Since January, 2003
            
 Sliding from Before to After

(For someone who graduated from college with a degree in history, I have done a lousy job over the years of documenting the history of Near Southeast with anything approaching the zeal of my coverage of its present and future. I can offer no good excuses, but I'm going to begin to rectify this with a new series, "Sunday Rearview Mirror." I don't pretend to have the level of knowledge or experience of the pre-ballpark era as those who passed through Near Southeast during those years, but hopefully by taking the time every so often to highlight and describe events from the past I can help make sure that the new residents and workers who only recently heard of Near Southeast have some awareness of the people and events that came before them.)
It was in the 1970s that the western edge of Near Southeast became home to a new entertainment district for the city's gay residents, with its remoteness and lack of nearby residences allowing some measure of freedom for a culture that was only just beginning to step out of the closet. The area between South Capitol and First streets--with clubs like the Lost and Found, Club Baths II, Grand Central, Waaay off Broadway and Washington Square--became home not only to nightclubs with dancing and music but also but bathhouses, x-rated movie cinemas, and strip clubs. One of the new clubs was the Cinema Follies, which opened in 1975 at 37 L St., SE, showing x-rated gay films.
On Oct. 24, 1977, an explosion on the ground floor triggered by cleaning chemicals started a fire, with flames quickly consuming carpeting and wall hangings, blocking the exit for the patrons who had been in the 50-seat second floor theater. The fire never reached the second floor, but the smoke quickly became overpowering. However, a door that led to the roof was padlocked, and the windows had been replaced with cinderblocks. According to the Washington Post's account, "most of the victims were found in the orange-and-black theater seats [...] and may have been overcome by the smoke before they realized what was happening."
Nine people died as a result of the fire, making it the deadliest fire in Washington DC up to that time, a mark that stood until a fire at an unlicensed group home on Lamont Street, NW, killed 10 in April 1979. Identification of those who died at the Follies was hampered by the fact that, as the Post reported, "Many homosexuals do not carry identification when they visit homosexual gathering places," being "wary about the possibility of jeopardizing jobs or social position by having nonhomosexuals learn of their sexual orientation" in case their presence at club might be made public "through a police raid or other event."
(An interesting sidelight to the issue of identification was a column by Post ombudsman Charles Seib soon after the fire, questioning the Post's decision to not use the full names of some of those who died and no names at all of the injured. The column quoted then-Managing Editor Howard Simon as saying that the paper's main motivation was "compassion for the wives and children" [since some of the victims were married] but Seib went on to ask whether this approach had the effect of "underscoring the stigma of homosexuality, of shoving it back in the closet at a time when efforts are being made to bring it out and address it as a social fact?" This is an issue that papers still clearly struggle with, even today.)
William Oates, the manager of the club, was eventually fined $650 in 1979 for violating four building codes, though city officials stated that Oates "did everything possible" to try to comply with the laws, but poor city record keeping and poorly written codes made it difficult. (The city did work to strengthen its codes in the wake of the fire.) However, nearly eight years after the fire, in September of 1985, families of four of the victims were awarded more than $1.5 million in a civil suit against the club's owners.
Within a year or the fire, Oates opened "The Follies" at its new location at 24 O St., SE, where it operated until it was demolished with many other gay nightclubs in May 2006 to make way for Nationals Park. Somewhat amazingly, the building where the Cinema Follies fire took place, which was not all that heavily damaged, still stands today, on L Street directly across from the under-construction 1015 Half office building. It's currently home to a cab company.
I plan to write more Rear-View Mirror entries in the future about the neighborhood's past as a nightclub district, but until then, this 2003 pamphlet by the Rainbow History Project gives a great overview of the clubs that used to be such an integral part of Washington's gay culture. Hard to believe that, when the pamphlet was written, the authors had no idea how little time the existing clubs had left.
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IMGoph says: (6/6/10 5:55 PM)
now THIS is what a good neighborhood blog is all about. bravo, JD!


Spoofy says: (6/6/10 10:08 PM)
VERY interesting! Please keep up the good work and excellent writing.


DG says: (6/6/10 10:35 PM)
Thanks JD! Very interesting!


MJM says: (6/7/10 7:59 AM)
Yes, very interesting article!! Just always thought that building was taxi cab related. Looking forward to next Sunday's piece.


JD says: (6/7/10 9:22 AM)
Thanks, everyone. I'm not sure the Rear-View Mirror posts will be *every* Sunday, maybe every other week or so. Don't want to blow through all the content too quickly! :-)


Michael says: (6/8/10 5:58 PM)
On the day that the fire happened, I was there at 5:00pm, noted that there was not "much action," and left to do some bar hopping. I got home at 10:00pm that evening, in time for the news, and heard that the fire had started around 5:30pm. Since then, I have met people who were even luckier than I was. One gentleman that I talked with told me that he heard the explosion right after he left the building. The next day, at my job at the Pentagon, there were lots of "jokes" about the fire. I was so angry at the insensitivity of people!!! This was so sad!!!


