For A Thousand Dollars More,
You Can Get A Better House In Chevy Chase

Sullivan Brothers: Oral History Excerpts


RS - My father was J. Leo Sullivan. He went by his middle name. He was born in 1903 in Southeast Washington and lived there until he married. My mother was Ellen Keane Sullivan. She was born in Southwest Washington in 1905. I can give you exact dates if you want. When my parents first married, they lived for a few months in an apartment on North Capitol Street, but then they moved out here.

RS – My mother’s parents came from Ireland around 1900. My father’s family goes much further back - to around 1840. My father’s mother was from a farm in Butler, Pennsylvania. My father’s father was from Martinsburg, West Virginia. My grandmother could not work on the farm, because her brothers took it over. So she went to Martinsburg to work, and she met my grandfather. He worked for the railroad and they kept transferring him. He was in Alexandria for a while, and then he ended up in Washington.

Q - So he goes way back.

RS - I thought they came after the potato famine, but then I found a great grandfather who was born in what was Virginia in those days but now is West Virginia. He was born in the 1840’s – my great grandfather fought in the Civil War.

Q – What side did he fight on?

RS – He fought on the Confederate side . My grandmother - the German grandmother - her father fought for the Union, because they lived in Pennsylvania.

Q -So they both have an immigration history that is antebellum and maybe around the beginning of the 19th century.

RS – But the grandfather that fought for the Confederacy was forced to. A regiment came along with some guns, and you either went in or you got shot. So he went in, and then he later deserted.

Q – The counties who formed West Virginia stayed loyal to the Union.

RS – I know. He later deserted and went over to the Union side. I have got to research all of that. 



RS – See my father had that government job at the printing office, and they could get a mortgage very easily even though it was the Depression. If you were a government employee, you were not a risk. So they were able to get a house right away. He wanted to live in Brightwood. And then my mother said : “No. Let’s go to Chevy Chase. For a thousand dollars more, we can have a much better house in a much better neighborhood.” It was kind of daring, because none of our relatives lived over here. We were the first ones. Our grandparents, aunts and uncles, they all lived in Northeast or Southeast. They didn’t move until the late 1940’s or early 1950’s.


RS – Yes. We were Catholic, and we went to Blessed Sacrament. The church and school meant a lot to us. We all went to Catholic schools all the way through. Except [to brother] you did go to junior high at Alice Deal.

RS - But we all went to the Catholic school [Blessed Sacrament]. We spent a lot of time up there. We walked up. My father did not get his car until 1950. So we were walking and taking buses everywhere. And everybody was very friendly. You always socialized with your neighbors. You got to know them. We went into each other’s houses and sometimes had parties and stuff like that. Not like today. Of course, we are in a high rise, and that is different. (People might go down to the party room or hang around the lobby but not so much the hallways. ) But you knew your neighbors. You played with all the kids in the neighborhood. It was very friendly. It was a very close-knit neighborhood. People would invite me into their houses. I was just a kid. We would have something to eat. One woman took me with her to the grocery store. One family took me on a birthday picnic with them or to visit the boy’s great grandfather – things like that. I just remember them as very friendly, personable people. If somebody died, we took up a collection to send them flowers.


RS – The nuns were very good Of course, most all the teachers were nuns. There was just one lay teacher in the school. She was not a very nice person. She was once our substitute teacher, and she used to pull my ears. It was almost sadistic. She would come up behind me and just yank my hair or pull my ears. The nuns would never do that. They would not touch you. They were very strict, and you learned by rote and got a very good education. There was very good discipline. Every year, we had a school fair. They set up booths on the playground. Once a year, we also took a boat ride down the Potomac. We had a cruise to Marshall Hall Amusement Park. I think it was in May.


Q – Pat Buchanan and his brothers lived in the neighborhood. Were they your age or older?

RS – I am around their age. But they were not right at my age. There was one a year ahead of me in school and one behind me. My sister, who went to Visitation, she would sell Christmas cards as a fundraiser for the school, and so she went over to the Buchanan’s house. We would always go to the Catholic homes. We would not go to the Protestants for that. We would go to them for the Red Cross and such, but not for Catholic things. But she went to the Buchanan’s, and they lived across from St. John’s. The father said, “I don’t care if I live across from St. John’s, all of my sons have to go to Gonzaga.” Gonzaga was on the other side of town, and they could have crossed the street to go to St. John’s. My sister told us many times of her going over there. And I think the daughters may have gone to Georgetown Visitation. There were two daughters that went there. My sister went to the Junior College. 
Q – The kids in the neighborhood, again. They lived in the neighborhood but there were few others – no African-Americans except the one. Diplomatic families – any of those?


Q – John, do you have memories of the war?

JS – Yeah. I think I was in the first grade.

