Esther Yost
 
     
   
Interview with:   Alice Van Brakle, Part I
Interview Date:   December 3, 2001 and January 21, 2002
Interviewer:   Marie Mingo
Transcriber:   Rachel Mears, Betsy Barnett
    This interview transcript is the property of the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project. Not to be reproduced without permission.
 
   
 
   

MINGO: It's Monday morning, December 3 rd, 2001, and we're 429 Fifth Street SE. I'm going to be talking with Mrs. Alice Van Brakle, who's a longtime resident of Capitol Hill and this interview is being done in my home. My name is Marie Mingo.

Okay now, good morning. I would like to start out, if you would too, talking about when you first moved to Capitol Hill.

VAN BRAKLE: I moved to Capitol Hill in August of 1944. I lived in an apartment on Tenth Street near C and that was when I first got married.

MINGO: You came here from Oklahoma, I think you said?

VAN BRAKLE: I'm originally from Kansas.

MINGO: Kansas.

VAN BRAKLE: A little town called Perry, Kansas which is between Topeka and Lawrence, Kansas and about 75 miles west of Kansas City. I came here in 1942 to go to college right out of high school at 17 years old and I've been here ever since. In 1944, I got married and moved to Tenth and C. I'd never heard of Southeast before, I'd never been to that part of town before, didn't know it existed. I found it wonderful and now all these years later I can't possibly think of living any place else. [both laugh]

MINGO: Wonderful.

VAN BRAKLE: My husband and I lived on Tenth Street until September of 1948. Then we moved in the 300 block of Fifth Street SE and have been there ever since.

I've seen many, many changes over that period of time and probably the one change that I miss most was our beautiful Safeway store that we had on Seventh Street across the street from the Market. It wasn't that large, but it was adequate and those days most people didn't have a car and it was beautiful. I hated to see that leave. We also had William E.Miller Furniture Company which was on the corner of Eighth and Pennsylvania and I've never found a furniture store since they left to equal it.

MINGO: They had all kinds of furnishings? Household items also?

VAN BRAKLE: Oh yes. And the very best quality. Well, now I go out on Rockville Pike to, what's it called, Masterpiece or whatever and not William E. Miller. You cannot find the quality that William E. Miller had of every [item] -- they had inexpensive things and they had whatever you wanted to pay depending on the brand name that you were looking for. Their quality was top, they didn't carry junk.

We also had a wonderful dress shop on Pennsylvania Avenue near the corner of Seventh. They had good quality women's clothes. At all the shops at that time everyone knew everyone. I used to come from my office and stop there and look in the shop and select two or three items and just take them home. Try them on at my leisure when I changed clothes from the office and what I didn't want I took back. What I wanted I paid for.

MINGO: [laughs] Good system.

VAN BRAKLE: Things don't work like that these days [laughs].

MINGO: Well the Miller store, Miller was that what it is?

VAN BRAKLE: William E. Miller.

MINGO: Just William E.? Okay. When did it close?

VAN BRAKLE: [laughs] Oh probably ten or fifteen years ago.

MINGO: And the Safeway also?

VAN BRAKLE: Yes, Safeway was probably -- oh my husband has been dead for fifteen years and both of those events happened before he died. So a little more than fifteen years ago those stores left the area. On the corner of Seventh and Pennsylvania Avenue was Woolworths [ed: actually Kresges].

MINGO: Really?

VAN BRAKLE: It was -- they had a little bit of everything there. It was a wonderful five and ten. They even had a cafeteria with food. It was sort of the place -- when my mother lived with me that was her Saturday event -- to get dressed up and go to the five and ten and meet her friends and have lunch. When they finished lunch they walked on out to JFK [ed: RFK] to the baseball game.

MINGO: Oh gosh, how fun.

VAN BRAKLE: No dangers, now I'm hesitant to drive through the area [both laugh] with my doors locked and the windows closed in my car. My mother could walk -- she was an avid baseball fan. If no one else wanted to go she walked by herself and she went on out to the ballgame and when the ballgame was over she walked back home and she'd had a beautiful Saturday.

MINGO: And that's about what, about a mile walk?

VAN BRAKLE: Oh, it's probably further than that.

MINGO: Probably closer to two mile -- to RFK.

VAN BRAKLE: Right, but my mother was an avid walker. During the week, she walked downtown to Kann's and Lansburgh's and those stores were on Seventh Street from Pennsylvania up to F. Kann's, Lansburgh's, and Hecht's. And she would get up in the morning, get dressed, and walk downtown and spend the day and come back with a bag of peanuts [both laugh]. She had a wonderful day, but she did much better than I. In my walking days, I would walk down to, of course those stores were gone by the time I retired and had time to walk, but I would walk down to the National Theater. But I walk down, but I'd ride back up the Hill I don't walk down and back up like my Mother did.

MINGO: And you'd ride back on the bus?

VAN BRAKLE: Get on the bus and come back up. My mother passed away when she was 85 and when we'd walk together, she would say "Come on, you're so slow." So, she was of different stock than me.

MINGO: Right [laughs]. Well, these stores, why did they close?

VAN BRAKLE: Well, Mr. William E. Miller was an older gentleman and after his wife passed away he was going to, in fact he did, retire. But before he retired he built the racetrack. What's the name of the racetrack down here like in Temple Hills. It's not a horse racing, but a trotter.

MINGO: I'm sorry, I don't know.

VAN BRAKLE: I can't think of the name of it right now, but he built that racetrack. As he got older and retired, he did away with the business. My husband at that time, was superintendent of the Southeast post office which at that time was located next to the firehouse on Eighth Street.

MINGO: Oh.

VAN BRAKLE: He and Mr. Miller were friends/acquaintances. In fact, my husband knew everybody from working at the post office. When Mr. Miller opened the Rosecroft, that's the name of the racetrack ...

MINGO: Rosecroft.

