HISTORIC D.C.: A Tribute to the Duke

June 18, 2013

Edward Kennedy Ellington, one of the most accomplished American musicians, composers and performers of all time, was born and raised in Washington, D.C. He got his nickname “Duke” in high school, because of his reputation for being a sharp dresser with elegant manners. Born in 1899 on 22nd Street, Duke grew up in Shaw at 1212 T St., NW, of parents who both played the piano. He dropped out of high school to take piano lessons and soon was playing in the jazz clubs, which were then prevalent in Shaw. In fact, Washington in the early 1900s was a top city for African-American culture and music, and the U Street corridor was its mecca.
When Duke was 21, he and his band the Washingtonians headed for New York, where musical and African American culture was booming in Harlem. As his popularity grew, he played at the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater. But he also came back and played often in theaters on the “Great Black Way” on U Street, where stars like Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Sarah Vaughn, Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte frequently performed.

During his 50-year career, Duke wrote more than 1,000 compositions and entertained everyone from presidents to European royalty. He often broke the color barrier by playing for both white and black audiences, which was otherwise unheard of at that time. He is largely responsible for helping raise the prestige of jazz to a high art form, even though he had to start modestly; his first gig was at the famous Howard Theater on T Street, where he was paid a grand total of 75 cents.

When he died in 1974, his funeral in New York City was attended by more than 15,000 people. Ella Fitzgerald sang “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” and Judy Collins later wrote a song about the funeral. The awards and accolades kept coming after his death, culminating in a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1999. He had a school, a building, a park and a major bridge named after him in his hometown of Washington, D.C., as well as a street and a circle in New York City. He was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Nixon at an extravagant musical event in his honor at the White House in 1969. He received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966 and the Legion of Honor from the French government in 1973.

Duke Ellington kept his band and his love of music in the forefront of American culture through two World Wars and a recession. He was a brilliant pianist, incredibly prolific composer, recording artist, bandleader and entrepreneur. His whole life was completely dedicated to the art of jazz. Once in an interview, he was asked when he was born, and he replied that he “was born in July of 1956 at the Newport Jazz Festival.” When he died in 1974, his last words were, “Music is how I live.” The next time you hear “Mood Indigo” or “Take the A Train,” remember the Duke and his overflowing talent that gave the world an unprecedented appreciation for jazz, or as he liked to call it, “American music.” ?

Donna Evers, devers@eversco.com is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman owned and run real estate firm in the Washington metro area; she is also the proprietor of Twin oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Virginia, and a devoted student of Washington area history.

The Queen and her Castle

Washington’s Gilded Era between 1880 and 1929 had its share of characters, and Mary Foote Henderson was one of them. She was a woman with big dreams, who saw some of them come true, including the genuine medieval castle she built for herself just above Florida and 16th Street at a time when her only other neighbors were herds of sheep.

Mary was a real estate speculator as well as a visionary, and her husband made enough money to finance her grandiose projects. She bought up a lot of land along 16th Street, with the hopes of converting the street into “The Avenue of the Presidents,” to be lined with busts of all the presidents, a project which was roundly rejected by Congress. She then tried to turn it into Embassy Row, and gave the plan a head start by hiring her friend and architect, George Oakley Totten Jr. to build several mansions which she planned to sell to embassies. But, Embassy Row continued to flourish along Massachusetts Avenue, which already had numerous grand houses just right to be converted into embassies. Undaunted by her failures with these projects, she went on to lobby for re-locating the Presidential mansion to her neighborhood. That didn’t work either.

In relentless pursuit of promoting the value of her real estate holdings, she convinced Congress to buy the 50 acre tract known as Meridian Hill. Hundreds of years earlier, the place had been a sacred Indian burial ground, and because of its commanding elevation, Thomas Jefferson had originally planned to mark the prime meridian from its hilltop vantage point. Mary succeeded this time, and in 1910, Congress paid $460,000 for the huge plot of ground, which is still one of the prettiest parks in the city.

Among her other passions, Mary was a suffragette and a fierce opponent of alcoholic beverages. When her husband died, she inherited his priceless wine cellar, which was forty years in the making. When Prohibition came, she held a huge party, and the Evening Star reported that Mary and her teetotaling friends emptied the fabulous wine collection into the gutters of 16th Street.

Her dreams of glory died with her in 1931 and her castle became a shoddy rooming house. Then it was a school for a while and finally, in 1976, developer Larry Brandt bought it and turned it into the Beekman Place Condominiums.

Washington is a wealthier city now and the current sensibility and laws favor preserving historic sites, so the castle would probably not have been torn down today. Some entrepreneur, as passionate and enterprising in his or her beliefs as Mrs. Henderson, would make it into an inn with a three-star restaurant, and in place of John Brooks Henderson’s illustrious wine cellar, a glamorous wine bar.

Instead, you can drive along 16th street, above Florida Avenue, and still see a few remnants of stone wall with a hint of crenellations that are a faint reminder of the castle we can only wish was still there.

Donna Evers, devers@eversco.com, is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman-owned and run real estate firm in the Washington Metro area, the proprietor of Twin oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Virginia, and a devoted fan of Washington history