Inside D.C. entertainment

Georgetown before Brooks Brothers — like, when toilets crashed through ceilings

October 7, 2011 - 10:59 AM
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At the Brooks Brothers grand opening party in Georgetown on Wednesday, guests were greeted with a full-court conceptual press—this store is your “home.” Manager Don Miller says the new M Street store aims to be “a living room for the community, where people can be comfortable.” That’s why there’s a pool table, furnished patio, a dozen plaid and plushy chairs, and antique books wedged into sock displays. “This building,” Miller adds, “was, at one time, a residence.”

Indeed, two decades before Brooks Brothers reared its herringbone head on M Street, people did live at 3077, but probably not the Chardonnay-sipping set who showed up to the store’s invite-only party. Former resident Bob Greenberg describes a very un-Brooks Brothers life at 3077 M.

Greenberg, whose parents inherited the building in 1945 and owned it until 1995, moved into one of the four apartments that stood above the building’s lower retail level in the 1970s. Greenberg remembers rent costing around $150 --  less than a Brooks Brothers cashmere sweater. Tenants tilted toward the bohemian, and the floors tilted at a 10-degree angle. Toilets occasionally crashed through the ceilings of apartments below.

“At that time, Georgetown was a very vibrant artist community,” says Greenberg, 65. Renters included artists, musicians, and at one point, five or six members of the Chez Odette’s kitchen staff crammed into one apartment. Greenberg, who was “something of a musician myself,” calls the scene “riotous.”

On hot summer nights when he would play music with the windows open, people came upstairs looking for a nightclub. Tenants left bits and pieces of their lives in the apartments — one artist abandoned his two cats when he abruptly moved out; another painted a jungle mural on his wall that was never painted over.

Traces of even older occupants lived in the crevices of the building. One of the apartments used to house a club for boys, Greenberg explains. “We found old marbles and jacks that had fallen down into the cracks in the floor.”

The nearly 200-year-old building had its structural drama — the Chez Odette’s staff flooded their bathroom, causing the toilet to careen through the floor into Greenberg’s kitchen in the apartment below — but he mourns the loss of some of its special charms.

“The apartment on the second floor, there was an old fireplace converted to gas,” he says. “Beautiful inlaid tile work.” He loved the Chez Odette apartment’s gas stove. “Probably from the turn of the century,” he says. “Beautiful piece. Falling apart of course.” He gives a little chuckle. “Sadly, that’s all gone now.”

Gone, too, is Food Mart, the grocery store that Greenberg’s parents, Larry and Barbara, operated out of the building for 43 years. The four apartments stood above a retail space that previously housed a Safeway, a Sanitary Grocery Store, a bookstore, an antique shop, a hair salon called Dot’s, and a homeopathic pharmacy, according to Greenberg’s recollections and personal research.

Barbara Greenberg, now 87, has no regrets about closing her business and selling the building in 1995. “I didn’t like Georgetown anymore,” she says. “We’d seen it come and go. The shops started to sell the T-shirts and things.” She lives in Bethesda and hasn’t been back in several years, but she hears from her 24-year-old granddaughter that the retail in Georgetown has gone much more upscale.

By the time his parents were ready to sell, Bob Greenberg was also ready to leave the neighborhood. “For my money,” he says, “the mystique was going out of Georgetown.” Was there a defining moment when he turned against it? “I think when Benetton came in,” he says.

Plus the maintenance on a building was becoming impossible to keep up with. Greenberg, who essentially ran Food Mart from the mid-1970s and on, says between the 1950s refrigeration system and cost of renovating a historical building, business was no longer sustainable. Many of their old customers — ambassadors and members of Congress who would order by phone and have their groceries delivered — were gone. Dean & Deluca moving in didn’t help.

Greenberg watched the building be gutted for the Pottery Barn that was to replace his parents’ store and apartments. “They couldn’t tear it down, so they kept the 31st Street side and M Street side walls up, and that’s it,” he says. “The obliterated the second and third floors.” Gone were the gas stoves and the tilework and the mural his friend had painted, which remained long after he had moved out.

It wasn’t easy to watch the building go down. “To tell you the truth, I was depressed for years,” he says. “But I woke up one day and said forget about it. Past is past.” Greenberg hasn’t been back to Georgetown in 10 years.

“I don’t think I went into the Pottery Barn,” he says, and he doesn’t intend to visit the Brooks Brothers. “I have all the suits I need right now.”

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