VAN BRAKLE: Rosecroft Racetrack, it's still there. When Mr. Miller opened the racetrack he gave my husband a permanent pass for himself and me so we could go to the races anytime we wanted to. When my two older sons were little, my husband enjoyed the racetrack. So that was after we were able to afford a car, in the evenings we'd just take the two boys and go to the racetrack and see two races and come back home [laughs].

MINGO: Great [laughs].

VAN BRAKLE: And get back home in time enough for the boys to make their bedtime deadline. So William E. Miller, the Safeway, the People's Drugstore at Seventh Street was the only People's Drugstore in the area at that time and it was much more complete than it is now. Again, you knew everyone, all the people that worked there.

The pharmacist, I could call him up if I was home by myself or one of my boys was having a problem. On his lunch break, he'd walk over and pick up my prescription and take it back and fill it [laughs]. There's just all kinds of things that don't happen now because the world's a complete different place. We don't get to become acquainted with the people in the businesses because the turnover is so great.

MINGO: Do you think those people at that time did they also live on the Hill or they were just more steady in their jobs and so you knew them?

VAN BRAKLE: They were far more steady. Their jobs were more secure and dependable. The turnover was not like it is today.

MINGO: But, they probably didn't live in the area.

VAN BRAKLE: They did not live here, no. In fact, one of the ladies that worked on the counter at the drugstore, she lived way down in southern Maryland somewhere and she took the bus up every morning. She was just a part of the Hill even though she did not live here and when she passed away there was as many people from the Hill at her funeral as there were her neighbors where she lived.

MINGO: Do you remember her name?

VAN BRAKLE: I do not remember her name.

MINGO: It may come. Did Mr. Miller live on the Hill too, the furniture man?

VAN BRAKLE: He lived in Maryland, he did not live on the Hill, but he didn't live far away. I've been to his house, but I don't remember where it was at the time, but it was nearby Maryland. And the gentleman that I spoke of about that used to come, I don't remember his name, that used to come to my house to pick up my prescription for me. He lived in Virginia, but just nearby Virginia. They worked on the same jobs -- now when you go to take a prescription to People's, you never see the same person twice. The turnover is so great and it is very difficult for the employees as well as the customers, but it's a way of life.

The dress shop went out of business, the owner of the dress shop died. They went out of business and of course you couldn't run a business like that anyway. They knew their customers, my husband was not a shopper and when Chris tmas time came he would just go there and ask them "Pick something out for Alice." And they would. [both laugh]

MINGO: Wonderful, personal shoppers.

VAN BRAKLE: Yes, personal shoppers. We had those back in those days, but not in the same level that they are today [interviewer laughs]. And then -- what other stores did we have? Well, the Chinese restaurant moved away recently, I'd say in the last three, four years. That was there in the 600 block, a couple of doors from the corner, Sampan. They have a store in Virginia and they told me that they were going to close the one here on the Hill and just have the one in Virginia. And, many of the stores left the area because of the high rentals. They just could not cope with the -- we used to have a very good travel agency a couple of doors from Citibank. And oh, they were fantastic, but they just couldn't cope with the prices.

MINGO: Oh.

VAN BRAKLE: The rents kept going up, up, up and so they had a shop up in American University Park, which you would think would have been far more expensive, but they said that it was not. So they left the Hill and kept their place at American University Park.

MINGO: Now how about the Woolworth's, why did they close do you think? [Ed: store was Kresge.]

VAN BRAKLE: Well, Woolworth's went by the way of all Woolworth's all Woolworth's anywhere.

MINGO: Okay, I remember this. But nobody came with a similar business?

VAN BRAKLE: No, now we have the restaurant there that, what is it, Bread and Chocolate?

MINGO: Yes.

VAN BRAKLE: That's there. We also had the Penn Flower Shop which was a wonderful family-owned flower shop. They were about, oh about where Riggs Bank is now.

MINGO: Oh.

VAN BRAKLE: They too, you could depend on -- you knew them and they knew you. I was working then and I could call from work and you knew everyone who worked there, and you'd just say, "Hey, such and such person needs some flowers and they're this way and they're that." And you'd know that you got top quality going out and they sent you a bill and you paid it at the end of the month. I had a monthly flower bill [interviewer laughs] because there was always something going on, but I was always completely satisfied.

And when they restored that block and tore down all the things there, they said "No" -- they couldn't afford to come back because they had just priced them out and so they went to their other store which is down 301 past Marlow Heights. I can't think of the name of the street down in Maryland where they had a store. So they just had to close this branch and go back there.

Now, I really have not found a florist in the area that I'm completely satisfied with. I either call them down in Maryland which I do sometimes because it's too far to go down there but I can depend upon them. Or I have a store up in Silver Spring that my son uses and he lives up there and so I sort of do business there. But you miss the good ol' family businesses that were in that area.

Of course, District Lock and Hardware is still available with everything that you possibly could want, if you know what you want.

MINGO: Now, is that Frager's?

VAN BRAKLE: No, no. District Lock and Hardware is on Eighth Street.

MINGO: Oh, yes. Okay, yeah.

VAN BRAKLE: But, again, I think the last time I was there I bumped into a young man who said he went to high school with one of my sons. But, you don't know the people like you used to be able to call. And, after my husband died, I depended upon them because I had no idea what I was looking for. So, I could just go -- as those people got older and started working one day a week or something, I'm lost in there now because I don't know what I want and there's no one there that knows enough about me to know what I want. [both laugh] But, family owned businesses that knew families on the Hill -- when my youngest son, who is now 45, when he was coming along, the person who was manager, owner, whatever of District Lock and Hardware said "Hey, you got somebody at your house that needs a job and I need his energy. So, send him around." So, he worked summers, for a couple of summers, at District Lock and Hardware. Lee was the person in charge at that time. And Lee would look out for my 15- or 16-year old, however old he was. And those kinds of things don't happen anymore. We don't have the relationship between businesses and our upcoming teenagers that need that kind of support to keep them occupied and use up some of that energy that they have in a constructive way, instead of standing on the corner, begging for money or hitting someone in the head.

