Of Palimpsests and Pentimento
Discovering hidden treasures in Washington, D.C.
By Arnold Berke | Online Only | May 16, 2011
As I ambled down Washington, D.C.'s Connecticut Avenue recently, the ghost of a sign on the storefront of a beautiful old building caught my eye. It was little more than a dimpled stain dotted with nail holes, but had lasted long after the row of metal letters next to the door was gone. And I could still read what it once announced: Pasternak.
A series of newer signs on this oft-remodeled structure had saved the faint smudge from extinction, long enough for the latest re-do, a Thai restaurant, to unmask it, and for me to come along and wonder who, what, and when was Pasternak.
Cities abound in such leftover bits and pieces, hinting at or telling who once lived, ran a shop, socialized, or worshipped in a building. Careful observers can spot them—intact or faded signs, symbols carved into wood or stone, architectural elements from doorways to rooflines, garden walls—and try to deduce their historical meaning. The host structure may be little altered, radically changed, or even gone. But the remnant, like the grin of the Cheshire cat, smiles evocatively on.
Often the relic remains in full view—a "palimpsest" or object that echoes its history, a surface feature that probes within. Or, like the Pasternak sign, it slumbers hidden for years, until alterations bring it back to light. A similar process, pentimento, marks painting, as writer Lillian Hellman wrote in her eponymous memoir: "Old paint on a canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman's dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea."
I love pondering these "original lines," but the Pasternak puzzle was particularly intriguing, so I set out to solve it. Meanwhile, I looked for examples elsewhere, starting in the old downtown around F Street, where Washingtonians in huge numbers once shopped, dined, and went to the movies. Transformed by modern office blocks, the area is still studded with smaller old structures, fertile ground for this urban mushroom hunter.
My first find was Harris & Ewing, carved elegantly on 1311-13 F St. The title, I learned, marked the news and portrait photographers who thrived here from 1905 to 1955. (George Harris bequeathed 700,000 negatives to the Library of Congress!) Next I noticed cheery carvings of the sun in the tall granite building to the left—the Baltimore Sun built this 1887 "skyscraper"—and a feast of silvery Art Deco paneling on the facade to the right, installed in 1932 by the Brownley Confectionery.
Across the street I spied a colossal terra-cotta niche with two Corinthian columns, floating in the middle of the block unrelated to its neighbors. Had it been rescued from a razed federal building? No, it is all that remains of the 3,500-seat Fox (later Capitol) Theater, Washington's largest and showiest movie palace. Designed in 1927 by celebrated architects Rapp and Rapp, it was swallowed up by National Press Building renovations in the mid-1960s. I pictured chattering matinee patrons, perfumed with popcorn, heading over to Brownley's for ice cream.
Perhaps they also shopped, earlier that day, at the Woodward & Lothrop department store down the street. That landmark now houses other shops, but signs preserve the old name. Seasoned Washingtonians get the reference; newcomers may be as clueless as I was about Pasternak, though many of their hometowns have similarly repurposed emporiums.
Ex-banks may offer obvious clues, like the two at 911 and 915 F St. These hefty classical facades proclaim safety and stability—and retain their original names, Columbia National and Equitable, respectively, even as they live on as nightclubs. But I never guessed the Romanesque Revival pile at F and 9th (now a Marriott hotel) had housed a bank until I saw Riggs National Bank / Washington Loan And Trust Branch peeking above an awning.
Further on, I found Grogan, Furniture Carpets & Co. painted high up on 819 7th St., a rare surviving merchant ad. From 1883 to 1933, Grogan's boasted "a complete line of all that is latest and antique in furniture and new and artistic and rich in carpets, rugs and matting." (I also hunted for shop signs embedded in entry pavements—say, a jeweler's name in the terrazzo leading to a bookstore—but they eluded me.) You can read churches, too, like Greater New Hope Baptist, at 816 8th St., Romanesque-Moorish with central dome, soaring towers, and rose windows. But … aren't those Stars of David above the entrance? Yes. This was built as a synagogue for Washington Hebrew Congregation in 1898, looking even more exotic then, with onion domes atop the towers.
Sometimes, the building that birthed a palimpsest vanishes. Climbing up 16th Street from downtown, I came upon a brownstone retaining wall with a crenellated carriage entrance, fortifications for an 1888 castle built by ex-Sen. John Henderson and his wife, Mary. The pair was notably successful in developing the area into a fashionable neighborhood. But the mansion came down in 1949, replaced by a sea of townhouses. The Henderson saga is well-known Washington lore. Not so the remnant of a garden porch hidden behind the apartment house just down the street, a confection of columns, cornices, balustrades, and other classical oddments. Who built this and when?
For Pasternak, happily, we know. The ghost sign at 1219 Connecticut Ave., it turns out, adorned one of Washington's most exclusive women's clothiers. Austrian immigrant Max Pasternak and his wife, Bertie, founded the business on 14th Street in 1903 as a ladies' custom tailor. Expanding into European designer and ready-to-wear fashions, they had architect George N. Ray design a new uptown salon, an elegant four-story limestone edifice that opened in 1924. Ray's firm, which took up residence on the top floor, designed many of the retail structures along the then-stylish avenue.
Pasternak's customers populated the upper end of capital society, from first ladies to senators' and ambassadors' wives, and visiting notables like the Duchess of Windsor and Jean Harlow. Pampered patrons were assured, says Gloria Pasternak, the founders' granddaughter, "when they bought that dress and went to a party, there wouldn't be five others like it." Pasternak recalls her mother, Mina, regularly impressing the family at dinnertime by asking, "guess who came into the store today?" One evening, "she said 'Marilyn Monroe,' and suddenly the forks stopped in mid-air. 'She has the most beautiful skin, like peaches and cream.'"
"Stores like ours," says Pasternak, "had fashion shows once a month. The ladies would come in and sit, and in the back was a balcony. And this magnificent stairway. Models would wear the clothes and go down this very open staircase that parted to the right and the left, down onto the main floor, and walk around." On the third floor, "I remember rows and rows of sewing machines, with Italian ladies, who could barely speak English—and my grandfather, cutting on great long tables."
Pasternak's closed in 1961, and although later occupants have had their way with the building, the sense of elegance is still palpable at number 1219. One wonders if the person who installed the sign there ever considered how long it, or the business inside, would last. Or thought that, years downstream, someone walking by would see it, stop, and be quite taken.
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