Scour the Internet and there is virtually nothing to be found about old Friendship Heights. I am speaking of the pre-hyper-developed chunk of real estate long-designated as being a part of Chevy Chase, Maryland. It is located just north of the DC line, bordered by Wisconsin Avenue, Willard Avenue and what remains of the woods south of Dorset Avenue which extend almost to River Road. In the mid-1960s the neighborhood began to lose its old-timey charm as developers started to swarm in. Mrs. Tim Edwards, a resident real estate agent, was instrumental in making that happen. It was she who helped the get-rich-quickers to swallow up this magical enclave. More on her later…
Today, Friendship Heights is one of the most densely populated pieces of real estate in the country. It is a desirable location comprised almost entirely of towering apartment building complexes. A small park and activities center are there now, next to a jewelry store. Two big office buildings along Wisconsin Avenue are stuffed with doctor’s offices. And all of this is within easy reach of swanky, high-end shopping areas, on the opposite side of Wisconsin Ave. A huge tract of land between Willard and Western Avenues was once occupied solely by Woodward & Lothrop, a now-defunct local department store that included a very expansive parking lot. In its place can now be found a Whole Foods, Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom’s, and a host of other businesses catering mostly to wealthy wastrels and affluent wannabes.
Once upon a time, however, Friendship Heights was just another part of the old sleepy Southern town that Washington, DC used to be. In 1955, when I was a one-year old, my family moved here from Alexandria and I spent my formative years in old Friendship Heights. (Though the first year of my life was spent in Alexandria, I was born at Navy Medical. My birth certificate notes Bethesda as being “rural.”) I was one of three then.
Less than ten years later…and I was one of eight. (See family photo toward the end of the article.)
The street names were different then. We used to live at 5420 Wootton Avenue at the corner of High Street. (Above is a view of our house from High Street.) All of the streets were renamed – Wootton Avenue is now “The Hills Plaza” and the east part of High Street is now called “South Park Avenue.” The north-east corner of the Highland House West now sits where my family’s stately old Chevy Chase home once stood. The next street over, going away from Wisconsin Avenue used to be called Prospect Place. It has now been dubbed “Friendship Boulevard.” High Street used to cross Prospect and after about a block it dog-legged to the right. That’s where the old Shoemaker farm was located, down a long driveway. High Street then continued for about another block before dog-legging again to the left. (At that corner, up on a hill, was the Edwards home. This is where Tim Edwards lived, the woman who sold out her community.) The western side of High Street (now called “North Park Avenue”) then proceeded in a long descent toward Willard Avenue, where it turned abruptly to the left at the bottom and became Saratoga Street for one short block before ending on Willard. Along the way, just after High St.’s second dog-leg was steep, one block long, Willoughby Street that descended quickly to meet Willard Avenue. Willoughby is now known as “Shoemaker Farm Lane.”
I am speaking now of the neighborhood as it existed a half-century ago, and then some – during a ten year period from 1955 to 1965. It certainly was a magical place to spend one's formative years. I almost feel like an aboriginal whose dreamtime has been torn away from him due to the desecration of the land. Also, for me the old neighborhood is a metaphor for an America that used to be a lot more solid, centered as those years were around the hope and promise of the Kennedy ascension. This sensibility was all the more enhanced because my father was a strong Kennedy supporter who was connected in a personal way to that administration. Kennedy's public execution (in my humble opinion) marked the start of our long descent into the inferno of the Great Deception and false consciousness with which all must cope today. (See my blog post of March, 2011)
On the southwest corner of Wisconsin and High there used to be a small commercial enterprise with an understated sign that read, “Tourist Homes.” The flat-roofed, brick buildings were white and it was run by a strict elderly lady. She didn’t seem to like kids. But right after Halloween one year I remember feeling sorry for her when she seemed forlorn, telling me that she had had no trick-or-treaters. Where Brooks Bros. now sits there used to be a large wooded lot, maybe two lots. Tall maple trees used to overhang High Street as you entered old Friendship Heights from Wisconsin Avenue. As a boy I remember being up in those big branches, overlooking the cars as they came and went. Oddly, the street sign at the corner of Wootton and High was spelled correctly; but the street sign at the bottom of Wootton at Willard read “Wooten.”