MINGO: Now, with the passing of the Woolworth's, this is intriguing. Was that before your mother died? I mean, did she have that meeting place all through her life?

VAN BRAKLE: Yes, my mother lived with me from -- my father died in 1954 and she came to live with me the next year, because we lived on a 640 acre farm, which is a mile square. My mother was not a farmer, she had never lived on a farm before she married my dad fifty years before or more. But, she did not drive a car, she was total -- my father did everything. So, there was no way she could live two miles from the little town alone and, so, she rented the farm and came to live with me in 1955. And she lived with me until about '77, early '78, I guess. And she had -- if she was living today they would probably diagnose her as Alzheimer's, but in those days they called it senility. And I had -- I retired in 1979 and I was so close to retirement I was trying to make that final year. And it was getting a bit scary that she was opening the door for everybody. Of course, we didn't have the crime that we have today. But, it was still not -- I wasn't comfortable with it. So, I had an older brother who had retired. And, so, we took my mother to Kansas to live with my older brother who was at home all day. And, then, after a year I was going to go and get her and bring her back. But, during that year, her condition worsened and she passed away in October of '78. Which, things have a way of working out for the best because she would have wanted, or she planned to be buried there in Perry, Kansas, with my dad. And, so, she was already there. She was with her oldest son, whom she was very fond of, and, so, it all worked out for the best. And, it so happened that I spent every available holiday weekend or whatnot that I had off from work and I would just run out there for a few days. And I happened to be there when she had her final sickness, and so I stayed a week or ten days until she passed. And, so, it all worked out for the better. But, by this time, I don't remember if -- I think Woolworth's was still there. But, she had slowed down, of course, and was not able to keep up her pace with all her friends, And she was sort of in the neighborhood. Everybody on the block knew who she was and she walked around the neighborhood. But, she didn't -- wasn't as active as she had been. And, she would -- when she first came here, she was United Methodist, but in Perry, Kansas, there wasn't too much happening. So, she had not had an opportunity to be active in her church prior to her coming to live with me. So, she was very active in her church and she had her church friends. And, when she was younger and able to do things, she was sort of in charge of their trips. In the meantime, when she came to live with me in '55, my older boys were 8 and 11. In '56, they were 8 and 11. And I had a new baby. So, that, again, was a blessing because -- and I have great faith in saying things work for the best because my mother had lived on a farm all her adult life. She left her friends, her home, and came halfway across the country to live with me and it was a big adjustment. So, along came my baby which solved all those problems, because I didn't quit work. I just went on back to the office. So, she had, took care of him, she thought he was hers [interviewer laughs]. And, so, as a little boy she had him around going on her church trips and day trips and things.

MINGO: Oh, wonderful.

VAN BRAKLE: And, so, they were very, very close. And he had just finished college by the time she passed away. So, things have a way of working out for the best. But, she was a very -- she wasn't too active in neighborhood -- she wasn't too interested in neighborhood, you know, community organizations and whatnot. But, she knew the neighbors and they knew her, and she was busy with her church and she knew those church members. And, many of them didn't live on the Hill. And, so, she had her own little set of friends or whatever. But, the church was nearby so she could go as many times as she wanted to go for programs and various things without having to ask "Will you take me across town?" or whatever, which made it -- in fact, we have everything here on the Hill. You really don't have to leave. This is the most ideal spot, and that's why I'm still here. When my husband died fifteen year ago in 1986, I thought, I can't live here by myself. I'm going to move to an apartment. But, where? There is no place in the area. I have been looking for fifteen years and I haven't found a location that is as convenient for walking to things. Even though I am fortunate enough to still be able to drive, many times my car sits out and I say I have to go take my car for a walk because it's been sitting there for a week, because I can walk to everything that I need, the post office, the drug store, the book store.

MINGO: And you always could. I mean, there always were all those things available.

VAN BRAKLE: And, when I lived on Tenth Street, I still was walking distance to the drug store, the market, and all these things. And, so, all my adult life I have been able to do this and I do not want to move where I have to get in my car to get a loaf of bread. So, it's the most convenient area. And many people that I have talked with, young people that are in the working world, they have moved to the area and they get rid of their cars because they don't really -- they go to work on the subway or they walk to work and they just don't need a car, the expense and all, of keeping a car up. So, it does make a big, big difference. I just can't find that location. My sons have found -- "Oh, I found just the apartment for you on Connecticut Avenue." I don't want to live on Connecticut Avenue.

MINGO: [Laughing] You want to be here.

VAN BRAKLE: It doesn't compare to Capitol Hill.

MINGO: Well, now, this Woolworth's was a meeting place. Were there other places that you would classify as kind of community meeting places?

VAN BRAKLE: Me, personally, no. I think today's young people, you know, they meet -- I know when my son comes home now, he'll tell his friends, "Oh, meet me at the Tune Inn or the Hawk 'n Dove or Mr. Henry's," you know. But, those places weren't -- well, the Tune Inn was there, but it wasn't too much of a place. It wasn't a place that you enjoyed going to in my younger days, and it was a bit rowdy.

MINGO: Oh.

VAN BRAKLE: There weren't too many places that my husband and I frequented around here, no. And, then you had -- well, the activities that I did in the area were connected more with school because you were -- even though I worked at that time. I was working at Quartermaster Corps which at that time was located in the "tempo" buildings in back of Ft. McNair, so it was just a very short distance away. So, for the luncheons and the ball games and all these things, I could hop in my car and be home in five minutes and take part in those. And, so, your life was geared, our lives, were geared more around what the children were doing. And, when they left St. Peter's School, they went to Carroll. And, so, you got involved in the ball games and the programs that -- so, our life was more into what the children were doing and the little groups, because, again, you were trying to keep them occupied and busy and into nice things to give them a chance. This particular neighborhood, at that time -- my older sons are now 56 and 53 -- and when they were 10, 12 years old or early teens, before they were out on their own so to speak, to go places on their own, this neighborhood was not the best.

