Souvenirs of Logan Circle

On reading my most recent blog about gay life in Washington DC in the Neolithic (the 1970’s) in our faerie castle the Four Belles (1320 Rhode Island Ave NW), a friend suggested that I write more about the Centennial chandelier. I’m happy to do so, but actually I want to write more in general about memories of Logan Circle and my salvage activities.

(At that time, DC was in the throes of urban renewal and tearing down entire blocks of abandoned Victorian houses. Our most urgent battle around Logan Circle was to keep that from happening to the mansions and apartment buildings there.)

Four Belles carving and 1 & 2 Logan Circle

The photo on the left is a close-up of the carving of four hands with bells from which we took the name of our house. In fact, I found out several years ago from the current owner that the original builder had indeed named it the Four Belles—for his wife and three daughters.  The Second Empire wedding cake house on the right was owned by Lewis Kleiman, the guy who took my publicity shot mentioned before.  I occasionally helped him work on restoring the place, like stripping woodwork and such—but it was like spitting in the sea.

Copper Peak, 1320 RI Ave NW

Lewis also helped me in my salvaging. Early one morning we went in my old blue van (Lavenia Van Dodge) to a ruinous house on Sixth Street and rescued its copper peak to put on the Four Belles.  To get to it, we had to climb the bannister of the collapsed staircase and scramble through a rotten hole in the roof!  The peak is 4 or 5 ft. tall and maybe 6 ft. across the base.

 

 

 

But to return to that Centennial chandelier: As remarked before, it was a gift from France along with the Statue of Liberty.  My housemate Charles, being a historic preservation bigwig, got inside on the renovation of an area in Independence Hall where the Centennial chandelier had been hung and nabbed it for our castle.

Victorian Elegance at the Four Belles

In the photo, the huge Eastlake mirror behind the chandelier was rescued from a doomed house on M Street, along with two fabulous mantles and another mirror in black lacquer. When found, it and its beveled glass had been painted white! It now lives in the Library at Santa Fe’s posh inn and spa at La Posada. So I can occasionally visit my old friend.

In the middle is one of the Baccarat prisms (about 18 in. long) hanging on my porch.  On the right is a lamp (purchased in an antique shop), which is also here in my apartment.  By the French sculptor Auguste Moreau, it sat on the newel post of the tiger-eye oak staircase in our grand reception hall.  A few shadows of the Victorian elegance of the Four Belles.

And to return to my salvage activities: Another piece I still have is a trunk I found in 1974 on like the sixth floor of the wracked-out Iowa building also previously mentioned.  I had to remove its shredded canvas covering and live with the raw wood, but after all these decades, it still holds my blankets and linens.  Like that beautiful building, it has survived!

Trunk Found in the Iowa, 1974

There are naturally many stories to be told about salvaging, but I’ll only impose on you with a few. The first was an adventure of saving a plaster ceiling medallion like the one shown below, though I recalling it being a bit more ornate, if you can imagine that:

Victorian Ceiling Medallion

The derelict house was just a few doors down M Street from the one with the mirrors and mantles. I hauled my ladder into its crumbling dining room and proceeded to the cautious work of removing the ceiling medallion.  In the middle of the job, the entire ceiling of plaster and lathe let go of the joists.  There I was standing at the top of the ladder like Atlas holding up a very heavy sky!  With extreme trepidation and caution I tilted the slab to rest one edge on the floor, and with the other side propped on the ladder, I climbed down.  Then it was a fairly simple job to remove the prize and haul it away in trusty old Lavenia Van Dodge.

After untold hours of cleaning and restoration, I gave the medallion to one of the new urban pioneer neighbors around the Circle. Can’t recall who…  That’s what I did with the mantles, fancy woodwork, and such that I salvaged as welcome-wagon gifts.

A major salvage accomplishment was getting into a gorgeous Greek Revival building at, I believe, 12th and O (former home of DC’s black Masonic Lodge), the day before it came down.  They’d abandoned their library, and my friends and I loaded it out of the back window into Lavenia.  In the horde I found among other fascinating volumes a huge tome called “Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley” by Squier and Davis, which led to my 1992 book “Remember Native America.”  (I’d just seen the old public library on Maryland Avenue get knocked down with all the books still in it!)

