A Roadhouse on Rittenhouse Street

Dallas Dean: Oral History Excerpts

FAMILY HISTORY

Q - Where was your family from?

A – My father was a Washingtonian and was born in 1899. So was his father, who was born in 1864 in Washington. The family name was Plugge. My great grandparents on my father’s side came to Washington in the 1850’s or early 1860’s from Germany. The story I heard was that my great grandparents knew each other in Germany, and my great grandmother came first and my great grandfather followed. I don’t know if the spelling is right, but I have been told that they came from Rheda/Stauew Warendorf.

And my mother came from Minnesota. She came in 1923 for something that was supposed to be temporary, and she was here until she died on August 4, 1993. The family name was Moehring.

Q – Did she live on a farm in Minnesota?

A – No she lived in a small town. She had no desire to stay there, because they had all of the chores of a farm even though they lived on the edge of town – which was in LeSueur, Minnesota. That is the original home of Green Giant and the LeSueur peas. 

My mother was from a large family – 7 children. She was the 3rd oldest, and she went to school in LeSueur. Then she went to business school for a year after she finished high school. Then she worked temporarily for government agencies - on Indian reservations. She worked at Red Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. I think she also worked at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. She worked in the office. Someone came up with the idea as to whether she would like to come to Washington. As I said, that was in 1923, and so she worked at temporary jobs – mostly government. She did not go back to work after I was born.

Q – What was her ethnic background?

A – German

Q – Did she speak German?

A – She did when she was a young girl. She went to church where there was a German-speaking pastor. I have some pictures of the old days. She came to Washington and then one of her brothers came. Then two of her sisters followed. She was the first one here, but the others followed and spent most of their adult lives in Washington.

Q – And then she met your father?

A – Right

Q – Did she say how she meet him?

A – I think they lived around the corner from each other. My father lived at 1310 13th Street, and my mother and her sisters and probably others had an apartment together around the corner. I don’t know if it was N Street or O Street, but in that general area. 
They went together for 11 years before they married, and so that may be part of the reason why I am an only child.

Q - Did your father live in his father’s home?

A – Yes at that time.

Q – Was it near Luther Place?

FOUR BROTHERS AND CHEVY CHASE

A – Yes. My paternal grandfather had 7 sons. My grandmother died in 1916. She was from Brunswick, Maryland, originally. Her father worked for the railroad and had come to the Washington area for employment. Campbell was the oldest of the 7 boys and was named after his mother’s maiden name. My father was the second youngest. In later years, 4 of the 7 brothers lived in Chevy Chase - all within walking distance of each other.

Q – Tell me who the other brothers were.

A – My cousin, Fritz’ father was Canpbell. He lived on McKinley Street – 3209. Then there was another brother, Wilbur. They sometimes called him Pete. He lived on Northampton Street on the other side of Lafayette. I think it was 3316. There was another brother, Gordon, who lived on 2812 Military Road. My father lived at Nebraska and Rittenhouse where I have lived all of my life.

Q – What was your father’s name?

A – Norman

GRANDFATHER AND 40 ACRES

Q - What brought your father to Chevy Chase?

A – My grandfather – so the story goes – purchased 40 acres of land in the Chevy Chase area. This had to be – I am guessing – at the beginning of the 1900‘s, because my father used to say that he would often times take a streetcar out and get off at Chevy Chase Circle or go to Chevy Chase Lake. And then they would walk down to here to the property. In those days, it was all woods. There were no houses. And then when my father got married, my grandfather offered him a piece of the property so he could build the house. It [the property] had been in the family for a while by that time. My parents were married in 1936. It has been in the family for a few years before that. A lot of the other brothers were already settled on McKinley and Northampton Street, and so he choose the property where we are now. As I said, at the time it was all woods. My grandmother did not want to move to this area, because she said it was too country. She died in 1916. I meant to bring a map along. You may have seen some of those maps of the old neighborhood.. We had one of the lots that my grandfather had. He divided them up and gave each one of his sons 2 lots. My father had another lot beside where we have the house. but he exchanged it with another brother . So that we had the lot right behind us that we still own.

