Georgetown’s Lost Beatnik Past

Bohemian Landmark?

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:

Hamilton Court Gate

Behind this gate is a small courtyard with several small commercial buildings on it, occupied by small firms of various stripes:

Courtyard

Path off the Courtyard

Fountain

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.

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14 Comments

Filed under History

14 responses to “Georgetown’s Lost Beatnik Past

  1. John Mitchell

    My father Ned Mitchell lived in (at?) Hamilton Arms from about 1958 until just before his death from cancer in 1975. A blue-blood Washingtonian, Ned moved to HA as he separated from my mother and lived out his neo-bachelorhood among the lofts, stairs, pools and unique apartments in this corner of M and Wisconsin as the 60’s and 70’s of Georgetown flourished around him.
    As a child, I remenber spending my weekend visitations in his one-bedroom apartment after a Saturday night walk to the Georgetown theater to see Moby Dick, exiting to the smell of roasted peanuts outside the bar just next door.
    Later as a high school senior, he’d lend his spot to me and my buds from SE Virginia for a night or two. Dodging into Hamilton Arms late on a hot summer night we’d find the residents up to their knees in the karp ponds, sipping drinks and welcoming visitors – my memory is of a retired soldier with the Congressional Medal of Honor around his neck in madras bermuda shorts.
    Ned told the story of how Stewart Davis came across the idea for the original Clyde’s M Street window settings from a New Yorker Magazine cover laying on the coffe table in his apartment – a cover that found its place on the wall among all of Clyde’s college team photos. About then, an all-nighter with the Mugwumps and Mama Cass Elliot after a night at Cellar Door became part of the apartment’s history.
    When in the year 2200, some George Mason field trip of archeologists begins to unearth the layers of Hamilton Arms, under the recast 1980 faux brick and before the layer of colonial horse shoes, they will find the fragments of porcelain which were inlaid in the stucco walls and as tile ornaments in the stairwells and apartment walls of this “story” of the age. They will never know what it was – and wonder.

  2. GM

    Thanks for your note John! It’s great to get a first hand recollection of the place.

    I’d like to think that “back issues” of the Georgetown Metropolitan will still be around on some dusty old server by 2200, so those archeologists will have some explanation of the ceramic tiles and Dickens characters.

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  5. Helen B.

    But why is no one speaking of the incredible beauty of the Hamilton Arms?!? I remember 1st stumbling upon it — this entirely real yet very small Brigadoon hidden behind the Riggs Bank — during one of those late Spring, early Twilight-Upon-Potomac sort of evenings when I was 17, & oh: what an enchantment one suddenly beheld! It really & truly was like stepping into another reality, this architectural idyll so perfectly hidden inside a ring of such thick & stodgy outer Business Buildings that they created the perfect fortress for Hamilton’s magic to hide & thrive behind. Stepping within, one noted that even the endless blaring traffic at Wisconsin & M was thoroughly muffled due to that fortress effect: the voice of the city instantly dropping away as if in a — oh yes, indeed — in a dream.

    Instead, as breezes & Agee’s blue dew moved through the small piazza of sorts that gently declared itself the center of this curiously nameless world, one’s mind & heart & eyes feasted in every direction: the remarkable colours of the little buildings, the wrought iron balconies, the handpainted tiles depicting scenes having absolutely nothing to do with any facet of what Official Washington mistakes for life. The various brick flats & duplexes stood in a graceful jumble of different heights, painted in shades straight from the Paris of Dufy & Bemelmans: periwinkle, red violet, ochre, rose — their twin windows opening outward just like the little French doors everywhere also did; & all of these apertures, too, wore the gayest of hues: lamb’s-ear silvery green, gentian, coral, turquoise. Masses of flowers spilled out of window boxes wherever one looked; & a little fountain plashed merrily to itself in the cobbled centre of it all — — while voices called out now & then to one another from windows up there, down here, across from that, over in this.