And one more anecdote: After salvaging some mantles and sets of fabulous glazed tiles from the fireplace surrounds from another house, I went to a dinner party with the family of a lady friend in Alexandria.  Her aged grandmother was our hostess and was fascinated to hear about all my salvaging activity.  When I mentioned the address of that day’s rescues, the grandmother almost had a cardiac:  It was the house where she’d been a little girl, and the room with the green tiles had been her bedroom.  I came back the next day and gave her one of them as a souvenir.

Victorian Glazed Tile from Fireplace Surround

Later, in 1982, I installed several of the tiles around the kitchen sink in my next Victorian, a little Queen Anne in Denver, with this one left over.

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Neolithic Gay History

Some months ago I started reading a book by Jim Downs called “STAND BY ME, The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation,” Basic Books, 2016. I was touched that a guy probably born around 1980 found it important in 2005 to research gay history from the 1970’s—and was amused that he considered that decade “ancient” gay history.

Of course, I’m even older than ancient, having come out for the first time in the Stone Age (1961). I wrote about that period in my second novel, DIVINE DEBAUCH. When I came out for the second time in 1970, which is the subject of my second memoir (in progress), it was essentially the Neolithic epoch.  The 1980’s were actually our “ancient” history.

Now that I’ve finished the book, I have to say that for me the 1970’s were hardly as wild, sordid, intellectual, political, or stylish as what the author described, largely in New York, Toronto, and San Francisco. In Washington DC where I lived, things were almost conventionally civilized.  Since Downs wrote, “I wanted to show how the 1970s was more than a night in a bathhouse,” I really hoped he would describe the kind of gay culture and community that I experienced.

He didn’t. Not a word.  But then I suppose that’s because there was no documentation of our liberated lifestyle in newspapers or magazines.  To make up for that deficiency, I’ll point out the rather detailed outline of those years in this site’s Life section (Courtesan). It’s going to be the basis for my planned third memoir, which I’m now thinking of as “The Faerie Castle.”

That memoir will center on a splendid Victorian house at Logan Circle:

Logan Circle in the 21st Century

In this picture, the little red arrow indicates where the house sits at 1320 Rhode Island Ave NW. When I lived in it in the 1970’s there were many fewer and smaller trees. We called the house the Four Belles for the stone carving of four hands ringing bells over the front door—and for us several gay belles who lived there.  In our time, the corner with 14th Street was the epicenter of the slum, but nowadays it’s turned into the epicenter of the chic area of upscale shops and fancy restaurants. Sic transit gloria!

1320 Rhode Island Avenue NW and the Centennial chandelier

In the photo there’s a copper ball on the peak of the roof which I salvaged from a house the city tore down on 6th Street for “urban renewal.”  The drawing (by famous architectural artist Robert Miles Parker), was done before I snagged that detail.  My friends and I lived there in splendor, as shown by our chandelier in the dining room—which was Baccarat crystal and came from Independence Hall in Philadelphia, a Centennial gift to the US from France (along with the Statue of Liberty)!  I still have two of the crystal prisms hanging on my porch here in Santa Fe.

The Four Belles was an almost infamous center of DC’s gay society in that decade. Virtually daily we held sumptuous dinners in our grand dining room with perhaps a dozen guests and frequently hosted parties and costume balls.  Gay people of all artistic, political, and social persuasions passed through our “salon.”  A few years ago I ran into a fellow who well recalled having gone to a spectacular dinner party there.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember him…

My best friend and “sister” from the early 60’s at Tulane, Charles Herrington, was the true Queen in our faerie castle who presided over the banquets and salons. A major official with the National Register of Historic Places and an incomparable raconteur, Charles was a force of nature who attracted crowds of gay men into our circle (and bedded many of them).

Charles Herrington, 1976

Meanwhile, I was a sluttish Princess, or courtesan if you will, entertaining admirers in my sky-lit jungle suite on the third floor. Apart from such romantic activities, I also worked in an opera organization, salvaged architectural details from doomed Victorian houses, and was very active in the Circle’s community association. In the latter respect, I’m most proud of having saved a beautiful beaux artes apartment building, the Iowa, from the wrecking ball.

