Remembering Margot Kelly

Margot Kelly in Oaxaca in 2008. Photo: Jim Ellison

Several years ago I wrote a profile of Margot Kelly for the Hill Rag that she laughingly referred to as “my obituary.”

And now, with a few tweaks, it is.

How hard it is to believe that just a few weeks ago she was headed for Germany, an annual trip, where she checked into a horribly spartan-sounding Black Forest spa to fast, hike, and sauna for a few weeks, always looking ten years younger on her return.

Margot would have been 96 on October 10th, and it seemed nothing would ever stop her. But just a few days before her flight, she was in the hospital. Scarcely a week later she was gone. A giant of a personality felled by a mosquito bearing West Nile virus.

Margot being Margot, it would never be a pedestrian end.

How It Was

Barracks Row was not always macarons and martinis, a fact that might surprise some newcomers to the Hill.

“The porno queen of 8th Street, that’s what they called me,” Margot Kelly laughed. That was near the start of her 40-year odyssey: cleaning up 8th Street. It’s been a bumpy ride.

In the late 1960s, when the liquor store closed in a building she owned across from the Marine Barracks, Kelly was approached by a man wanting to open a bookstore. A bookstore on 8th Street! Fancy that, she thought.

She instantly leased the space to him and fantasized of adding a winding staircase to the second floor “for a tea room where people could sit and read.”

“I don’t intend to have that kind of bookstore,” he said, red-faced.

With the lease already signed, she insisted he paper over the windows. The store quickly closed.

“He was a nice young man,” she recalled.

 Foul Fowl and Happy Hookers

Hanging in Kelly’s kitchen there’s a cartoon, by a Marine, of the street at the turn of this century, with plushly upholstered prostitutes hanging out of upper windows, street people leaning against storefronts, and pedestrians gaily tossing trash. It was only mildly exaggerated.

It’s still amusing to those of us that have lived on the Hill for more than, say, fifteen years to overhear conversations – let’s go to 8th Street for brunch, lunch, dinner, a drink. Kelly was there before Lola’s and Ted’s, Rose’s Luxury, and Pineapple and Pearls. Before many folks dared cross the Berlin Wall that was the Eastern Market Metro Plaza.

In 1986, Margot Kelly was profiled in a HIllRag series on Influential women business leaders on Capitol Hill. Photo: Melissa Ashabranner

She was there when our movie house was a seedy dump where vile stuff clutched stickily to your sandals and there were ominous rustlings beneath the rickety seats; when the Shakespeare Theatre’s main office across the way – that grand Victorian with the mansard roof – was a grocery with rotting chickens on top of the freezer and pigeons cooing in the roof beams.

Kelly grew up in Berlin and came to the U.S. in 1950, as a secretary at the German Diplomatic Mission—later, the Embassy. She married and divorced Fred Kelly, while remaining close to her step-daughters Cassandra and Michele and their families.

It was realtor Millicent Chatel who sold her a little house in Northwest in 1959 and talked her into selling real estate from her Georgetown office. “We were all divorcees,” Kelly said. “It was marvelous,” which came out “mawvelous.” Her German accent still buffed and shiny.

Chatel also urged her to buy real estate, advice she seized on: renovating and renting out several houses in that part of town, but rarely selling. “When you’ve got something good, you hold on to it,” she said.

Answering phones one day, as new agents often do, she took a call from a man with a house for sale on East Capitol Street. “A coming neighborhood,” pronounced Chatel, who led her gaggle of agents on tour. Kelly got the listing; Chatel opened an office on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Along with a friend, Kelly bought a house at 504 7th Street, SE.  “$11-12,000 with $2,500 down,” she remembered. “A dump.”

They let it to a woman for $100 a month, collecting the rent for months before noticing a red light bulb in an upstairs window. “I almost cried,” she said.

That dump, with a stellar view of a neighbor’s chickens and the rats that scurried around the metal feed bowls, became her first home on the Hill.

It was around the corner from Barracks Row.

In Washington’s early years, the corridor was a bustling main street, lined with shops serving the Navy Yard and the residential community; it remained so through World War II, when abruptly and with few exceptions, “it was boarded up. Dead,” she says.

When Kelly arrived, real estate on 8th street was a bargain. She focused on the seedy buildings facing the immaculate Marine Barracks, a block she considered “the most architecturally interesting. It needed and deserved to be put back into shape.”