Q - The other brothers did not build on this property as I understand?

A – No. They had already had their houses or bought houses already built.

Q - What happened to all that property?

A – My grandfather died in 1945 and that property was sold, I heard, to pay the inheritance taxes. Now whether that was so or not, I don’t know, but that was what was said. The houses along Rittenhouse Street were built in the early 1950’s - 2700 block and down along Nebraska. I think there were a few houses that were there before Stephenson Lane was cut through, but that was before or during that time.

MANSION AT KNOLLWOOD

Mr. Bill Montgomery owned what is now Knollwood, and that was his home. Then after he died and his widow died, she had given that property to the Army Distaff Hall. At first it was called Distaff, then later they let the men come in. They have since added wings and buildings.

Q – So there were buildings there?

A – It was a mansion. It still stands. It is part of Knollwood. It is that stone house structure. I think it is a clubroom now for Knollwood. I knew that people have social functions there. It used to be a big house sitting on top of this knoll and hill so to speak and that is how it got the name Knollwood. At first it was called Blythe Knoll in the old days, and then when the government took it over - the distaff took it over - then it became Knollwood.

Q – When about would that be? When did Bill Montgomery die?

A – I don’t know when he died. I think this wasn’t done until his widow died, and she was a little bit younger than him. I am pretty sure it was after my grandfather died. I think Knollwood wasn’t built until I am guessing the 60’s,. I don’t know the exact date. There used to be just the house there and mostly a wooded area.

Q – Did Mamie Eisenhower live at Knollwood?

A – She donated her beauty salon at the White House or wherever she had it to Knollwood. I don’t know if she actually lived there.

CABIN ON 27TH STREET

Then talking about the neighborhood, Mr. Montgomery had some [help]. Maybe originally they were slaves, but of course this was way after slavery time. But they must have been slave descendents that used to live up on 27th Street. When I was real young you know - 3, 4, or 5 – somewhere along there, I remember this little cabin there. It sat just halfway up on the left hand side on 27th Street where these black people lived. They didn’t have plumbing. They didn’t have electricity. I remember the oil lamp, because we could see it from our front yard.. We could look up there. Evidently, they had a lot of kids, and they used to work for Mr. Montgomery. Maybe they were descendents of some of the early free blacks who lived there for many, many years. And then that house was torn down when the house that is there now was built. So that was probably in the late 1940’s.

CHATSWORTH TODAY – BONNIE BRAE YESTERYEAR

Then if you go down Nebraska and make a left on Oregon, you go up past Knollwood on the corner where Chatsworth is today, that property used to be an estate. There was a low white farmhouse low to the ground - sprawled out. I can just barely remember that. Then at one time there was talk about whether the Russian Embassy was going to be built there. There was a lot of opposition from the people in the neighborhood about traffic, too much congestion. That was true of Knollwood, too. In any event, that house was torn down and that was the area where Chatsworth is now. The estate was called Bonnie Brae. Bonnie Brae had acreage. But the other houses that people owned there, they were just homes with maybe 3 or 4 acres or maybe not that much. It was a lot of land for a house. Going further up Oregon Avenue, there used to be a family that lived there. I don’t know what their name was right now, but they had the same house number that we had. They were 6040 Oregon and we were 6040 Nebraska, and I can remember that when I was just a young kid sometimes the mail would get mixed up. Sometimes they came up and brought some mail, and sometimes we went down there and brought them some. Maybe we had a new mailman or something. I don’t know what happened to that house. I think it was right around or a little bit further out on Oregon from where that street that is cut over now. I don’t’ know the name of it. Not Beech but the one that is between Tennyson and Beach right past Chatsworth. I don’t know whether it was cut through all the way to Western, but it used to be just woods there, and then they put in that development. That has been fairly recent in comparison with some of the other houses.