MINGO: Oh, really.

VAN BRAKLE: And the children that lived in the neighborhood weren't headed anywhere. [laughs]

MINGO: Really?

VAN BRAKLE: Oh, yes.

MINGO: Oh. Now, excuse me, Well, we are about to run out of a tape, I think. [pause]

VAN BRAKLE: The children that lived in our block, and there were quite a number at that time, and a lot of the people that lived in the block were renters and really not interested in what their kids were going to do or what their future was about.

MINGO: This is about the late '50s, early '60s?

VAN BRAKLE: Mm-hmm.

MINGO: Yes.

VAN BRAKLE: And, so, as a result, school was fine. But after school the things that my boys were involved in -- I really didn't want them hanging out with the kids who were -- my kids were the ones that had to come in the house when the street light came on. But, they could stay out forever. And this was when they got into difficulty because they were running up around the drug store and picking up things. But, these -- just little -- no one was doing the things that they do now with a gun or anything. But, they were trouble-bound. And, so, my boys had to come in when the street light came on. That was their signal if they were still out there. And, of course, we all left the doors open. Nobody locked their door. But, when the street light came on, that's when they came in, and that's when the door got locked for the first time that day. [laughs] Now, I don't even go upstairs without my door being locked with bars on the windows. But, as a result, we got our boys involved in things in other areas, because ...

MINGO: Other parts of the city?

VAN BRAKLE: Other parts of the city.

MINGO: Other parts of the city. Okay.

VAN BRAKLE: And, so, they went to, across town. I spent half my life driving them to birthday parties and different other groups across town that were more to my liking for what I wanted, the type of thing I wanted them involved in, programs that were healthy and gave you a better outlook on life. And, of course, this was at the very turn of the segregation -- well, it's still here, but it was much more prominent at that time. Schools were just becoming integrated and this type of thing. And, also, in the neighborhood, there were people who were resentful to the changeover of -- well, our block has always been integrated, but a very small number of black people lived in the neighborhood, in the block. But, anyway, many of the people were unhappy and moved away, moved out into Maryland and Virginia. Of course, I laugh and say I waved goodbye to them and now I'm saying hello as they try to come back. But, it's difficult for them to come back, because our price range has changed a little bit from when they left. And it's not the same. And, of course, it has improved and done much better. It's a much better neighborhood and many of them would never be able to be back. But, occasionally, I hear from people who lived in the neighborhood many, many years ago one way or another. My son that lives in Silver Spring is the one I was telling you about that's one of the directors of the U. S. Maritime Commission. And his office is there at North Capitol and H, but he lives in Silver Spring. And he lives in a house that he had built when he got married and it has many, many trees. And, unfortunately, one of these trees fell and crashed into his house and luckily no one was injured. But, they were put in a hotel and lived from June, May or, June I think until Thanksgiving. So, that's how long it took to repair the house and put it back in liveable condition. And, of course, this made the front page of The Washington Post. And, this lady saw the article, and she used to live straight across the street from me, and she called my son and said "Are you the same Van Brakle that used to live on Fifth Street?" And, he said, "Yes."

[TAPE 1/SIDE 2]

MINGO: Was St. Peter's a segregated school?

VAN BRAKLE: Oh, I was talking about the lady who called my son.

MINGO: Yes, yes.

VAN BRAKLE: And she said, "Where is your mother? Is she still living?" And, he said "Yes, and in the same house." And, so, he gave her my number and she called and she came over and we were reacquainted. And, since then she has left this area and moved to a senior citizen home in Annapolis. But -- and this happens occasionally. People will come back and say "Are you still living here?" [both laugh] So, everybody remarks that this is -- and my walking partner, who lived three or four doors up the street from me, she cried so terribly much when she had to leave the area. And, when she came back to visit her daughter who lives on 11th Street, she wouldn't let her daughter bring her in the neighborhood. She called us and we went to 11th Street to see her, the neighbors that were friendly with her, because she said she just couldn't bear to see the house. She could not come back because [she had been renting and the house was sold].

MINGO: Is this the lady named Thelma?

VAN BRAKLE: Thelma Weiss.

MINGO: Yes.

VAN BRAKLE: And Thelma had lived there, oh, probably 30, 35 years. And her husband and my husband were golfing friends.

MINGO: Oh, wonderful.

VAN BRAKLE: And Art died, he died like a year or so before my husband did. And I didn't realize -- well, I knew it but I'd forgotten it -- that they had rented this house all the time.

MINGO: Really?

VAN BRAKLE: And the person who owned the house, the two little gingerbread-looking houses that ... 310 and 312 Fifth Street SE ].

MINGO: Yes, where Christin lives in one of them now.

VAN BRAKLE: Right.

MINGO: That's right, yes.

VAN BRAKLE: And Nan in the other one.

MINGO: Yes, yes.

VAN BRAKLE: And Nan lives in the one that Thelma lived in.

MINGO: Oh.

