May 2014

New Rescue Project Underway to Save Washington's Only Known Synagogue Mural

Twenty-one years ago, homeowner Stephanie Slewka made a fascinating discovery on the second floor of her 19th century townhouse at 415 M Street, NW: a mural concealed beneath layers of paint and wallpaper.  As if peeling back layers of time, she found one of the only remaining traces of Shomrei Shabbos, a small orthodox community in downtown Washington that worshiped in the townhouse. The nearly 90-year-old mural was the upper portion of a larger piece that had surrounded the synagogue’s ark on the floor below. 

Decades later, that same mural is in danger. Plans to convert the building into condominiums threaten the survival of this unique piece of Washington Jewish history.

Thanks to Samantha Bass and Zachary Paul Levine of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington for the guest post!

Washington's Dead Letter Office

In Herman Melville's classic 1853 short story, "Bartleby the Scrivener," the narrator offers a curious explanation for the self-destructive melancholy of the main character.

The report was this: that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in the administration. When I think over this rumor, I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?

The "Dead Letter Office at Washington" might sound like a clever literary invention, but as it turns out, there actually once was such an institution, which existed to process mail that was either mis-addressed or undeliverable for a variety of other reasons. According to the official history of the U.S. Postal Service, the Continental Congress actually authorized appointment of an inspector of dead letters back in 1777, and there was a central office in the District at least as far back as 1830, according to an article by Wesleyan University historian Courtney Fullilove, who found a box of records in the National Archives that still contained four undelivered letters from 1889.

Sunday Baseball Comes to D.C., 1918

Spending a Sunday afternoon at the ol’ ballpark is pretty commonplace nowadays. But 100 years ago? Notsomuch.

In the early 1900s, debate raged about whether it was appropriate – or, for that matter, legal – for ballclubs to suit up on Sundays. Blue laws in many states put severe restrictions on what could and could not be done/consumed/enjoyed/observed on the traditional day of rest.

In the District, regulations stipulated that “no public exhibition of any entertainment, play, opera, circus, animals, gymnastics, game, dance or dances, or vaudeville performance of any kind, except the exhibition of moving or other pictures, vocal or instrumental concerts, artist or artists, not in character costume, lectures, and speeches” could take place on Sunday.

Petey Greene Talks Down the Riots, 1968

“God gave me a talent, and that talent was verbal skills”. Critically acclaimed as America’s first “shock jock,” Petey Greene had the mouth and charisma to roar in the ears of people in the streets of Washington, D.C. His impact was no more apparent than in April of 1968 during the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.

Running down the streets outraged, a group of about thirty young people burst into a drug store. “Martin Luther King is dead,” they shouted. “Close the store down!”. 26-year old Stokely Carmichael, former chairman of the SNNC and the initiator of the what became the “Black Power Movement” in 1967, led Washington, D.C. civilians down the streets demanding that all businesses close out of respect of the death of King.

Although the initial goal was to maintain peace, things quickly went out of Carmichael’s hands. Emotions boiled and violence broke out.  

The Movie That JFK Wanted Made, But Didn't Live to See

It was July 1963, and on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, a brutal melee suddenly erupted between rival groups of pickets who were on opposite sides of a proposed nuclear test-ban treaty. As Washington Post reporter Stephen C. Rogers described the scene, the protesters began "slugging, kicking and gouging" one another, until baton-wielding policemen waded into the fray to separate them.

As the officers dragged the most vociferous brawlers away, a man in a bright-blue baseball cap suddenly stood up in the center of the confrontation. "All right! All right! All right!" he shouted, and the fighting abruptly stopped.

Ezra Pound's Stay at St. Elizabeths

Ezra Pound was an acclaimed writer who was a central figure in the modernist movement, editing T.S. Eliot’s landmark poem The Waste Land and helping to get other modern writers published, including Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce. When Pound lived in D.C. for twelve years after World War II, you might assume that he called a literary haven or Capitol Hill row house home, but that is far from the case.

Pound was actually a patient at St. Elizabeths hospital, Washington's foremost mental institution even though the doctor's who assessed him found him to be of a sane condition.

How did that happen? Glad you asked. It's a pretty interesting story.