We bought our house from the Bogleys. For some reason I associated them with an old Civil War sword we later found up in our sumptuous attic. Our house was a boxy, two-story house, yellowish stucco with green shutters and a Bangor slate roof. It had a grand porch that wrapped around to one side, and tall slabs on either side of the front steps. My father planted tulips on both sides of the walk which would pop up every Spring. In the back was a detached garage with a driveway that came out onto High St.. There was an ample lawn in front, in back, and along High St. The house had five bedrooms and was probably built in the 1920s. It had those airy, high ceilings and plaster walls that kept things cool in the summer. It had a fireplace and mantel. There was a lovely, sun-drenched solarium on the south-facing side. The kitchen had a pantry. The staircase railing leading up to the second floor was a beautiful custom-made affair, oak and wrought iron, beautiful to the touch as you ascended or descended. My father finished the basement. He also built himself a darkroom up in the attic, an attic that held an ever-present air of mystery and adventure.
When you are a kid, each house seems to have its own personality, labeled by the family name of whoever lives there. My brothers and I got to know the folks in the neighborhood because we used to deliver the Daily News, and later, the Evening Star. In those days, we also had to collect the subscription fees directly from the homeowners. I believe we did that every month – and deliver the money to our route supervisor. (Mr. Lazari was the Daily News guy, and Mr. Wilson worked for the Evening Star.) It seemed to me that most folks were long-time residents in that old neighborhood, folks who owned their homes. But there were some rentals too. Across the street from us on the other side of Wootton was a rental. I remember it was occupied by a physicist. We got to know their son, Donnie Madden. Later, a Finnish family moved in there. The kids’ names were Yusi and Satu. My older brother, Kip, got stung all over when he unknowingly disturbed a nest of bees while playing in their yard. (Below is a view from our front porch looking across Wootton Avenue and down High Street toward Wisconsin Avenue.)
Next door lived the Posts. Years later I would encounter Pam Post in high school. Their lot extended all the way back to Prospect St. There was a swimming pool back there, tucked up against our property line. I have very faint memories of seeing people actually swimming there, but it fell into disuse and disrepair and remained so. I recall that they had a cherry tree in their yard. I would raid it in the Spring, sitting there in that tree just picking and eating all the plump, juicy cherries I wanted.
Next door to them was a couple who owned two boxers. And next door to them was a kind of rundown looking house, not as well-built as the rest of the homes in the neighborhood. Christy Brown used to live there. And next was old Mrs. Shoemaker’s house, fenced in and with high bushes. She was our first piano teacher, but the lessons were short-lived. She used to walk her little dog up the street, where it would do its business on the tree belt in front of our home. My mother pleaded with her to walk her dog somewhere else, for obvious reasons. When she continued walking her dog, we were instructed to pick up after the dog, put it all in a paper bag, and deliver it to Mrs. Shoemaker’s front door. That ended the dog walking up our way. The last house at the bottom of the street on our side was a rental. Directly across, at the bottom of Wootton was a house that must have been built more recently than most in the neighborhood. It had an elaborate outside wooden staircase structure on its south side. Coming back up Wootton on the other side from us, my mind draws a blank, more or less. I remember another rental on that side. Some college guys rented it for a while. One of them drove a late 50s MG, the kind with a front grill that looks almost like a cow catcher.
Across High Street from us, where the community center now stands, lived Mr. and Mrs. Thomas. Their kids were grown and long gone. They had a stunning corner property that included a field. They generously allowed all the neighborhood kids to play ball here. We also used to sneak under their porch where we tried smoking corn silk and generally got up to no good. In the rear of their yard was a small grove of very large conifer trees that offered cool shade year round. Next, going up Wootton, were the Dunns. They kept a big cabin cruiser boat parked in their driveway. After this came the Wanveer’s house. This was a Korean family (with a Dutch name). The kids were named Wally, Boo, Jay, Tad, Sue and Joy. The mother worked at “Woodies” (Woodward & Lothrop), located a short walk down Wootton where it met Willard. The last house on that side, last occupied by the Body family, became a rental that would outlive the natural vitality of the neighborhood. (In the late 60s this purportedly became a group hippie house, among the occupants, Michael Willis, the reputed Hippie King of DC.)