VAN BRAKLE: And the owner was Mr. Tom Sheridan. And Tom Sheridan worked over at the House Office Building. They were from Pennsylvania. I've forgotten which congressman he worked for, but, many, many years ago. And he and his wife lived in the one that Chris tin lives in. But, they owned both of them. And they also owned the next two houses going toward Seward Square. They eventually sold those two house to Gene Arnold, who was a retired Marine colonel. And Gene was -- we called Gene the mayor of Fifth Street because he took care of everybody's problems and he was a wonderful, wonderful man, and died suddenly with a heart attack, oh, probably, ten, twelve years ago. But, Mr. & Mrs. Sheridan, beautiful people, and Mr. Sheridan eventually passed away and Mrs. Sheridan wound up going to California where Mr. Sheridan's son lived, which she was very unhappy about having to do. She didn't want to relocate but it was easier for the stepson to care for her. And I was fortunate enough to -- I used to spend a lot of time in California 'cause my younger son was there and I have lots of relatives there. And, so, I was fortunate enough to be able to go visit her a couple of times while she lived in California back when my husband lived. We'd go and my son would take us out to the area where she was staying with her stepson. But, anyway, after she passed away, I guess the stepson was really getting tired of renting long distance, which isn't an easy thing to do. So, he decided to get rid of those houses. And, so, he sold the one that Christin lived in, which had been, sort of, rental for a long time and hadn't been too well cared for over the various rentals. So, he sold it to Christin. But, then, soon thereafter, his wife was getting sick and she had problems and he decided to sell Thelma's house. And he upset Thelma by just writing her a letter and saying I'm going to sell the house. And it -- she had kept it in immaculate condition and all these years anything that needed to be done, she did, and, as a result, she had a very low rent, because she took such wonderful care of it. But, at the same time, I guess he was just tired of having rental property. So, he sold it. And I said, "Well, oh, Thelma, you must write to him and tell him, or call him up and tell him, you'll buy it." Well, I don't know what her personal life was like but she was angry that he didn't suggest this to her. And, so, she said, "No, I'm just going to move. I don't care what he does with it. I'm just going to move." So, her daughter, who lived in New Jersey, retired and moved to Rehoboth Beach. And, so, they moved into an apartment development. So, they have an apartment and, so, they got another apartment for Thelma. So, that's where she moved to.

MINGO: So she's down there.

VAN BRAKLE: She's happy, but she still thinks of Fifth Street as home. I guess we all, who have ever lived there for a long period of time, that's the way it will be. [both laugh]

MINGO: Well, now, we spoke of Christin. That's Christin Engelhardt.

VAN BRAKLE: Right.

MINGO: And Nan. What's Nan 's last name?

VAN BRAKLE: I can tell you because I have the list with me that has all the neighbors' names on it.

MINGO: Oh, yes.

VAN BRAKLE: But, Nan is a young lawyer, I understand. And, she and her boyfr -- she bought the house and she and her boyfriend live there. But, I really don't know Nan other than to say hello to her. But, her name is Nan Pell, P-E-L-L.

MINGO: Okay, thank you.

VAN BRAKLE: And her boyfriend's name is Chris Sumner.

MINGO: Okay, thank you. Sumner. I just thought we should -- now, you're talking about Thelma being a renter. When you moved here or during the time that you were here, did more people own the houses? I mean, how was ownership and renting balanced through the span that you've been here?

VAN BRAKLE: When we first came, there were a number of rentals. But, I'd say probably -- maybe not fifty-fifty, but almost. And the apartment on the corner there was filled with -- I don't know how many people possibly lived in there.

MINGO: That Seward Square apartment.

VAN BRAKLE: No.

MINGO: No.

VAN BRAKLE: Right here on Fifth Street.

MINGO: Oh, this one. At Fifth and D on the southwest corner.

VAN BRAKLE: No. That corner.

MINGO: Oh, that building. On the ...

VAN BRAKLE: Right down the street from me on my side of the street.

MINGO: Yes. On the northeast corner.

VAN BRAKLE: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Right.

MINGO: Okay. I don't think of that as an apartment buildng. I'm sorry.

VAN BRAKLE: Yes, it is. And the owner of that apartment lives in back of me [on Sixth Street].

MINGO: Oh. Oh, okay.

VAN BRAKLE: Jerry. What's Jerry's last name? Moise -- M-O-I-S-E or something like that.

MINGO: Right. Mm-hmm.

VAN BRAKLE: And, of course, it has been restored and done over and all during the period that I lived there. But, when I first moved here it was just an apartment packed with, pardon the expression, poor whites.

MINGO: Really? [laughs] And, of course, obviously, they were renting and ...

VAN BRAKLE: Yes.

MINGO: And that was part of the school population, too.

VAN BRAKLE: And lots of children there and it was an eyesore. Now the one on this side, the apartment on this side [southwest side], has always been -- I don't know anyone that lives there, but it appears to be better kept. And, at that time, I still didn't know anybody that lived there, but it was better kept. Now I know the person that owns it now, or at least I think he still owns it, is a golf friend of my husband. Marks, the elec -- he owns Marks Electric.

MINGO: Oh, Marks Electric.

VAN BRAKLE: I think that's one of the sons because I think the original Marks is dead, but -- the one that was my husband's golf friend. But, this is his son I think that lives in here now. And you see the Marks Electric truck around.

MINGO: Right.

VAN BRAKLE: But, that apartment has always been better maintained and appeared to have a better class of tenants way back than the one on this side. This side was a terror. And there were a couple of rental houses within the block that were pretty careless about their property. In fact, a house two doors from me -- this would probably have been, like, maybe before even 1950, late '40's or maybe 1950, but nothing more. It had been rented and the people had just really wrecked it. And they just sort of left. They didn't move, they just left. And the house was for sale for $7,500.

MINGO: $7,500. [laughs]

VAN BRAKLE: And I said to my husband "Oh, we've got to have this house." And I didn't have a job. My two younger sons were preschoolers and so I was home with them. And my husband said to me, "Now, wait a minute. Just get your thoughts together. You're going to try to do too much and wind up losing the one you're living in." [both laugh] "So, don't try to think in -- try to think in terms of keeping this one and not -- . " Oh, that broke my heart to see that house go for $7,500, which it did. And the person who bought it backed a truck up there and scooped out everything and paint -- that's all he did was clean it up. And he just took out the trash, which included everything in the house. Painted it inside and out, and sold it for $14,500. [both laugh] So, oh, it broke my heart to -- and he was a person that -- we didn't have too many of those kind of people that just sort of -- he was just looking for a fast buck. So, he wasn't interested in a place to live. He was interested in ...

MINGO: Speculation.

VAN BRAKLE: Fast money. And, so, he came in, cleaned it up, made his money, and he was gone.

MINGO: And what year was this that this $7,500 ...

