1950s

A Washington Landmark: Ben’s Chili Bowl

Facade of Ben's Chili Bowl (Photo Source: Creative Commons) https://c1.staticflickr.com/1/12/15542832_25808e5769_b.jpg

According to co-founder Virginia Ali, Ben’s Chili Bowl has never been “your typical restaurant.” Unlike other diners of the 1950’s, Virginia’s husband Ben thought “Washington might be hungry for the kind of spicy dishes he had known while growing up in the Caribbean,” and so he created his own recipe for chili con carne—which remains a closely guarded family secret. A unique element of the restaurant at the beginning, was that “Ben’s spicy chili was served only atop hot dogs, half-smokes or hamburgers,” and not by the bowl as the place’s name would suggest. Ben’s invention of the chili half-smoke quickly become D.C.’s staple food item, and for the next 20 years, loyal Washingtonians overcame a slew of significant obstacles to get their fix.

Hitler's Watercolors

The Courtyard of the Old Residency in Munich, Adolf Hitler, 1914 (Source: Wikipedia)

In 1956, the Woodward & Lothrop department store in Washington DC, located at 11th and F St NW, hosted a traveling exhibit purporting to showcase the “American Dream.” Woodward & Lothrop, or “Woody’s” as it was affectionately called, was a staple in the city for over one hundred years, from the late 1800s to 1995, when it merged with another company. During the "Era of Department Stores," a period lasting from the '30s to the '70s when department stores were the main mode of shopping for the American family, Woodward & Lothrop was the King of DC. This is probably why the store felt entirely comfortable hosting the “American Dream” exhibit, and the exhibit’s main draw: four watercolors painted between 1917 and 1919 by Adolf Hitler.

Ballston Common: The Birth, Death, & Rebirth of the D.C. Area's First Major Shopping Mall

“To describe this shopping center in words is a bit difficult because of its extremely high efficiency in the use of every square foot.”

While it may be hard today to imagine the shopping center at the intersection of Arlington’s Glebe Rd. and Wilson Blvd. as an exciting and advanced piece of architectural planning, it truly was at its opening in 1951.  At the time, it was the largest suburban retail space on the East Coast, and the first ever to be built around a parking garage (which also happened to be the largest parking garage in the United States). This sort of retail design was an absolute novelty, and an early hallmark of both the post-War evolution of the American suburb, as well as the DC area’s growing population. Its name, however, was a little on the nose: Parkington.

The Little Italy Under the Parkway

The last three residents of Arlington's Little Italy: Josh (Guiseppe) Conduci, Carl (Carmelo) Conduci, and Philip (Filippo) Natoli. (Reprinted with permission of DC Public Library, Star Collection at Washington Post)

Few would believe that Arlington County once contained its own Little Italy – and few would recognize it if they saw it. Unlike the prototypical image of urban markets and crowded apartments, what Arlingtonians once referred to as "Little Italy" (or "Little Sicily") was an isolated makeshift village occupied by Italian quarrymen and their families on the banks of the Potomac, accessible only by footpath. 

Eat Anywhere! Mary Church Terrell, the Lost Laws, and the End of Segregation in D.C. Restaurants

Washington Afro American headline from June 9, 1953.

On Friday, January 27, 1950, Mary Church Terrell met three friends for a late lunch in downtown Washington. Terrell, then 86, entered Thompson’s Restaurant on 7th Street NW around 2:45pm with Rev. William H. Jernigan, Geneva Brown and David Scull. Their party was integrated – Scull was white while the others were black – however, Thompson’s Restaurant was not. Like most other D.C. eating establishments at the time, it was whites only.

As the group went about selecting entrees along the cafeteria line, Manager Levin Ange emerged and informed them that Thompson’s did not serve “colored” people. Terrell clarified, “Do you mean to tell me that you are not going to serve me?” When Ange confirmed that was the case, the group left the restaurant.

The chain of events was, of course, entirely expected. As a leader of Washington’s civil rights movement for half a century, Mary Church Terrell was well aware of Thompson’s policy. But she and the others didn’t go to the restaurant to be served. Rather they went with the expectation of being turned away – the necessary, if also demeaning, first step toward bringing a new sort of legal challenge, which they hoped would topple segregation in the nation’s capital.

Artist's rendering of CIA headquarters built in Langley, VA. (Source: CIA.gov)

Designing America's Spy Headquarters

Can you imagine the world’s most powerful clandestine intelligence agency spread out across a series of ramshackle offices in and around Washington, DC? Well, that’s what constituted the Central Intelligence Agency in 1953, the year that Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles announced a plan to build one large, secure campus that would be home to the rapidly growing spy agency.

Cover of December 8, 1957 Sunday Star magazine, which featured Sam and Friends.

The Muppets Take Maryland

Jim Henson’s shows and characters are renowned throughout the world. Creator of The Muppet Show, Labyrinth, and, of course, the beloved Sesame Street, Henson gained fame through his innovative puppetry, his unique characters, and his ability to tackle serious and educational subjects while still retaining the humor and sense of fun that characterized all of his work. By the late ‘60s, all of America was familiar with Henson and his creations. But the people of the D.C. area were the first to see his Muppets in action, and it was in D.C. that he got his first big break.

The Pentagon Goes Up in Flames, 1959

Smoke rises from the Pentagon on July 2, 1959. (Photo source: Arlington Fire Journal blog)

The call came in to the Arlington County Fire Department at 11:16am on July 2, 1959… The Pentagon was on fire.

ACFD units raced to the scene, soon to be joined by deployments from 34 other jurisdictions including Falls Church, Alexandria, Fort Myer, the District, Prince Georges County, Bethesda and the Inter-Agency Government Pool — over 300 firefighters in all.

When trucks reached the scene, black smoke hung over the building, so thick that they had to form a human chain in order to navigate. Firemen groped, clawed and cut their way to the blaze, which had erupted in the Air Force statistical services offices between rings C and D and corridors 1 and 10.

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