The Iowa, designed by T. F. Schneider

My other major accomplishment was translating Tchaikovsky’s opera “Maid of Orleans” for the Canadian Opera Company to sing in English. (See:  Another rather large whoop.)  A neighbor from the big white house on the Circle, Lewis Kleiman, took my press photo for that occasion:

poster art for Canadian’s “Joan of Arc” and translator Richard Balthazar

But to return to my courtesan activities, besides a parade of short-term suitors, I entertained a series of long-time admirers, most of whom were married or otherwise partnered. I was quite comfortable with always being “the other woman.”  There was the Panamanian mulatto Giovanni Gonzales (who had both a lover and a wife); the Vietnamese soldier and war hero Lai Minh Chi (who left me to marry a woman); the Arts Endowment official Jim Ireland (whose friendly lover apparently never suspected); and the museum administrator Guy McElroy (whose lover probably knew all about me).

Guy McElroy, 1979

As an epilogue to this tale of gay life in the Neolithic, for all I know, Giovanni and Chi may still be alive in DC. But I lost contact with Jim, who went “into the field” to work with opera companies and recently deceased.  While visiting me in New Mexico in 1985, Guy had an auto accident which paralyzed him; in that condition, he curated a show at the now-defunct Corcoran Gallery and then passed away.  In 1979, on the other hand, my alter-ego Charles lost his magnificent mind (went manic-depressive in that era of unmanageable lithium), and brought the fabulous world of the Four Belles to an end; after many years of suffering, he succumbed to AIDS in 1992.  And I’m now an unbelievably old man in comfortable retirement in Santa Fe.

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Auld Lang Friends

Like always, as I wind down this Old Year, I’m mindful of all the wonderful friends and lovers in my life.  Of course, many of them have gone to their rewards, but they still live on in me.  Fortunately, some from my past still live on in fact.

Just the other day I phoned Cookie, a high school neighbor friend in Arkansas, and we happily reported that we’re both still kicking, though as she said, not very high.  She married my best friend in junior high, who deceased several years ago.  My best friend in high school was Dennis, and we’ve been in loose touch again since our 50th Reunion back in 2010.  After the Navy, he married and, like Cookie, made a full life in those woods I left behind in 1960.  I visited them a year or so ago and hope to do so again this spring coming.

Lasting friends from New Orleans were fewer than one might think, given my social history there.  Those still kicking are actually women friends.  I’ve never “dated” a girl—just “went out” with them.  Gorgeous blonde Jane and I spent most nights in La Casa de los Marinos dancing mad merengues—or resting in the Gin Mill a few blocks away, and saw countless dazed dawns over Decatur Street.  She now lives in San Miguel de Allende and visited with me in Santa Fe some years ago.  We email periodically.

Another from that period is Frances, now living in Seattle.  She was an Art History grad whom my beloved Indian Desai and I met one night in Cosimo’s, a jazz place on Burgundy, and took to the Gin Mill to see the lowlife.  They got together, and I got alone.  Frances and I have kept in touch through the other chapters in our lives with visits, cards, and emails.  Desai went back to India where he married, and we lost touch in the 70’s.  I sure hope he’s still kicking.

I also “went out” to La Casa de los Marinos with another woman, Martha, a student from Southeastern in Hammond with wild blonde hair and arresting blue eyes.  She and I created a leaping dance we called “The President Kennedy.”  Martha lives (I hope) in Arcata CA, a militant vegan lesbian grandmother known locally as Granny Green Genes.  We haven’t been in touch for a few years, but at this late date, I’m afraid to check on her.

A platonic friend from back then was Lee (later Chas).  Faithful correspondents through the rest of the 60’s, we hung out together when I moved back to New Orleans in ’71.  In ’72 we moved to Washington DC together and were close neighbors throughout that decade.  But when I moved off to New York, we lost contact for some fifteen years.  In the late 90’s he got back in contact, and we resumed our old closeness.  For several years he came out to Santa Fe in the summers for the Santa Fe Opera  season and would stay the weeks with me.  He died in 2003.

Not quite so lengthy was my platonic friendship with Charles, a faerie sister from Tulane.  We weren’t all that close in New Orleans but accidentally re-connected in an elevator in a Chicago hotel some years later.  When I went back to Ann Arbor in ’72 for dissertation work, I moved in with him and his lover for a couple months.  Then Charles moved to Washington DC right after Chas and I did, and we wound up buying a Victorian house together at Logan Circle.

1320 Rhode Island Avenue NW--The Four Belles

1320 Rhode Island Avenue NW–The Four Belles

Charles is a special story unto himself, a tragic drama lasting till he passed on in 1992.  On that sad note, I’m getting all choked up, so let me save other memorials for another time.  Sniffle.