Before coming back down Wootton on the east side of the street, mention must be made of one of the most curious properties in old Friendship Heights. The back of the property could be accessed from the top of Wootton Ave. by going to the right. Here, a large office building and parking lot now sits. But back then, you would first come upon a large garden where corn and all kinds of other vegetables would be growing. As you proceeded closer toward Wisconsin Avenue, there was a country shed off to the right and finally a low-slung, cowboy-looking house. This was reputed to be ancient – the last stop before Georgetown in the 1800s. It sat on Wisconsin Ave. atop a tall and magnificent stone wall that situated it above the traffic. (Across the street, Saks would be built. It opened in 1964, the first intrusion upon the so-called “green mile.”) The Williams’ old house was white-washed and had a red roof with a long, open porch. It was the home of the almost legendary (but unsung) nature poet, Tommy Williams, and his parents, and dogs, Hunter and Shep. They were real country folk. Tommy was effectively an only child, his brothers being much older and long since gone from the family home. He used to recite his poems to the crops they grew. Later, Tommy applied his oratorical skills to demonizing an enemy interloper kid in the neighborhood, John Black. The Williams kept chickens, and every now and then the father would let us watch him butcher one. At one point in the 60s, we scabbed some wood and built a little fort on this property (See photo below).
The north end of Wootton, just as with the north end of Prospect, came to a dead-end at what we called “the woods.” That was an enchanted place, about which more will be said. But returning for the moment to the residential mapping of things…
On the other side of upper Wootton Ave. were more residences. There were five houses along here that had amazingly big back yards that butted up to Wisconsin Ave. In one house lived the Kroos family who had emigrated from the Netherlands. The sons, Richard and Gustaf (“Ree” and “Gus”) were ‘50s all-American kids, born here. They were a little older but they befriended me and my brother, Kip, and they became like older brothers to us. Next door to them were the Hathaways. My older sister, Susie, made friends with Lindy Hathaway, and we’d go there sometimes to play that old board game, Clue. One house in this upper end was abandoned to the developers somewhat early in the game. In the rear was a detached garage. It was stuffed with junk, mostly old papers. Of course this nuisance soon attracted the neighborhood kids. It was here that I discovered what might be described as Theodore Roosevelt’s draft card with his signature on it! (since lost) I deduced from this find that one of the prior owners had probably been a government clerk of some sort.
(At left is sister Rosemary standing in our driveway as viewed from High Street.)
Moving back over to High Street, our next-door neighbors were Clem and Lucia Clark, from New Hampshire. Mr. Clark worked nights in the Government Printing Office and drove a boxy old Rambler. The Clarks had two daughters, Elaine and Joanie. There was a dogwood tree in their yard. To this day I cannot look at dogwoods and not remember the Clarks. Across the street from them were the Healys. No fence divided their property from that of the Thomases. At the front edge of their place was a big old tree from which dangled enormously thick vines. Kids could sit and swing on these vines. We called it “the monkey tree.” One day I remember we were playing around the monkey tree and a limousine pulled up to the Healy house. My sister Madeline was on the sidewalk crying about something, when out popped Bobby Kennedy. He tried to console my sister before going up the steps to the Healy house. The Healys had three daughters who were a bit older than us – twins named Jane and Monica, and the youngest, Kathy (nicknamed "Kaki"). The oldest was Kevin Healy. (The Healy house can be seen in background of the photo below.)
As we did at the Thomases, we also used to sneak under their porch as well when we were out and about the neighborhood playing all sorts of games. The boys in the neighborhood often played “war.” My Uncle Tommy had returned from World War II with two Nazi helmets and these we wore as we maneuvered around and about with our stick-guns.