Q – Do you remember the blackouts?

JS – Yeah. There was a black sheet, which our parents put on the basement windows.

RS – They were worried about bombing, and so they turned all the lights off. My father worked at night, and he would come home during the blackouts. He remarked about that. I think of two things I remember about the war. My father had driven a car since he was 16, but it was very expensive to keep a car during the war. They had gas rationing, and so he gave it up. But he did not get a car right after the war. He got it about 1950 – 5 years after the war. So that was one thing – not having the car and the other thing was the rationing. I remember I was 5 years old. The rationing continued even after the peace. I remember we would go into a bakery, and there would be only one kind of pie – mincemeat - and we didn’t want that. So we didn’t get anything. I remember the empty shelves in the bakery. So I remember the rationing. I don’t remember the tickets and the coupons and that type of stuff.


RS –But the other thing - this was after the war. The first president I remember was Truman. Sometimes, he would come back from a foreign trip, and we would all get on the bus to meet Truman. All the students would go down to Pennsylvania Avenue to greet Truman. It was a spur of the moment thing.

Q – Was this on the grounds?

RS – No on the street. There would be a little bit of a parade on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Q – So was this on a bus?

RS – I don’t remember if we took a school bus or how we got down there. They would say “President Truman is coming home. We need to greet him.” All the school kids would go. I don’t think we did it for Eisenhower. I went to Eisenhower’s inaugural parade. That was very exciting.


Q - How did your dad get back and forth to work?

RS – He took the bus. We were great for buses. When we visited our grandparents – well my mother’s father died back in 1912. But at Christmas we would leave after church, and we would go to my grandmother’s house and my aunts and uncles would be there . In the evening we would take another bus and go to Southeast to visit my father’s parents. We did that every Christmas, and I used to fall asleep coming home on the bus. We took buses everywhere. The streetcars of course did not come out here . They were long gone – long before we were born. But you could take the bus to 18th and Columbia and switch to the streetcar - or do it downtown.

Q – When did the streetcars disappear?

RS – If this is not the last year, it was close. I think it was 1962.

JS – Yes. 1962.

RS – That was the last one. I think it went to Rosslyn.

Q – Was it on Wisconsin Avenue?

RS – It went to Friendship Heights.

Q – As late as 1962?

RS – Well I think they phased them out gradually . They didn’t take them off all at once, and I think the last one went over Key Bridge to Rosslyn. At lot of people went on it, because it was the last one. Another one went up Wisconsin, and another one up lower Connecticut near the Mayflower Hotel. But where the Washington Hilton is today, it veered off to Columbia Road. It didn’t go further up the hill on Connecticut.


RS - The houses on our block were more modest dwellings. But people had pretty good jobs. The man who lived next door, was a bookbinder. I know he bought a Cadillac. He seemed to be very prosperous. We had a lot of stories. You could make some novels or memoirs out of them. His wife fell down the steps, and she was killed. We didn’t go to the funeral. But during the funeral, a man robbed the house. People would read the obituaries and find out where people lived. They knew the family would be at the funeral. My father and another neighbor tackled the guy. They had him arrested. And then he married a second wife. She was very good looking. She looked like a movie star or a fashion model – much younger than the first wife. Then he got the Cadillac, and they also had 2 children. But then he died, and his wife and children moved away.

Then the people across the street. It was something like that movie – Come Back Little Sheba. It was something like the plot of that movie. They had a woman room with them, and the husband fell in love with the woman, and they took off. Then the wife sold the house and moved away.

And then on the other side of the street but down at the corner facing Nevada Avenue, there is a house with a big yard in front of it. There were two elderly women there. One was 80 and the other was 85, and they used to scream at each other. But most of our neighbors were very good people, church-going people, very charitable. They gave to the causes. You know you went door to door in those days collecting for the Red Cross, or Cancer or Heart Society. You would think nothing of it. People don’t do that now.


RS – Television was fairly new. Of course, it was introduced at the 1939 and 1940 World’s Fair in New York, which my parents went to. But the war delayed production, and so it came out after World War II. But it was very expensive at first. My mother had a close friend, and her husband was in the liquor business. They had a lot of money, and so they were one of the first to have television. They must have gotten it in 1948 or something like that. I think we got ours in either 1950 or 1951. But some of our neighbors didn’t have it, and they would come knocking on our door asking to watch the television. We would say OK, and our relatives would also come by because we were one of the first to have one. And a lot of them would say, “we know that they are developing color television, and we don’t want to waste our money. We will wait for the color.” Well color was a long time in coming. RCA developed the first ones, and it was not very good at the beginning. People’s skin was purple or orange. Then people got black and white ones when they realized that color was not going to come out for several years. Then everybody had it. It was a real novelty at first. Of course, the screens were very small.