VAN BRAKLE: Probably 1948, '50.

MINGO: 1950.

VAN BRAKLE: I'd say 1950 as an estimate. And then, of course, it sold a couple of more times. At least one other time, I think. And then the couple that live there now, the Lanouettes, Bill and JoAnne Lanouette, they've been there about -- well, their daughter is in, finishing up medical school, and she was born there.

MINGO: Oh.

VAN BRAKLE: So, they've been there closing in on 30 years, I would think, 25, at least.

MINGO: They've been there a long time.

VAN BRAKLE: And, of course, Sharon and Mike Ambrose have been there about thirty years, because I've seen their family grow up.

MINGO: Yes. That's wonderful.

VAN BRAKLE: Beatrice Cooper, who lives across the street from me, she's been there -- well, I think she's in her eighties now and she was teaching school when she first moved there.

MINGO: Was she teaching at St. Peter's? No.

VAN BRAKLE: She was teaching in far southeast somewhere in a public school.

MINGO: Right. Now, your boys going to St. Peter's -- was that considered a desirable school to go to at the time? Or ...

VAN BRAKLE: Yes.

MINGO: I realize you're also Roman Catholic, I think, so that's a reason for them to go.

VAN BRAKLE: Yes. I've been Catholic since 1985. My husband was born and raised Catholic in Emmitsburg, Maryland, which is totally Catholic. But, I had a few qualms about the Catholic religion. Well, it wasn't really but one. I'm not a person that -- today's kids get married and say "Oh, if I don't like it, I'll get a divorce." That's not my theory, but I think some divorces are necessary. I don't think every marriage is made in heaven. And, if a divorce is necessary, you must do it. [both laugh] You know, don't just stay there if there's violence or whatever. And, so, I could not -- I told my husband "I don't like being anything unless I'm a good one and I cannot be Catholic and say I would not divorce somebody if it was necessary. So, I just can't be Catholic." But, I was very active. I went to -- nine o'clock Mass was for the children and we were there every Sunday at nine o'clock Mass. Of course, I don't think my husband ever missed a Mass in his whole life. But, when my children were small, I didn't either. And I know at one time something was to be done and somebody said "Well, let Alice do it." Said "Well, she's not a member. She can't do it." And, so the priest said "What do you mean she's not a member? She's here as the door opens." [both laugh] But, I was not -- he didn't even realize that I was not an active member. I was just where my boys were. And that's where my support was to be. And, as a result, the boys grew up and I still was not a member. So, as my husband -- that was always his desire for me to be a member. And when he finally developed -- his cancer was diagnosed in September '85. And, so, he again started talking about, oh, he wished I had become a member of the church. So, I thought, hey, that's the least I can do. And, in the meantime, the religion had changed a bit and the rules on divorce are not quite as strict as they used to be. So, I said "I think I'm going to go over and take the classes and become Catholic." So, I did and I was baptized in the spring of '86. My husband was able to attend in a wheelchair.

MINGO: Oh.

VAN BRAKLE: So, we got that out of the way. [both laugh] But, I have always been -- it's the only church I attended, but I just couldn't make myself be a member unless I was going to be a good member. So, that's the way that went. But, at -- and, again, as segregation raised its ugly head and my son, our older son, got to be five years old, ready to go to school, schools were not integrated at that time.

MINGO: Even St. Peter's?

VAN BRAKLE: No.

MINGO: Really?

VAN BRAKLE: So, he ...

MINGO: Is 1960 when this was?

VAN BRAKLE: 19 -- my son was born in '45, so this would have been 1950.

MINGO: 1950.

VAN BRAKLE: He would have been five years old in 1950. And, so, he went to first -- to kindergarten and first grade at Giddings, which is now the gym [at Fourth and G Streets SE].

MINGO: Yes.

VAN BRAKLE: And, at the -- my husband was quite upset about this and so he went over and asked the priest, you know, when will they wake up and change this. And they said we have. Bring your son to Sunday School and regular school. And, so, he started second grade there.

MINGO: At St. Peter's. Yes.

VAN BRAKLE: And, then, of course, a year later, my next boy was five so he started there. He did not go any other place. And, then, my afterthought [third son, Michael], who was not until 1956 when he was born, of course, he went there. Of course, he, to this day, does not understand segregation. "What do you mean you couldn't go downtown and eat? Why didn't you just go anyway?" [laughs] So, the afterthought doesn't understand all these problems that were in existence because Washington is a Southern town.

MINGO: Yes.

VAN BRAKLE: So, but, St. Peter's was -- this was before Brent was revived, because now Brent carries a pretty high rating. But, back in those days, Brent was just average and St. Peter's was the outstanding, the better school. And ...

MINGO: So it -- did it -- it quickly integrated, then, I would think, wouldn't you. There was a good balance and ...

VAN BRAKLE: Yes, right. And, as I said, they went on from there. They both went to Carroll. But, my middle son was not too interested in school. My older son [Bryant] could have been a professional student. He loved school, finished high school, finished college with a history degree, went to law school, got his law degree. But, the next son [Craig] was -- even though the teachers at Carroll that had both boys said Craig had the better mind of the two, but his whole theory was he knew that if you got two F's at Carroll you could not come back. So, that was his ambition, was to get those two F's, which he did. But, I think at that age of about 15 he thought if he flunked out of Carroll he wouldn't have to go anywhere. [laughs]

MINGO: Which was probably wrong. [both laugh]

VAN BRAKLE: So, then we had to put him in public school because he couldn't go to Carroll because he had gotten those two F's. So, he graduated from Dunbar, which -- many years ago when segregation was in full force Dunbar was a top school. But, it fell by the wayside after integration and it wasn't -- in my opinion it was average when my son was there. But, in the interest of doing the best I could for him, I volunteered to become president of the PTA. And, so, I was [PTA president] those two years he was there, which let me be on the inside and know exactly what was going on and get the best out of it I could under the situation he had put himself in. So, then, I said "Well, please go to college for one year." And I was in hopes that he would get involved in college and have a turnaround and enjoy school. But, I was young and naive and wasn't as up on this as I should have been. And his grades were so lukewarm 'til it was a miracle that he got in any college. And he was accepted in a college in North Carolina. And this was, again, the opening of integration. And, they were welcoming -- they wanted to go on record as being integrated. He was the only [non-white] student there.