Going down Prospect Place from there, on the east side, was a house occupied by a family from England, the Mosses. Mr. Moss worked for the British Embassy. They had two daughters, Susan and Jane, and an infant son, Tom, Jr. They were lovely people who became good friends with our parents. I would meet Jane again much later, at which time she would teach me what she had meant all those years ago when she wondered whether I had “ants in my pants.” Next to them were another two houses. In the last one lived a very old lady who lived alone and never seemed to come out of her house. We used to refer to her place as “the witch’s house.” On the other side of lower Prospect was one large property with a house situated in the middle that had three large apple trees in a row. In the late summer I could be found sitting up in these apple trees having my fill of those tart, green treasures. This was the Walsh’s house. The father had bushy eyebrows and drove a 1957 Thunderbird. The son’s name was Kevin. Kevin brought out a book one day. In the book were very detailed and interesting illustrations of hell.
Next to the Healy’s, on the east side going up Prospect, were the Maurys. Mr. Maury kept bees in his back yard and he sometimes shared his delicious honey, comb and all, with us neighbors. They had a son named Henry. There were three more houses on that side. The next one was occupied by a man who seemed to live alone and whose mood was sometimes good, sometimes not – always unpredictable. Next to him was a neat little modern house with a chain link fence around it. An older couple named Richards lived here. On summer days the rather rotund Mr. Richards could often be seen walking his dog along High St. wearing a white strap undershirt. In the last house lived the Gilmans. Betty Gilman had an infectious, Phyllis Diller-type of laugh. She was friendly with my mother and would drop by our house from time to time. She volunteered as a uniformed crossing guard and drove a beautiful white 1959 Cadillac. The Gilmans had three sons, Pete, Wayne and Jeff, and a daughter, Mary, the youngest of the brood.
Across from the Gilmans was a modern brick house, and next to this house lived an old German lady, Mrs. Kroeger. My mother would sometimes visit her and Mrs. Kroeger would offer her tea with a spoonful of rum. I remember delivering the Evening Star to her one snowy afternoon, the snow half-burying me as I struggled up her walk – and she, meeting me at the door, all full of pity and concern, insisting I come inside and warm up for a while. There were a few more houses on that side, one of which was occupied by a tall, gangly guy named Kurt Smelker and his sister, Sally. Kurt played the piano and he came over suddenly one day to play for my mother. The Clevelands moved into the next house, some years after we had arrived. They were from Pennsylvania and reportedly were related to President Grover Cleveland. I made friends with John Cleveland, and he had brothers named David and Paul, and two sisters, I think. On the northwest corner of Prospect and High was the McAuliffe’s brick house. We were told that McAuliffe was the former police chief. I guess this was the same McAuliffe family that produced a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge or two.
As mentioned earlier, the old Shoemaker farm house was located across the street at that first dog-leg. A windmill still stood next to their house. It was their large farm out of which the bulk of Friendship Heights was carved. It’s funny, though; I have no recall of ever meeting any of the Shoemakers that lived here. Next to them lived the Gills with identical twins, Bradley and Dennis. Along here, at various times, lived a Japanese family. I remember the name Glen Haganoya – and there was an Indian boy too, Pote Pootigupta (who may have lived somewhere along here or on Willoughby). Then came the Edwards place on the right, way up on a hill. Tim Edwards’s husband flew an airplane. In fact, that’s how he died. In 1972 I remember seeing a picture in the paper of the wreckage of his plane that came down on Rt. 1 near the University of Maryland. They had three sons and one daughter. I remember only their youngest son, Terry, and their daughter, Debbie. I ran into Debbie about ten years ago at a wake, I think. We talked about the old neighborhood and she told me that her mother still worked out of one of the last two houses from old Friendship Heights that still remain – the “pink house” on Willard at the corner of Willoughby. (The other house is up on High St., just west of Willoughby, Mrs. Deutsch’s old home.) I’ve read since that Tim Edwards went into a care facility and that she died in May, 2011. Mrs. Edwards was a savvy businesswoman who was in the right place at the right time. Because she was “one of the neighbors” she was perfectly suited to the job. But to us kids she came across as the wicked witch of the West, smooth-talking her neighbors into