HOLIDAYS AT GRANDFATHER’S HOUSE

Q - Your cousin, Fritz, told us about your going to your grandfather’s house particularly during holidays. Do you have recollections of that?

A – Yes. He lived at 13th Street during those years and it was a good neighborhood. I mean it didn’t change until much later than that. He lived in a row house. None of us knew our grandmother because she died in 1916. I remember going to his house as young child. I was only about 4 when he passed away, but he would have Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s in this row house. It was a beautiful old home. You only had light coming in on at the front and the back of the house. There was a long living room, a beautiful stairway going up on the side of the hall. My parents were married there at his home. That was in October of 1936, and then they moved out to here in Chevy Chase in 1938 – in October.

Q – Though you were very young, you do remember the family gatherings there?

A – Yeah – parts of it. I remember the interior because it was impressive. The living room had 3 nine by twelve rugs in it. It had two marble fireplaces in it. Of course, they had heat, but maybe before that, they had the fireplaces. And it was three stories high. It had several bedrooms but only one bathroom on the second floor. My grandfather had a library and an office on the second floor adjacent to his bedroom. This is sort of getting off the beaten track, but it is amazing to remember how that neighborhood has changed.

GRANDFATHER A BUSINESSMAN

Q – Do you remember what he did for a living?

A Yes to start with, he was in the liquor business. He had a store around O Street – 7th and O - in that area. So when prohibition came, of course, he had to close down. So he became president of the 7th Street Savings Bank that evolved into Hamilton Bank and then from there it went to National Bank of Washington and then to Riggs and now to PNC.

Q – Was he involved in banking for quite a while?

A - Yes. I would say from the end of prohibition until when he died in 1945. He was also on the Board of Directors of another bank which I think was Second National and then his parents had been in the tobacco business down at E Street – 917 E. It was around where Weschler’s Auction is today. Ginn rented that building for a long time from the family but it has been sold

Q – What do you mean by the tobacco business?

A – The making and selling of cigars – mostly and snuff products. They didn’t manufacture cigarettes in those days. They didn’t use cigarettes too much. It was cigars, pipes and tobacco.

1938 MOVE TO CHEVY CHASE

Q – The house where you lived in, did you parents build that house?

A – Yeah. They moved in October 1938.

Q – Do you know who the builder was?

A - No - I should look that up, because I think I have some of the plans.

Q – It is a stone house?

A – Yes. Most of the later houses are brick.

Q - So you lived there all of your life?

A – Yes.

Q – Can you remember who else lived on your street?

A – Well in the beginning it was all woods until early 1950. There were a few people who lived there originally after the houses were built. One was named Marie Thomas. She lived there for a long time. She died a few years ago. Her husband was I believe a captain in the police force. There was another family who lived there - Joseph Orlove. He had a meat business - the O Street market. That was before and after World War II. Most of the other people who were there have moved even though some of them lived there quite a long time. But there are none of the original people left.

Q - As far as occupations are concerned, you mentioned two occupations. Can you think of what some of the others father did for a living?

A – Not offhand, because, as I said, a lot of those people who were original owners died or moved away and the kids didn’t stay there. One of them was Carl Rowan’s son who lived there for a while.. He lived on Rittenhouse Street – across from our house. He would only be about sixty years old now.

Q – So there were a lot of woods around your house. Did that mean that you played a lot in the woods?

A – I remember as a young child that my father and some of his brothers would cut wood on Rittenhouse Street for our fireplace. In those days oil was rationed and things were kind of tough for heating. But they didn’t have power tools, and it was done with a two- man saw. I can remember my father going over there at least a couple weekends a year. It would be him and one of his brothers who would come up and help.