MINGO: Really? The only African American.

VAN BRAKLE: Mm-hmm. And, as a result, he was most unhappy.

MINGO: Of course.

VAN BRAKLE: And, at the end of that year, he said "Okay, now, I did what you asked me. I did it a year. Don't ask me to go anymore 'cause I'm not going back." [laughs] So, that was the end of his career. And, of course, twenty years later, he wishes he had gone. But, he does all right. In fact, when he married, he married a girl he met at high school. And he got married at St. Peter's. They've been married -- they got married in '69, so they've been married 32 years.

MINGO: Thirty-two years, yes.

VAN BRAKLE: And I guess a couple of years after they were married they had a house. And, then, when my older son, who was fresh out of law school, he has an apartment when he gets married. And, I have one nephew who was a financial major in college, who lives in Topeka, Kansas. When he got married, he was living in an apartment. So, we tried to get the afterthought to think big and go to college. He said "Why do I want to go to college? My nephew and my older son, they're living in apartments with college degrees and Craig's the only one with a house and he didn't go to school. So, what do you preach school so hard for?" [both laugh] "Just go. You'll learn later why." So, he luckily was a good student. He finished college at Delaware State. He was a basketball fiend and they had promised him some benefits. So, he went there for that and they didn't come through with that, so he wouldn't play anymore. But, I think that, again, good old things working out for the best. When he stopped playing basketball, he had more time, so he started being a tutor 'cause he had very good grades. And, when he graduated, there were all kinds of job offers that might not have been there had he fooled with the basketball. So, he took a job with -- one of the offers was Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York, and so he went up there. And they sent him to the University of Rochester and he got his M.B.A. up there. And then when -- he just didn't like it up there, it was too cold.

MINGO: Oh, yes.

VAN BRAKLE: So, he's a beach boy, so he went to California and stayed, worked as a financial analyst for Digital Equipment. And they were beginning to have layoffs and whatnot. So, meantime, he met this young lady from South America that lived in Florida. So, he decided to go down there where she was. So, now he's the comptroller for Xerox in Miami Lakes. And he and the young lady did not get married, which is the modern way. But, they were together about six or seven years and she was about to graduate -- in fact, she did actually graduate from the University of Miami. Thirty-two years old, she had been working and going to school, working and going to school. And, during that last bit of her senior year, she developed cancer. And at the age of thirty-two she died from cancer.

MINGO: Oh.

VAN BRAKLE: My son had been sent to Europe on a business trip and -- it was during her spring break and so he took her with him. And, oh, they had a wonderful -- he said, "I'm not going to Madrid, Spain for one day." That's what he was being sent for. He said, "I'm not going to do that. I'm going to take three weeks off and have a vacation." So, they stayed over in Europe for three weeks and went here, there and yon, and had a wonderful trip. And, when she came back, about three weeks later, she had just gone back to school, and she had a terrible pain in her shoulder. And I said, "Oh," -- she was a little thing in size -- and I said "You just pulled a muscle with a bag, pulling a bag off the carousel or something." And it got worse and got better, worse and worse and got better. It went from her shoulder down her, down this way [her chest]. Anyway, it was finally diagnosed as lymphoma.

MINGO: Oh, yes.

VAN BRAKLE: And, so, they gave her chemo and she lost all her hair. But it went away. That's it, they had it all. And that was -- they went on the trip in May and she was diagnosed in July. By September she was fine. She went back to school for her last year and everything was beautiful. Of course, they were keeping close watch on her. And by December or January it was back. And they said "Oh, no problem, we'll just give you the same medication that we gave you last time." And it was like they fed it. It just spread throughout her body. So, my son took her to Houston, Texas, with her mother and father and they went there desperately looking for any kind of help. But, nothing worked. So, she graduated, she got her diploma. She had been named the senior of the year or something. She got an award. None of these things she was able to attend. She was just too sick.

MINGO: Isn't that tragic.

VAN BRAKLE: But, she had them. She had her cap and gown. Only time she wore her cap and gown was in the casket [she died in September]. But, she graduated. [laughs] That's what she wanted to do so very, very badly. But, that ended that. She was a lovely girl.

MINGO: Indeed. Very hard to lose her.

VAN BRAKLE: Oh, it's been very difficult for my son. He just sort of thought he was the only person in the world who ever lost a loved one. And he's had some girlfriends that mother didn't approve of. But, for Thanksgiving he surprised me and came home unexpectedly ...

MINGO: Came up here, yes.

VAN BRAKLE: ... with a young lady from Ecuador.

MINGO: Oh

VAN BRAKLE: And she reminds me so much of the girlfriend that died. So, we'll see. [both laugh]

MINGO: So, they grew up and did all of their ...

VAN BRAKLE: Yes, they all three grew up right here in this block and they say "Oh, Mom, don't sell the house, don't sell the house." So, I think that even if I move I will not sell the house. And I don't know what they're going to do with it because Craig has a nice house out by Catholic U. and Bryant has a nice house in Silver Spring and Michael doesn't like Washington, period. It's too cold. He wants to live right on the ocean somewhere. So, he'll probably always be in Florida. And, so, I don't know what's -- I'm not going to worry about that. [interviewer laughs]

MINGO: Now, having their activities away from the Hill, did they -- as youngsters, did they have any activities on the Hill or were there things that were interesting for them?