giving up and giving in to a seemingly inexorable tide of development. She profited handsomely from it too. Looking back now, as a grown man, I shouldn’t hold a grudge. After all, in 1959 GEICO had edged onto the southwest outskirts, just as Saks had done a few years later to the northeast. Still, the neighborhood might have stayed intact had not developers like Milton Barlow, Milton Pollinger, and Abe Polin held out seemingly large sums of money to induce residents to move. We stayed on through the construction of the Barlow Building and Highland House. In fact, I delivered papers in the Highland House. I remember one lady in particular who didn’t want to renew her subscription, citing all of the bloody news from Vietnam that was splashed across the front page every day. But getting back to our virtual tour of old Friendship Heights in its twilight days…
On Willoughby, I only remember one old lady who spoke in a very strange nasal manner. We delivered the newspaper to her. My brother, Kip, and I got good at imitating her and we would have to pinch ourselves from laughing whenever we went there to collect from her. Back up on lower High St. (present day “North Park Ave.”), besides Mrs. Deutsch, the only other family I recall was the Hannans. They lived just past the Edwards house. Their house was more like a ramshackle farmhouse whose back yard bordered the woods. It was said that the father had deserted them. The mother struggled on with her many kids. One daughter was born without arms. But she learned to do everything with her feet, even to draw. There was a sense of tragedy among them, though I remember Mrs. Hannan as being a good woman with a pleasant demeanor. One of the older Hannan boys worked at MacIntyre Hardware. This store used to be on the east end of the old Chevy Chase Center, just after Giant Food.
The old Chevy Chase Center was our little mecca. I remember there was a Rich’s Shoe Store that bordered Wisconsin Ave. Then came Raleighs, Camalier & Buckley, Walpoles, Vicar (that used to have a big track in the basement for racing those small little cars popular in the early 60s), People’s Drug Store, Galaxy Cleaners, and a candy store called Fanny Farmer. Around the corner used to be the Town and Country Deli. I think they were Greek. The grand matriarch waited both the tables and the counter there. She knew us as neighborhood kids and loved us. She would bring us whatever we wanted, and, without ever having to ask, she would then leave us with a check for only about $1.00 or so. Along here was a walk-through area to the other side of the shopping center, a murky place where plants struggled to grow. On the other side of this was Giant Food.
When construction started in the old neighborhood, we used to collect soda bottles from the construction workers and bring them up to Giant for redemption at two cents a piece. At that time they had a special little place next to the entrance that took in returned bottles. A black woman name Betty Bouncin worked at the window there. One day she refused to accept our bottles because they were “too dirty.” We ran home and reported this to our mother. She marched right up there, grabbed the manager, and gave that lady holy hell, saying, if I remember correctly, “These kids could be going around stealing hubcaps. Instead, they’re industrious enough to collect bottles. Why do you want to penalize them like this?” The white manager told Miss Bouncin to accept the bottles – a silly little story, maybe, but perhaps a telling one about what lay ahead… Our usual destination was People’s to buy candy bars for five cents/ six for a quarter. We also liked sitting at the counter to get vanilla Cokes or cherry Cokes (early versions, made by squirting some syrup into the glass before filling it with Coca Cola) or milkshakes also served with the metal container containing the excess, plopped down in front of you. People’s had a magazine rack that was cordoned off from the aisle where we would hang out some. I remember seeing a photo in one magazine of a dead Otis Redding, still strapped to his airplane seat.
There were a few homes on the west side of Wisconsin Ave., south of the Tourist Homes. In one of these houses lived my sister Susie’s friend, Suzanne Mooney. But after her house, things became kind of neglected and overrun by weeds. This state of things certainly fed the development bug. In fact, the north corner of Wisconsin and Willard was the first bit of development in Friendship Heights, proper. There used to be a beauty parlor there and my Aunt Janet always maintained that they ruined her hair there. What has now materialized here represents quite an evolution. A Howard Johnson’s used to sit where the Friendship Heights Metro is today. Across Western Avenue, where Neiman Marcus looms up monolithically, there once was a big field with a long driveway leading to a nightclub called the Silver Fox. Someone I know remembers cows grazing there.