My mother and I used to walk over in the woods lots of times. Many times we would gather wild flowers. There used to be an old foundation of a springhouse that was in the woods behind Rittenhouse Street before Stephenson Lane was cut through. You could see the foundation, but there was no building on the top. How long that had been there, I don’t know. We used to walk through there and there used to be a large white rock. It was at least as big as this table and maybe bigger, and it was partly out of the ground. It was kind of a goal to try to find it. We would sit there for a while and then come back. Probably it wasn’t that big of a space, but you think of it as being big when you are little.

YESTERYEAR - CONNECTICUT AVENUE

Q – Let’s move over to Connecticut Avenue. What was Connecticut Avenue like when you were young?

A – Between McKinley and Morrison, where the CVS is now, it used to be a People’s Drug Store and before that a Dart Drug Store in the middle of that block. Then were was Schupp’s Bakery, Edward’s Shoe Store, and a 5 and dime store. There was a gas station on the corner and Riggs Bank for many years where PNC is today. In the Arcade, there was the Peking Restaurant and a beauty shop.

Between McKinley and Northampton, there used to be a Safeway Store – right about where Magruders is today. And then there was also another little grocery or some kind of a store where Washington Permanent is today. You went up a few steps to the door. I don’t know if we ever shopped there. But I remember going to the Safeway with my mother. Chevy Chase Pharmacy used to be where the post office is now, also Brentano’s Book Store. And I took dancing and piano on Connecticut Avenue for 12 years when I was in elementary and up to senior high.

Q – In what building?

A - That was above the Avalon Theatre. It was called the Dimetrif Studio. Tamara Dimetrif was Russian by nationality. I remember that she had an accent. We used to go up the stairs to the studio - on the right hand side facing the street. Now I think you go up the other side for some reason. Anyway, there used to be some stairs there – a wide stairway. And there was a large room over top of the Avalon where they had the dance studio. I took ballet there, as I said, for 12 years under Kathryn Mulloney, and then there were smaller rooms where they taught piano in that building. That was before it was taken over by the theater. The theater was but there but they didn’t take over the theater upstairs at that time.

Q – They didn’t have a theater up there at that time?

A – I think it was Avalon II. That didn’t take place until probably the 60’s or more because in 1958, and a few years later, it was still a dance and piano studio.

Q – So the years you took dance were about when?

A - I took it until 1958 and figure 12 years before that – 1946 probably.

Q – Did you do it once a week?

A – Piano once a week and dance at least twice and sometimes three times a week.

Q – Anything else you remember about the Connecticut Avenue corridor?

A – Across where the community center is of course that was the old Brown School and that turned into the community center and it seemed like they had an old community center there before they built the new one. The library too before they built the new place.

Q – Anything else you remember about the Avenue?

A– You know people make fun of me today when I say I’m going up to the Avenue – “Oh the Avenue, what is the Avenue?” [Connecticut Avenue] they say.

Q – That is what you called it back then?

A – Yeah. People who were closer I guess like Fritz and his sister [cousins] would go up there for shopping, but they were half the distance that I was.

Q – How did you get there – did you walk?

A – No my mother would take me and pick me up; too especially pick me up because it was after dark when I finished.

ROADHOUSE ON RITTENHOUSE STREET

Q – That reminds me – this may be a little off the subject – but I remember that you told me some time ago that there was some sort of a speakeasy house on Rittenhouse Street,

A – You are talking about the Purple Iris.

Q – Tell us about that.

A - It was right up here at 32nd and Rittenhouse. Just within the past year, somebody from Wilson alumni , I think he was in my class, had written into the Alumni Beacon about wanting to know if anyone had any information about the Purple Iris. Well, a lot of information was written in over the past few years - about what they heard it was. Somebody had looked up some old newspaper clippings that said there was a teahouse there. Al Zaner, who used to belong to St. Paul’s [Lutheran Church], lived on Military Road. (I think he lives in Florida now.) He had written that his mother had warned him not to go around there - that it was kind of taboo. Of course, he lived quite a ways from there – being on Military – but in those years people on Military Road went to Lafayette. Later they changed those people who lived on Military and sent them to Murch School. I always thought of the Purple Iris as a Road House. It sat – as I said – at the corner of 32nd Street and Rittenhouse. Three houses are in that corner now. But it sat back in the lot. I think the name intrigued me because I like purple My mother used to say – I don’t know if this is hearsay or true – but army officers would take their extra marital affairs to the Purple Iris, and it was kind of a speakeasy kind of thing. I don’t know if that was true or not.

