One of the things I like the most is how quiet it feels,” said Liz Barentzen of Christmas in Georgetown. “A lot of people leave the city, students are gone. On Christmas Eve, when we take our walk, it feels peaceful and light.” Liz and Steven Barentzen met in New York City and were married there before moving to Washington, D.C., in 2004. Their two young sons, Cash and Wesley, were born in D.C.

Each recurring holiday season, the family of four upholds many traditions — from going to the National Christmas Tree together, to ice skating at Washington Harbour and having dinner at Founding Farmers. One of their most treasured traditions comes on Christmas Eve. “I have a Manhattan clam chowder recipe that was my great-grandmother’s,” said Liz. “We have that for an early supper, and then we walk through the neighborhood looking at the lights and stopping for a few parties.”

Later, Liz and Steven have some of their close friends over for an evening get-together and celebration. “Christmas is the time for family and reflection, togetherness, warmth,” said Liz, and this Barentzen family tradition certainly exudes all of these things.

The Barentzens are involved with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. ASPCA was the first humane society established in North America, and today it is one of the largest in the world. The family first got involved when their dog passed away shortly after moving to D.C., and it continues to make a donation every year.

Hanukkah, Christmas and Martin’s Tavern

“It’s the holiday cheer of our community that we like best,” said Allison Putala. Her Georgetown block has more than 10 kids who are under 10 years old, plus a host of other fun and lively neighbors.

Growing elsewhere (Atlanta for her, Amherst for him), Allison and Chris Putala met in D.C. and were married at the Mellon Auditorium in September 2008. They have lived in Georgetown for the past eight years and have two children: a daughter, Caroline, who is in preschool and their son Jack, who is 2.

The Putala family mixes the traditions of Hanukkah and Christmas each holiday season. From making a great grandmother’s special dip to reading “A Child’s Christmas In Wales,” the family fosters the holiday spirit, sharing traditions and making memories that their children will remember throughout their lives.

One of these traditions includes going to Martin’s Tavern during the holidays, where little Caroline Putala has a special “Everybody Loves Martin’s Tavern” song for the occasion and is a popular patron in her own right. Like the Barentzens, the family also enjoys going ice skating at the Georgetown waterfront and having dinner at Founding Farmers. Allison is on the board of the N Street Village, a women’s homeless shelter in D.C. that gets women out of the cycle of abuse and prepares them for the job market.

Breakfast With Santa, Noche Buena

“Christmas is a time to be thankful for all the things that we have and to spread goodness. One of our favorite events to go to is the Breakfast with Santa at Volta Park,” said Kristen, who with her husband John has lived in Georgetown since 2001. They will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary in 2015. Kristen is on the board of Friends of Volta Park in addition to Baby Love, an organization that provides baby gear and supplies to mothers and children in need.

The couple has two children, Ian, 8, and Kara, 6, and the family has a slew of special holiday traditions. With two children under the age of ten, the holidays are especially sweet for the Lever family.

“On Christmas Eve after dinner the kids put on their plaid PJs and we sit in front of the fire, and John reads ‘The Night Before Christmas,’ ” said Kristen. One of the family’s happiest Christmases in recent memory occurred last year when the Levers moved into a new house in Georgetown. The house was roomier and allowed the grandparents and additional family to stay over for the holidays.

Christmas in the Lever house is a cultural fusion, thanks to John’s Chilean heritage. In Chile, they celebrate “Noche Buena,” the Chilean version of Christmas Eve. Mixing the two styles of celebration and customs together is something that gives the Levers their own flair each Christmas.

D.C. is filled with magical corners and specially decorated places during the Yuletide. For the Levers, one of their favorites is Book Hill Park in Georgetown. They enjoy looking down at the hustle and bustle on the streets, the glowing Georgetown Public Library and all the decorated storefronts. They also love the Georgetown waterfront with its wash of lights and the Kennedy Center aglow on the river.

When asked what Christmas means, the Putalas summed it up in one word: “Family.”

Slow Down, Shop Local
Photo by Erin Schaff.

“Christmas to me is about spending time with family and taking time to slow down and enjoy all that we have,” said Leslie Maysak, who with her husband Paul has lived in Georgetown for 15 years. Today, the couple has two sons, Jack and Liam, 11 and 8, respectively.

Every Christmas, the family of four loves going to the holiday trains exhibit at the U.S. Botanical Gardens, and they pick up their Christmas tree near their house. “We always get our tree at The Georgetown Visitation School,” said Leslie, adding that it is carried to their home in a little wagon. “We love the small town, village feel of Georgetown,” she added, shedding light on the enviable quaintness that attracts people near and far to our tree lined streets and cobbled roads.

With its bountiful garlands and famed tables aglow, the Maysaks treasure their time at Martin’s Tavern during the holidays. The family is a big proponent of shopping local during Christmas. “We try to do as much Christmas shopping as we can in Georgetown,” said Leslie. And with the evident commitment to their neighborhood, it should come as no surprise that the Maysaks also enjoy giving back. The family supports the Georgetown Ministry Center in addition to picking up hams for the homeless food drive during the holiday season.

Please let us know about your own family traditions. Email We will put the most interesting on our website before Santa Claus arrives.
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Proudly Continuing Our Georgetown Legacy

October 23, 2014

Sixty years after the first edition of our star-bannered community newspaper hit the streets of the village, The Georgetowner is proud to be a continually growing part of this very special neighborhood. The jump to the internet, Facebook, Twitter, and other types of social media presently available, have been a natural evolution for the paper. Your continued interest has made these advancements an effortless joy. These virtual presences are vital to our future, but we feel strongly about the physical offices we lease in Georgetown, that allow you to stop in and say “hi,” and the physical product we print that you can hold, read, ponder, save as a keepsake or recycle at your leisure. The ever-growing loyalty and long term relationships with our readers, advertisers, and supporters confirm for us that these traditional staples are a part of the recipe that has kept us thriving at a time when many newspapers are not and an expense we are happy to bear.

Our belief in working with community non-profits, our presence at community events, and our documentation of social happenings confirm our genuine interest and commitment to you. We recently joined the George Town Club to provide yet another venue in which we can continually listen to you, gather and converse. Come join us there on Thursday mornings at The Georgetowner’s Cultural Leadership Breakfast series.

I consider publishing this independently owned community newspaper my life’s work, and it makes me smile every day. Come talk to me about your business, come talk to me about an event that we can help you with, and wave to me on the street when you see me. Thank you, Georgetown, for letting me be a part of you during this working lifetime, as we send the paper into its next 60 years of star-bannered success.