There is only one friend from the old neighborhood with whom we still keep in touch – Tommy Eicher. The Eichers used to live on Willard, a few doors west of where the “pink house” stands today. Tom’s father, Melvin Eicher, had been an accomplished piano player in a big band before settling down to married life and a government job. Tom followed in his footsteps, also becoming an accomplished piano player, excelling at arpeggios and adept at playing lots of popular tunes. In those days, Tom was just a local playmate around the neighborhood. But he also went to the same piano teacher as we did, Phyllis Norris. As the Beatles came on the scene in the mid-60s, my brother Kip, Tom and myself started forming a band. I would hang out with Tom during high school days and thereafter. We remain solid friends to this day, with lots of history behind us. Somewhere in the vicinity of Saratoga and Willard lived the Weigles. I never could understand why they named their son, “Dickie” – “Dickie Waggle.”
At that time there used to be a creek that ran along Willard just after Saratoga St. where the entrance to the Irene is now. The creek ran in front of two or three houses there and you had to traverse little bridges to get to their front doors. This small creek would feed into the bottom end of the neighborhood, further down on Willard just west of where the Irene is now. Here, it would join the creek that flowed through the woods all the way from Wisconsin Ave., just south of Dorset.
This huge wilderness area was where I played out my Davy Crocket and Daniel Boone fantasies. The woods were best accessed from the north end of Prospect, and you were able to cut across in that direction from the top end of Wootton. The area here was mostly ferns. There were some well-worn paths. These would take you around to a hill and eventually to a rock outcropping. From there the path would descend sharply toward the creek. The creek had various identifiable areas to it. At that point it was fairly opened up where the water pooled some. There was always a fallen tree over the creek here or there. As you proceeded upstream toward Wisconsin you came across some jagged rocks sticking up from the creek bed and the water formed a kind of mini-rapids or waterfall. The water got somewhat shallower as you approached the storm drain built under Wisconsin Ave. Along here we would find many a salamander and crayfish. We would catch them and bring them home sometimes. Going the other way down the creek, close to where Somerset swimming pool is today, there was a big open, grassy field. If you tried going back up the hill before getting here you would run into lots of sticker bushes. People would go for walks along the paths. Sometimes an old lady would be in there. She always offered us hard candy. There was a house there then that was virtually built into the woods, whose driveway emptied onto Willard just before River Road. I always thought that maybe this lady lived there but I never asked her. That house is gone now. Suffice it say that what little woods is left there today is but a shadow of its former glory. This was my nature refuge and I prided myself on being the pathfinder.
Looking back, I suppose that in those ten years, from 1955 to 1965, Friendship Heights was already past its prime. The founding families were dying out or moving away. One gets this distinct impression from reading the little that has been written about it, e.g., one of the Shoemaker’s recollections from 1959 (re-published by the Friendship Heights Village Council in The Village of Friendship Heights: 1914-1989, a 1989 tribute celebrating the 75th anniversary of becoming established as a Special Taxing District). The Bogleys, from whom we bought our house at 5420 Wootton Avenue, were one such family. To folks like the Shoemakers I suppose our young, post-war, baby-boomer family must have seemed like quite the nouveau addition to the neighborhood. Still, cherished memories remain, tucked away in the mind like yesterday’s sunlight – days of carefree youth spent in this once-idyllic spot.
As livable neighborhoods like old Friendship Heights give way to get-rich-quick visions of home bases for rootless cosmopolitans, weird old Washingtonians like me still remember the way things used to be. Society was far from perfect in the years 1955 to 1965. And yet, those who knew old Friendship Heights knew that it had considerably more “friendship,” not to mention more character and beauty, than its present incarnation.