729 8th Street. before

In 1967, she bought the red brick building at 8th and G Street, with windows overlooking the Marine Commandant’s residence.  Built in 1900 as the first luxury apartment house on Capitol Hill, it was a shambles. “My God,” she said, “It looked like hell, with the retirees from the Navy Yard drinking their pensions. Guys sleeping everywhere. The stench!”

The Ship’s Cafe, the bar next door, was particularly offensive, “Drunks sprawled on the sidewalks,” she said. When the existing DC old boys wouldn’t revoke the bar’s liquor license, she bought that building too; then the building next door, and the one after that….

729 8th Street SE today aft er renovati on
by owner Margot Kelly.

Armed Against a Sea of Troubles

Others joined her in reclaiming the block, hanging in through recessions, riots, and housing crises, along with the loitering, drunkenness, and prostitution. But then The Broker restaurant began offering limo service to members of congress, Innervisions started selling office and art supplies, and Frame of Mine opened shop. In 1988, the old City Bank building at 8th and I was renovated by landscape architects Oehme and van Sweden.

In the early 1990’s, Kelly established the Barracks Row Business Alliance, collecting dues from businesses to support street cleaning and fancified tree boxes. The Community Action Group worked with the homeless. The Marines helped clean up. Street festivals were attempted. The People’s Church started piping classical music into the street—Reverend Hall heard it discouraged loitering. It did.

Momentum built as the Shakespeare Theatre took over the movie theater on the west side of the street for rehearsal space and then, most prominently, restored the grand Victorian across the way for their executive offices. Michael Kahn, the company’s former artistic director, likened it to Hitchcock’s Psycho: “A version of the place where Anthony Perkins’ mother lived,” he said.

Monthly meetings were held with council members, officials from the fire department, the police, and the Navy Yard. Pepco said “no problem” to Kelly’s idea of installing electricity in the tree boxes for strings of white lights. Donuts were served.

Main Street Redux

It was at one of these meetings that a representative from the National Trust for Historic Preservation spoke of the Main Street Program, which was successfully revitalizing blighted historic areas around the country. A formal program was too costly, but ideas could be borrowed.

Adopting their guidelines, the BBA continued to beautify and popularize the street, meanwhile Kelly was luring in retail, taking a fingers-crossed leap with some promising shops, carrying some for many months hoping they’d hang on as the street improved. Alvear Studio was one of them.

“Margot is as tough as nails – but without nails you’d have no foundation,” said Chris Alvear, who for a decade owned Alvear Studio, the retail hub of the street.

“I remember having a drinkie and a cigawette,” he said, spoofing her patois. “And she said, ‘Why should I rent this spot to you and your Mexican imports?’  Look what she did for us. Oh my God!”

As the street improved, Alvear’s rent rose and the store struggled. Kelly was lenient, but “Mexican imports in a recession?” he shrugged. “I love her. The woman gave me the best years of my life. I wish I had my store back,” he sighed, more-or-less to himself. So do we.

Meanwhile, community interest was growing. In 1997, fund-raising for a full-scale Main Street program was launched and in one year’s time, $60,000 had been raised and a separate organization created to manage the project.

In 1999, Kelly received a Capitol Hill Community Achievement Award for her years of service to the neighborhood.

Not the Retiring Sort

Margot made few concessions to aging. She shoveled snow – when we still had some. At 75 she gave up downhill skiing for cross-country. At 94 she redid the kitchen in her Rehoboth beach house – now that’s optimism.

She gardened, loved the opera, the theater – especially Arena Stage, where for years she was on the Board of Directors – traveling, card playing, book groups, entertaining, football, baseball, and the occasional ciggie.

Disdaining the dryer, she hung laundry on lines across the patio of her federal-era, white-columned house across from St. Mark’s Church, another “dump” she restored to historic beauty. “It was a complete gut job,” she said.

“They told me I was out of my mind,” she added, blue eyes twinkling.

It’s impossible to believe those lights are finally out.

Margot Kelly was buried on September 27th near her beach house in Rehoboth. A celebration of her life will be held on the 27th of October at Arena Stage at 5:30 p.m. If you’d like to attend, please be vaccinated and masked.

 Stephanie Cavanaugh writes a weekly column for the newsy website