Q – What did you watch?

RS – I watched Hoody Doody and the Lone Ranger. All the cowboy shows. There was some science fiction – Captain Video, for example. Kukla Fran and Ollie was one of my favorites. They only had four channels - ABC, CBS, NBC and Channel 5, which was a local channel back then.

Q – Go back before TV. Did you listen to radio?

RS – They had those old radio dramas that I also went to in recent years at the Smithsonian where they are trying to bring back a lost art. But you had dramas, and they had all the sound effects in the background. I would listen to the Lone Ranger, and also mysteries and stuff. Some of the same programs that were on radio switched to television like Ozzie and Harriet and things like that. We would listen to the radio before television came along. Of course, when you had TV, then radio became practically all music and news.


RS – I delivered the Evening Star. It was hard, because I was a skinny runt and I started when I was 11 or 12. The first route was on Western Avenue and 41st Street, up in that area. Then I told my boss that was too far from where I live. They wouldn’t give me my own street. But then, I got Nebraska Avenue and Connecticut – the part of Connecticut that is near Nebraska. Then those streets like Huntington and Harrison and Chevy Chase Parkway. It was sometimes cold on winter days, and I had to do it myself. My brother would help me on Sundays.

Q – How many papers?

RS – I can’t remember. But it seemed like an awful lot.

Q – How long did it take you?

RS – Probably a couple hours.

Q – So you got a lot of exercise.

RS – I was so skinny to begin with. But then you also had to collect the money. The circulation manager would meet you at a certain corner, and he would drop off the papers. And he would talk to you. But you had a book with the addresses. And every day there were changes. People dropping out or adding on and people going on vacation, You had to collect the money. I remember people nickeling and diming it. I also remember it was extremely cold on winter nights, and I had to go to all these people’s doors.

Q - Was it difficult collecting?

RS – Some people just were not at home, and so it was difficult to find them. You had a certain deadline. You kept trying. Most of the time people were good. And then we had the calendars at Christmas time, and they were wonderful. There were 12 pages – one for each month. It was an excuse to give the carrier a tip, and I remember some people gave me $5, and that was a fantastic sum of money back then. So I made a lot of money from that. But then as the years went by, they went from 12 to 6 to 3 and then to 1 page. Then they decided to do away with it altogether. Now you get a little holiday card slipped under your door. Carriers are now all contractors. They are not boys. They are generally middle-aged people, and they operate out of a car and what surprised me is today they deliver several papers. They don’t just deliver the Post. If you subscribe to two papers, you may get them together. We always had separate carriers. I guess I did not work for the Post, because I don’t think my parents wanted me getting up at 5 every morning. The Star was only in the morning on Sundays. Later when I got to be an adult, they added Saturday morning.


Q – Let’s go back to the neighborhood for a second. We are always interested in relationships between different categories of people so recently we interviewed someone who was Jewish, for instance. We were interested about her experiences and you guys grew up as Catholics in the neighborhood. What about Catholics and Protestants. Can you tell us anything?

RS – We got along very well. My mother would say the couple on the corner was prejudiced because they were Lutherans, and they hated Catholics. But I didn’t see much evidence of that. I never felt that way. I used to go down and play in their yard. They were just laid-back people. The Protestants and the Catholics got along very well. But the Jewish people - that was interesting. They had certain clusters. The Catholics were spread around. We didn’t have a Catholic block or neighborhood. We were all over the place. We never thought of living all together, but many of the Jewish people did. I remember my mother taking the parish census. You had to go to every door even if you knew it was not Catholic, because they might have someone rooming who was Catholic. We would go to Jewish neighborhoods, and they would say “sorry, everyone on this block is Jewish.” There were a lot on Chevy Chase Parkway. It makes a kind of a loop. It starts at Connecticut and ends up at Connecticut. Not the part that is near Chevy Chase Circle, but the other end – near Nebraska. Those blocks there had a lot of Jewish people. And there was a group over on the side east of Connecticut Avenue in certain blocks south of Nebraska Avenue. 

RS – Across the street - the couple who moved into the house where the husband ran off with the woman who was rooming with them - they were Jewish. He had a pretty good job. Then in more recent years, there was a Jewish family that moved in there that were good friends with our sister. So there were some Jewish couples in the neighborhood. But they mostly stuck to themselves and some had servants. We would not think of having a maid. They would have a maid – usually a black person – even if they had a small house. We had some Spanish people, but they were wealthier. They may have been the sons and daughters of diplomats. That man, Dr. Guillermo Sevilla-Sacasa, was the dean of the Diplomatic Corps.