Q – Was this there in Prohibition days?

A – No I don’t think so. This would have been in the late 30’s and 40’s. I don’t know where that business came that about girlfriends of army officers. I think maybe it was when my father was in service that we heard that. It would be interesting to know if was true.

Q - I wonder when it was razed and houses built there?

A – Probably in the early 50’s. Somebody I think wrote in and said that they had a fire and it did not get rebuilt. It was a kitchen fire.

ST. PAUL’S LUTHERAN CHURCH

Q – Your family belonged to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church?

A - Yes they used to belong to Luther Place first. I was baptized at Luther Place. You know it was a problem to go downtown, and by that time the neighborhood was changing in that 13th/15th Street corridor. So when I was quite young, my parents transferred to St. Paul’s [Lutheran Church].

Q – So you went to Sunday school at St. Paul’s and got confirmed there?

A – Yeah. I as confirmed in 1953 at St. Paul’s – in March I think. That was when St. Paul’s was a basement congregation. The bottom part of it - which is now the lower auditorium – was what you could see above ground on the Connecticut Avenue side. The main church was put up – around 1958.

Q – What was the reason that it took so long for the church to be put up?

A - The Depression had come and then the War. The price had gone up and it just took longer to put out that much money for a new church.

Q – So when you went there as a child, the church service was in the basement?

A – Yeah. The whole time. Schaeffer Hall was there, but the rest is where the lower auditorium is today.

NEIGHBORHOOD DOCTOR MADE HOUSE CALLS

Q – Let’s talk about Dr. Havell. You said he made house calls.

A – Yes

Q – Refresh our memory, where did he live?

A – Dr. Robert Havell lived on Nebraska Avenue, but the back of his property was at the triangle – where 32nd Street came in there at Morrison, I believe - the white house right there on that triangle. His mother and father lived there. He had two sisters. The oldest sister died of breast cancer. She was around the class of 57 because she was a little older than I was. Then Tom – we used to call him Cotton – was in the class of 59 so he grew up there until he went to college.

Q – So he is the one who is a doctor now?

A – Yes. He might be ready to retire. He is about 70. His office is down on Cathedral Avenue. He is Dr. Thomas Havell.

Q – Can you tell me about the father? What was he like?

A – Well he was sort of cold – a New England type person. He was not very warm. He was a good doctor, but he didn’t have a whole lot of bedside manners.

Q - But his office was in his home?

A – Yes on the side of his home.

WOODS ON RITTENHOUSE

Q – Do you have photographs?

A – I brought a couple is to show you the woods on Rittenhouse Street.

Q – Was it paved?

A – Rough payment. It wasn’t smooth. It wasn’t gravel.

This picture shows my father, grandfather and me. I brought these because you asked about the neighborhood. I know that we must have some others. It might give a feeling of what the woods was like. You are used to seeing houses on the blocks. The closest house on Rittenhouse was the street that runs from Nebraska to Rittenhouse – 28th Street. Those houses were put in later than the ones on Rittenhouse.

WORLD WAR II

Q – What was it like during the war?

A – I can remember some things during the war – like the air raid drills and even when we were in school and the drills that we had to get under our desks. I remember that my mother had blankets over the windows so that the light didn’t show during World War II.

Q – Do you remember when the war was over?

A – I remember I was with my mother and one of her sisters in Atlantic City, and they declared that the war was over and everyplace shut down. It was like you couldn’t even get any milk. Everyone was out on the street yelling and screaming and celebrating.

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