    And then most surprising of all, once one’s eyes refocused again: for here before one, almost like a symbolic capstone of sorts in the slowly deepening twilight, every single front door — — those guardians of every single petite, jewel-like abode — — stood absolutely, and quietly, and unguardedly — peacefully — open. WIDE open. So completely & unapologetically open, in fact, that rather than being startling or worry-making in that shockingly violent era, they instead Somehow added — — in fact, added immeasurably — — to one’s sense of being somewhere very much Other than Here; indeed, somewhere wonderfully other than here. For such unabashedly wide open front doors of houses were something that ordinary Common Sense absolutely — & yes, understandably — had forbidden the luxury of, all throughout Washington D.C. and for several years already, by the time I was 17 and fell down the rabbit hole into the Hamilton Arms.

    Thus utterly lovely it was, too, this witness in the Hamilton Arms — — and through those wide open doors one heard & smelled suppers cooking, happy laughter, a piano spilling out this jade green archway, a cello from that carnelian-trimmed window. People sitting in their homes waved pleasantly to me, a stranger, when I walked by their open doors. You will understand me when I say I never wanted to leave.

    And that I had to return as often as possible.

    I even stood & stared at the bulldozers tearing it all down a few years later, while a city official told me that all that life & history & beauty he simply knew as a name — the “Something Arms” — had to make way for the long-awaited joy of a tiny but needed parking lot in Georgetown.

    ///

  6. John Levy

    I was pleased to know Ned Mitchell, as I lived in Hamilton Arms Village from 1967 to 1970 while going to grad school at American University. I read an article many years ago which described the place as having “an air of languid decay”, which pretty much summed up the benign neglect of the premises by the Reid family. I have many fond memories of the place and of the tenants…I always walk by whistfully when I’m in DC. Anyone who was there will remember the wacky tilework painted by Mrs. Reid. I must confess to stealing the coffee table from my apartment when I left…I have it to this day: wrought iron legs supporting a crudely poured concrete slab inset with her painted tiles. The apartments were in soothing contrast to the “theater of the streets” that took place 1/2 block away on M Street or Wisconsin Avenue during that period in time.

  7. K Conway

    It was a GREAT place to live and truly lovely in early 1960’s. Wrought iron staircases linked and provided access to the upper apartments of old townhouses with fronts that faced the Georgetown Post Office. Wandering brick paths linked gardens and fountain/pond. Hamilton Arms was similar to life in New Orleans, once one entered the gates and traveled beyond the facade.

    We had a one bedroom, wood paneled garret apartment with carved figures on the doors and a fascinating small stone fireplace which featured a charming gargoyle. It did take a lot of roach killer to rid the place of pests, but it was a delightful apartment. The wrought iron balcony linked us on one side to another apartment next door and via a circular staircase to the ground apartments below.

    People living there were friendly and did enjoy cocktails but back then, drugs were not in evidence. It is sad to see that all the charm of the place was destroyed with updates to the buildings and some were demolished. It was indeed a bit of a wonderland in the midst of Old Georgetown with the likes of the Kennedy family and other notable names living nearby only a block or so distant.

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  9. I loved that place when I visited my grandmother who worked at the coffee house.S. Kelly

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  12. G hill

    Yes, the Hamilton Arms was a wonderful, seedy, charming, and somewhat scary place, and I passed it by almost every day, as I walked from my home on Que Street to work on M or go elsewhere. My recollections are from the mid 1960s on, but never did I see drugs, or even alcohol consumed in public there. Except for one wild party in 1968. There was plenty of that elsewhere in Georgetown, the head shops on Wisconsin or M, the poster shops, and places to buy black lights (Up Against the Wall), and the funny cigarettes and rolling papers at Georgetown Pipe and Tobacco (when it was at Wisconsin and N, next to the original Britches). I suggest that the counterculture was slow in coming to Georgetown, and what little of it that existed was private and precious, and not public.

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