Think Georgetown in the 1950’s and 60’s and most people think of JFK and socialite doyennes. Almost totally forgotten from those days in Georgetown is a coffeehouse and a community of beatniks and free-spirits once located in a small courtyard off 31st st. Nowadays it’s the office complex called Hamilton Court at 1232 31st. St. Find out the wine-soaked pot-scented history of this perfectly ordinary looking office complex after the jump:
As it is nowadays Hamilton Court consists of a large building facing the street seen above, and a gated section off the street:
Behind this gate is a small courtyard with several small commercial buildings on it, occupied by small firms of various stripes:
Before it was called Hamilton Court it was the Hamilton Arms. And back in the days when Jackie Kennedy was sending out hand-written invites to stuffy dinner parties, the real party was taking place there.
But before we get to the parties, let’s set the scene. There was an article in the Washington Post published in 1978 documenting the shape of the Hamilton Arms in its twilight. It was a “shabby collection of swiss-style village houses and apartments”. The Post further describes it as “a deteriorating Georgetown complex where sculptures of Dickens characters adorned the outdoor walls, where delicate flowers were painted on the shutters and glossy pastel pieces of ceramic tile were glued on flower pots and around the empty swimming pool.”
The whimsical art was attributed to “folk artist-in-residence” Mary Brinkley Reid whose family owned the property until her death in 1977. It would seem from its state today that most of what made the place architecturally and artistically interesting was eventually torn away.
According to written accounts, in its salad days the property contained the Hamilton Arms Coffee House. The coffee shop was built in 1939 by Milo Brinkley, Mary’s father. He wanted to recreate a European-style village and thought it needed a gathering place. The community and the coffee shop eventually attracted early beatniks. And speaking of salad, the coffee shop was supposedly the site of the first salad bar in the District.
Oh, and in the 1950’s it was supposedly the location of Georgetown’s first pot-party.
Writer Mark Opsasnik recently dove a bit more into the site’s bacchanalian history:
Many veterans of Washington, DC’s counterculture community maintain to this day that the precursors to the beatniks of the nation’s capital were a somewhat ephemeral and now largely forgotten congregation of remarkable Georgetown artists, writers and poets that had once inhabited a small, refuge-like compound known as “Hamilton Arms.”
What really made Hamilton Arms unique were the groups of incredible people that set up camp on the grounds of the village. A cast of indefinable characters predating the beatniks made the Hamilton Arms Coffee House their carefree playground. They began infiltrating the grounds – appearing from nowhere for friendly visits in the quaint apartment rooms and throwing wine parties that lasted for days and nights and wound throughout the gardens of the courtyard. Several years after the Health Department raid [which condemned the pool for sanitary reasons], Lieutenant Colonel Brinkley reminisced to local journalists about the once-commonplace midnight raids made by unknown revelers on the notorious swimming pool. More telling, however, was a piece on the heyday of the Hamilton Arms that appeared in the Washington Post on March 11, 1978 that stated, “Residents swear that Georgetown’s first ‘pot party’ took place there in the late 50s, along with several other recreational firsts.”
So next time you pass Hamilton Court, think about all those “recreational firsts” and try to square that history with the boring office space that remains. And further, don’t let anyone tell you that the story of Georgetown in the middle of last century is one just of Kennedys, Harrimans, and Grahams. It’s much more interesting than that.