VAN BRAKLE: Oh, yes, yes. My younger son, you know, they had playmates that lived in the area. But, as I said, this area was just not what it is today as far as making permanent friends. And especially with my older boys. And, as they went -- well, my younger son didn't develop, the younger of those two older ones, he didn't develop any college friends. But, my older son developed friends in college and he moved on. By the time he finished law school, he moved into an apartment with one of his school friends, up in Northwest. And then he married, he married a young lady from, at that time she was over at Georgetown in medical school. And they thought they were the greatest things since ever. She was going to be the doctor and he was the lawyer. But, I think their careers -- they were too career minded. They just couldn't make it because each one was more interested in their career than they were in their marriage. So, they had a daughter and then they got a divorce. And she's now very well known and doing well as an eye surgeon in -- I can't think of it, anyway, up in Maryland. And, so, a good medical facility up there, I can't think of it, about two hours from here. And, then, he eventually married his secretary. And she's doing very well. She's the congressional affairs officer for her agency and he's eligible to retire. Tried to talk him into retiring but he hasn't done it as yet because they have two children. He has a daughter by his first marriage who is now living in New York and his two younger children, one is a freshman at the University of Maryland, a girl, and the boy is a freshman at Gonzaga. So, he's got tuition bills keeping him on his job. But, they grew up here, they still think of this as home, they are still familiar, because they come often, you know, they're here. In fact, my older son was here for the block party.

MINGO: Oh, good.

VAN BRAKLE: He came by for a little while. Of course, he doesn't know too many people now but everybody knows him.

MINGO: That was the block party in ...

VAN BRAKLE: September.

MINGO: September it was, of this year.

VAN BRAKLE: Right. These two blocks. And he knows a few of the neighbors. But, my younger son, even though he was much younger, this neighborhood had still not developed into what it is today, and I say he knew all the thugs on the block. But, kids go out and there's no difference to a child. They're playing whatever game they're playing. They couldn't care less who they're playing with. I know on one occasion I told him I sure was glad he knew all the thugs. As the neighborhood changed and improved we still have problems, as we all know. And I was coming home one day and I was coming down Seward Square and, as I turned into Fifth Street, just as I got ready to turn, here was this group of four or five young men. And I thought "Oh, my God, here goes my pocket book." But, it was too late for me to make a change in my direction. I had to continue and hope for the best. And, as I turned this corner, I thought "Oh, my God, look what I'm running into." And, with that, somebody said "Hi, Mrs. Van Brakle, how's Michael?" [both laugh] I'm glad I know these thugs.

MINGO: Yes, wonderful.

VAN BRAKLE: So, it, you know, now, when they come home, as I say, there's not too many people that they know except my immediate neighbors who they know are the most wonderful neighbors in the world and take care of their mom. And so they know them and, of course, Mike and Sharon have been there ...

MINGO: A long time, yes.

VAN BRAKLE: ... for so long that they know that whole family.

MINGO: Yes, okay.

VAN BRAKLE: But, we do have new people in the area. But most of the people that have moved into the area new are nice people with nice jobs because they can't afford to come here otherwise.

[TAPE 2/SIDE 1]

VAN BRAKLE: Some of the good things on Fifth Street include ...

MINGO: Yes, on the 300 block?

VAN BRAKLE: Some of the good things of the 300 block of Fifth Street are the togetherness of the neighbors. Even though we have a few new young neighbors that we don't see a lot of, those of us that have been there a long time look out for each other. And my -- I particularly want to mention, first of all, my next door neighbor Bruce and Susan Borchardt, who, when my husband died and my next door neighbor started cutting my grass for me. And I cut my back [yard] myself. But, then, as I got older and wasn't really up to cutting the back, I thought "What am I going to do with the yard?" And today's world doesn't permit you to invite the person knocking on the door to cut your grass into your home, which you have to do to get to my back yard. So I thought, "What am I going to do with this yard? I have to have a landscaper come and do something of a permanent nature that won't require cutting." And Bruce Borchardt said, "Don't worry about it." So, from that day on, he has cut my front yard. There's a gate between our houses in the back. He comes and cuts my back yard. Never misses, takes complete care of it. I tried to do little -- he said "I wouldn't take any money." So, I said, "Well, I'll just give him gifts." And, so, the last -- I gave him two or three gifts and then he called and said could he and his wife come over to visit. And I said "Sure." So, they came over and said "Well, we really came to thank you for a gift certificate" that I had put in the mail slot. But, to tell me that if I gave him one more gift, they would quit cutting the grass. [interviewer laughs] They refused to take anything in any way. And they have a cat. So, they asked me to feed the cat, and had nerve enough to bring me a gift. And it was around Chris tmas time and I said, "Well, you just started your Christmas shopping because I refuse to take this gift." [laughs] So, those are the kind of people that live on Fifth Street. And, whenever something goes wrong, such as a death in our block, Bea Cooper takes care of her side of the street and I take care of my side. And we collect money from each person and then, depending upon the circumstance, we either give flowers and give the rest of the money or give the whole amount to the family to do what they see fit.

MINGO: Excuse me, I ...

[Taping interrupted briefly.]

VAN BRAKLE: And then the other good thing is, when there's something to celebrate, we also celebrate that. If somebody graduates or does something interesting we'll have a little party. And usually JoAnne and Bill Lanouette will host the party and everybody brings an item and we celebrate whatever there is to celebrate or cry when somebody is leaving.

MINGO: Now, I know you say that, you know, that just the activities of home and work and whatnot as always with people kept you very busy, but you were involved in this, civic things like the -- could you tell me a little bit more about that Community Council?

VAN BRAKLE: The Council ...

MINGO: Now, that started in the '50s again, or in the '60s?

VAN BRAKLE: I would say the '50s, but I really don't remember the exact time. But, it was a very -- well, it was very similar to the Capitol Hill Restoration Society.

MINGO: Okay.

VAN BRAKLE: Very similar to that, but it was before that group got organized.

MINGO: It was a voluntary group.

 
   
 
   
This interview transcript is the property of the Ruth Ann Overbeck
Capitol Hill History Project. Not to be reproduced without permission.