RS – My mother loved the bazaars at the Protestant churches. And my brother helped out at the bazaar at the Methodist Church on Connecticut Avenue. He helped set up tables. The woman who ran the bazaar lived across the street from us. So we would go to the bazaars and sometimes the concerts. We didn’t have concerts together. It was after I left as an adult that they had ecumenical concerts at the other churches. I think the Lutheran church near Nebraska had the biggest church. My sister sang with her choir there. And then once we had a fire at Blessed Sacrament. It is kind of vague but I think the Presbyterian church let us use their facilities. The first pastor of Blessed Sacrament, Msgr. Smyth, got to be very close friends with the pastor of the Presbyterian church. They would have these long discussions, and they would walk all the way to the zoo together. They would forget how far they had walked. I think we had good relationships with the churches. People went to church, and the churches were very prominent in Chevy Chase Circle and other places.


Q – You lived very close to Connecticut Avenue. What was your experience with Connecticut Avenue. Did they call it the Avenue back then?

RS – Yeah. We were almost to the bottom of that block. We were near Nevada and Nebraska, and Military Road was close and then we had Connecticut. So we had all those big streets. We went to both shopping centers. It was a pretty steep hill to walk to the Safeway, and there was a Higgers Drug Store there. And sometimes we would go to the other part of Connecticut , which was near McKinley Street.

My father took us to the grocery store on Saturday. My mother liked the A and P in Bethesda. She thought it was a better store, and she also thought the prices were cheaper.

Q – Where was it?

RS – It was originally on Wisconsin Avenue – probably closer to Bradley Blvd. It was not as far up as Old Georgetown Road. And then they later moved to Arlington Road to a much larger store. I think I was an adult by then. I never went to that store.

Q – Where was the Safeway?

RS – There were two. One was near Nebraska. It is pretty much where Politics and Prose is today. And the other was – it was not where it is today. There was nothing commercial then on the east side of Connecticut Avenue. What block was it on?

JS – It was above McKinley. Later they built the bigger one.

RS – There really was no commercial development on the east side of Connecticut . It was all on the west side.

Q – You mentioned Higgers Drug Store. Is that where the CVS is now?

RS – That’s right. It was wonderful. It was family owned. They had this wonderful ice cream and this wonderful sherbet. They had a lot of gifts. They were better than the CVS.

Q – Did they have a soda fountain?

JS – No. The People’s at McKinley and Connecticut had a soda fountain. The people didn’t want to integrate, so they took it out.

RS – Oh is that right? No one told me that. Most of the drug stores and dime stores had soda fountains. A lot of the kids went to the soda fountains. But they did not usually go with their parents.

Q – Was there a dime store around there?

RS – There was a Kresge’s.

Q – Where was that?

RS – Was it close to Legation?

JS – It was at Morrison. Livingston is where the commercial part started. It was Livingston, Morrison and then McKinley where the commercial part was. There was a Kresgee. The Drug Fair came much later. It came when I was a teenager. So there was both a People’s and a Drug Fair.

We went to all the stores. We were great going to bakeries and ice cream parlors.

JS – There was a wonderful bakery. Schupp’s Bakery.

RS - It was a German name. I thought it was strange. The cakes were all white inside. They saved the yolks. They never put yolks in the cakes. That was the only bakery that was like that.

Q – Where was that?

RS – It was in the middle of the block – near McKinley. Then there was one they called Avignon Freres.

JS – That was good.

RS – It was similar to the one in Adams Morgan. It was a little more French. It was in that shopping center near Chevy Chase Circle. They were all up there.

Q – Did you go to the movies there?

RS – Oh yeah. The Avalon – Saturday matinees. You always got the news and a cartoon and there was a serial. When the serial ended, you would be on the edge of the cliff. So you had to come back next week to see what happened. The serial was about 15 – 20 minutes long. At night, there would be the big movies like Fred Astaire or something like that. Some times we would go to the Uptown but not too often. They had first run movies. We almost always went to the second runs. There were no first runs at the Avalon.

Q – How much did it cost you to get in?

RS – Something like 25 cents.


RS – People came to the door for everything. They came to the door to use our telephone. We had the telephone at the front door. In the warm weather the door would be open. They would see it and use it and leave a dime. Then my mother moved it to the back door to keep people from using the telephone.

Q – Did some people not have telephones?

RS - Maybe they were there looking at real estate or something and they needed a telephone.

Q – It looks like the practice was to keep the doors unlocked.

RS – We locked the doors when we went out. We sometimes locked ourselves out, and the man next door had to use a ladder and climbed in a window on the second floor.

Q – When you were in the house, were the doors locked?

RS – At night. But I had friends at school who did not lock their doors. You didn’t have much crime. People didn’t worry about it. In hot weather people slept out in the yard. They slept on the Mall. They didn’t worry about people taking their purses or wallets. It was so hot. Of course, there was no air conditioning.

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