JD says: (6/8/10 10:49 PM)
Thanks for posting, Michael. I was wondering whether anyone who was there or who had first-hand knowledge of it might be reading.


Kevin says: (6/9/10 3:05 PM)
Thanks JD! I worked at those clubs... (tee hee!) and that is some very important history. 1975 - who knew gays existed back THEN! LOL. ;-)


andy says: (6/14/10 6:02 PM)
When talking about the clubs in the area at the time - gotta give a big shoutout to the PIER ONE - I spent much of my formative years there


In my day says: (6/17/10 4:45 PM)
Fascicnating.. Thanks so much !!

I think it is so important to understand that Marion Barry was very much behind the developement of the Gay Scene in those days. It pains me now to hear the ongoing 'West Hollywoodisms' attributed to Fenty and the current council when Barry deserves more 'credit' than anyone. It was never about race then. I guess grandstanding then it no different than grandstanding now.

Thanks Again for this

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City Government Data for Near Southeast Records added or updated recently displayed here; click the "archive" links to see additional detail and older records. All data from DC Government databases and RSS feeds. JDLand takes no responsibility for errors, omissions, etc. (read CapStat disclaimer). Data is retrieved daily.

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Recent Issued Building Permits Archive  
1402 1ST ST SE   
11/25/19 
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA / DAVID C POSTLEWAITE
SB1900412 / CONSTRUCTION
Parcel G2:WSP will complete four borings up to the deepest potential subgrade elevation (approx. 32 ft. bgs). The proposed boring locations would be in the four quadrants of Parcel G2 to check for spatial variability in contaminant concentrations. WSP will collect and analyze three soil samples from each boring from depths corresponding to potential subgrade elevations (i.e. 10-12 ft. bgs, 20-22 ...
1212 4TH ST SE   
11/25/19 
FC 1212 LLC / TAMIKA STATON; OTIS
ER2000409 / SHOP DRAWING
Replace governor car #2 - Part #: TBA20641H6 Replace hoist belts #1 and #4 - Part #: SB0003119
1300 4TH ST SE   
12/06/19 
ASANA PARTNERS / S.A. COMUNALE; S.A. COMUNALE
P2001954 / SUPPLEMENTAL
1346 4TH ST SE   
12/06/19 
KAITLYNN MATTEO / W. SAKIE - BHAR; W. SAKIE - BHAR; NA
SG2000117 / CONSTRUCTION
Install one set of non illuminated sign on to existing store front building
   
12/12/19 
FC 1346 HOLDCO I L L C / ;
P2002122 / SUPPLEMENTAL
408 L ST SE   
12/11/19 
JOSEPH LEBLANC / KYLE YOST
SOL2000412 / CONSTRUCTION
rooftop solar pv system, less than 4' above roof
861 NEW JERSEY AVE SE   
11/26/19 
GREYSTAR GP I I, LLC / KIM MITCHELL; KIM MITCHELL
FD1900040 / CONSTRUCTION
TWO BELOW GRADE PRKING LEVELS, CONCRETE FOUNDATION WALLS, SLAB ON GRADE, COLUMNS ELEVATED DECKS UP TO GRADE WITH UNDERGROUND UTILITIES (MECHANICAL, PLUMBING, ELECTRICAL)
   
12/05/19 
MIKE ALLEN / JANE MCCRAY
AH2000244 / CONSTRUCTION
WO# 1611441 - Mike Allen / P. Helgeson. Pepco to install network transformer
   
12/12/19 
CXS PROPERTIES GROUP / CHARLES C. BAKER; CHARLES C. BAKER
P2002143 / SUPPLEMENTAL
125 O ST SE   
11/25/19 
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA / DAVID C POSTLEWAITE
SB1900411 / CONSTRUCTION
WSP will complete three borings up to the deepest potential subgrade elevation (approx. 32 ft. bgs). WSP assumes that borings will not be installed inside the fleet maintenance facility due to access restrictions imposed by DC Water. The proposed boring locations form an ‘L’ shape around the eastern and southern sides of the fleet maintenance facility. WSP will collect and analyze three soil samp...
71 POTOMAC AVE SE   
12/06/19 
MPR REALTY / BOB BIROONAK; BOB BIROONAK; ART DISPLAY CO
SG2000099 / CONSTRUCTION
One building name MAREN Two set of address numbers all signs are non-illuminated
227 TINGEY ST SE   
12/02/19 
FC 227 LLC / KAYLA SHATTUCK; BROOKFIELD PROPERTIES MANAGEMENT LLC.
RW1900122 / CONSTRUCTION
Construction of new retaining wall located between Canal Street St and Third Street, SE.
300 TINGEY ST SE   
12/04/19 
FC BOILERMAKER LLC / ROBERT S. WATTS; ROBERT S. WATTS
E2002289 / SUPPLEMENTAL
AH = After Hours; B = Alteration & Repair; D = Demolition; E = Electrical; FB = Boiler; M = Mechanical; P = Plumbing and Gas; PC = Post Card; R = Raze; SG = Sign; TL = Tenant Layout; TN = Tent; RW = Retaining Wall;

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